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Mayor says details not important as long as it raises cash

Mayor Charlie Hales still believes the City Council will approve his proposed street maintenance and safety fee in November, although he is not sure what the final version will include.

Speaking at a transportation funding forum Monday morning, Hales said the "third member of the City Council is prepared to vote" for the fee being developed by Commissioner Steve Novick and him. In the past, Hales has said he expected Commissioner Amanda Fritz will be the third vote, even though she has not yet publicly committed to it. Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman have consistently said they think the fee — formally called the Transportation User Fee — should be submitted to Portland voters for approval, something Hales and Novick so far have rejected.

Fritz tells the Portland Tribune she is still waiting to see the final version of the fee before deciding whether to support it, however. Three work groups currently are reviewing options for such issues as discounts for low-income households and alternatives for assessing nonresidential properties, including businesses, governments, nonprofit groups and religious institutions.

"I am waiting to see what is proposed after the current process discusses options," Fritz said Monday afternoon.

Hales also told the forum that he and Novick are "agnostic" about the final version of the fee, provided it raises approximately $53 million a year divided evenly between residential and nonresidential properties. Hales said he is prepared to resubmit his original proposal to the council if the work groups cannot agree on alternatives, however. It includes a monthly fee of around $144 a year for households with low-income discounts and a nonresidential fee based on estimated motor vehicles trips generated by different types of businesses and other organizations.

"We have to act locally," said Hales, noting a city audit found the Portland Bureau of Transportation should be spending an additional $75 million a year on street maintenance.

Hales and Novick introduced that version in May, then withdrew it for further consideration. They anticipate a council vote on Nov. 12, about a week after the general election.

The Forum on the Future of America's Transportation Infrastructure was organized at Portland State University by U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat representing Oregon's 3rd Congressional District and a longtime advocate of increased federal transportation funding. It was attend by numerous state, regional and local elected officials, including: Oregon state Treasurer Ted Wheeler; Karmen Fore, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber's transportation policy adviser; state Rep. Tobias Read, chairman of the Oregon House Committee on Transportation and Economic Development; Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury; and Novick, who is in charge of the PBOT. Oregon business and labor leaders also attended, including Schnitzer Industries Chief Executive Officer Tamara Lundgren, who also is chairwoman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain.

The forum occurred just days after Congress passed a last-minute, 10-month extension of the federal Highway Trust Fund before taking its summer break. Blumenauer and many of the others who spoke said the $11 billion infusion was better than the trust fund going broke, but complained it was a temporary fix that avoids the larger question of the federal government's proper role in building and maintaining America's transportation system. Congress has not raised the federal gas tax in 21 years, meaning it is not keeping up with inflation because motor vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient. Blumenauer has introduced legislation to increase the tax from 18.5 to 24.5 cents per gallon during the next three years, index it to inflation for 12 years, then replace it with a new vehicle miles traveled system that still is being developed.

Most of those who spoke praised Blumenauer's leadership on the issue, while also saying the uncertainty in Congress means that state and local governments must considering raising their own transportation funds. The most notable exception was John Charles, director of the Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland free market think tank, who called for abolishing the Federal Transportation Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the Oregon Department of Transportation and TriMet. Instead, he advocated turning transportation systems to the private sector, noting the growing success of Uber, the company that allows people to solicit rides from other people instead of calling taxicabs.

Charles criticized Portland as the only major city in the country that prohibits the use of Uber's mobile app.

Despite disagreeing with every other speaker, Charles was applauded when he finished speaking and Blumenauer praised him for raising issues that need to be considered in the changing economy.

One project that did not win support is the new bridge across the Columbia River east of Interstate 205 proposed by Clark County Commissioner David Madore. An countywide advisory vote is scheduled at the general election. Port of Portland Executive Director Bill Wyatt called it a "bridge from nowhere to nowhere." Vancouver City Councilor Jack Burkman asked for patience with the county. Others wondered how Madore, who opposed the failed Columbia River Crossing, could even propose the project, which has not received any of the engineering and environmental studies that went into the development of the CRC.

As the forum was breaking up, Blumenauer praised Hales and Novick for pursing their street maintenance and safety fee, despite vocal opposition from some residents and business owners.

"It's important not to back down from the revenue question," Blumenauer said.

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