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Novick's gas tax draws support, oppositon

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Commissioner Steve Novick is scheduled to start campaigning for his proposed 10-cents-per-gallon gas tax before he asks the City Council to put it on the May 17 primary election ballot.

He may need to. Although the proposed tax is supported by the City of Club of Portland, it is already opposed by the Oregon Fuels Association, a statewide group representing fuel distributors, retailers, commercial fueling and heating oil marketers. Others are questioning whether Novick’s proposal is fair or even legal.

Novick is in charge of the Portland Bureau of Transportation. The first council hearing on his proposal — which would raise an estimated $64 million over four years and sunset after that — is set for Wednesday afternoon. A few hours before that, at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, Novick is scheduled to discuss the proposal at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Columbia Corridor Association, an advocacy organization representing industrial and other businesses along the Oregon side of the Columbia River.

The venue choice is probably a good one for Novick. Many CCA members are dependent on truck traffic and know that delays caused by Portland’s poorly maintained streets are bad for business. The organization has actively lobbied for more street funds since 2007.

“Our position is generally we need to spend more money on the roads. Every $1 in maintenance we don’t spend now is $12 we’ll have to spend on repairs in the future. But we won’t take a stand on the measure until it’s on the ballot,” says CCA Executive Director Corky Collier.

But ever since the details of Novick’s proposal were posted on the city’s website last week, doubters have exchanged emails and taken to social media to challenge it. Some of the concerns echo criticisms of portions of the earlier proposals circulated by Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales during the 2104 street fee discussions.

For example, Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association Chair Robert McCullough was quick to note that fuel for heavy commercial vehicles is exempt from the proposed tax. McCullough also complained that the earlier proposals did not fair charge freight trucks for the disproportionate amount of damage they do to the streets.

“The good news is that this tax is collectable. The bad news is that the major road users are largely exempt. This makes the tax even more regressive than the last effort,” McCullough says.

Economist Eric Fruits believes the Oregon Constitution restricts money generated by fuel taxes to road projects, meaning the tax cannot fund sidewalk and other safety improvements that Novick is promising. This has prompted former Republican state Rep. Jeff Kropf and others to suggest mounting a ballot title challenge.

Even Collier expects some in the CCA to oppose it.

“There’s always those who say, I’m already paying enough taxes,” Collier says.

Novick and Hales considered a local gas tax during the original street fee discussions but did not think it had enough public support. They suspended the discussions during the 2015 Oregon Legislature to give Salem lawmakers a free hand at crafting a new transportation funding package, but negotiations stalled because of partisan fighting over a clean fuels program that could increase gas prices up to 19 cents a gallon without improving roads. After the session adjourned, the City Club adopted a study report that called for the council to put a gas tax measure on the May ballot. The report found that 49 percent of Portland’s busiest streets are in poor condition and the city needs to spend an additional $119 million a year for 10 years to improve the pavement system to fair or better condition.

“At the moment, the most technically feasible (funding option) is a city gas tax. A gas tax would generate revenue from most users — including those transporting goods across Portland streets and those who don’t reside in Portland — and would discourage congestion and pollution,” read the report, titled “Portland Streets: End the Funding Gridlock.”

Novick embraced the report as showing public support for the measure and announced he would present it to the council. It was released last week. Among other things, it would impose a 10-cent-a-gallon tax on motor fuels sold in Portland for vehicles not subject to the state’s weight-mile tax, which covers commercial vehicles. Although the Portland Bureau of Transportation is studying alternatives for collecting local revenue from heavy vehicles, none are included in the proposal.

The tax would be collected no sooner than September 2016 and would expire in four years. The money it generates would fund a new Street Repair and Traffic Safety Program created within the Portland Bureau of Transportation. The bureau would develop a list of projects to be funded with the money, and the final projects would be selected by a Citizen Oversight Committee, which would also review the spending and present annual reports to the council.

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