As long-time advocates for better transportation in the metro area, we are reluctant to say no to any plan that promises to improve our congested roadways. Unfortunately, with the economy in recession, this is the exact wrong time for the Metro regional government to press forward with its $5.2 billion transportation measure — funded by a payroll tax.
As a result, the Pamplin Media Group's editorial board is recommending voters reject Measure 26-218. In doing so, we ask Metro to come back in the future with a more refined proposal that also takes into account the region's changing transportation needs.
In the current pandemic environment, traffic is no longer at the top of local residents' list of concerns. More people are working from home, or sadly not working at all. Transit ridership also has plummeted. People's habits are being transformed. Some of these changes likely will be fleeting — others will be permanent.
The idea for a regional transportation measure was conceived long before most Portland-area residents had even heard of COVID-19. Now that it is on the ballot, though, it seems oddly out of step with the current mood.
The measure would increase the payroll tax for businesses with more than 25 employees by up to 0.75%. The tax would be permanent, unless Metro decided to sunset it in the future. For some of the region's larger employers it could amount to millions of dollars over the years, and it comes on top of a corporate activities tax already implemented by the Legislature in 2020.
Both of these types of taxes are levied without regard to whether a company is making a profit. Companies that are just scraping by during this recession would have little choice but to reduce jobs further in order to pay the additional taxes. Metro has said it would wait until 2022 to begin levying the tax, and perhaps at a lower rate, but economic conditions are too uncertain for us to sign off on such promises. The pandemic-induced recession could extend into 2022 and beyond.
These issues of timing and impact on businesses are our main concerns with Measure 26-218, although lots of people also quibble with the projects and priorities Metro has chosen. But, to be fair, the measure has its enticements as well. It would provide funding to reduce regional bottlenecks, improve safety and invest in transit improvements such as bus electrification and bus rapid transit. And unlike Metro's recent foray into homeless services, the overall issue of transportation falls neatly within Metro's historic mission.
We don't fault Metro for coming forward with a regional plan for transportation. But we do believe Metro councilors should have listened to the responsible voices asking them to put this measure on pause until the economic picture and the pandemic's long-term impact on transportation choices became clearer.
By pressing ahead, Metro lost support from some businesses and also from key legislators — and ardent transportation proponents — such as Sens. Mark Hass and Betsy Johnson. Voters also should fall in line with those who urge caution. Raising taxes on payrolls — on jobs — would be reckless during an economic downturn. Metro-area voters should reject 26-218 and signal Metro to come back at a better time with an updated plan.
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