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Groups advocate for projects as some worry about rates

Ever since Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick proposed their street fee in May, public attention has focused on the monthly charges they want to impose on residents and businesses.

But collecting the money is only half of their plan. The other half is how Hales and Novick want to spend it. That may be key to whether the City Council passes the plan in November — and whether it survives if referred to the voters.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation presented the council with a list of likely projects during last week’s work session on the fee. Most of the press coverage of the session concerned the big changes Hales and Novick are proposing to the charges in their “Portlandized” version of the fee. They are leaning toward substituting a progressive personal income tax for the $144 per year household fee they originally proposed. And they seem poised to offer a sliding scale for businesses instead of one based on estimated vehicle trips.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - A new street fee proposal could get a City Council vote in November. The plan would fund projects to repair potholed city streets and make some safety improvements in high-traffic areas.But roughly half the discussion revolved around the project list. Hales and Novick seemed intent on convincing the rest of the council that the project are critical to the city and cannot be funded any other way.

“TriMet says they will offer frequent service on 122nd Avenue if we fund in safety improvements for their stops,” Novick said, offering one example of how the fee revenue could be used.

That argument has already helped representatives of more than a dozen advocacy organizations to consider asking their members to support the revised proposal. They are especially pleased many of the projects are in the poorest parts of town.

“We live in a city with massive disparities in the allocation of safe infrastructure for getting around. Pedestrians in the region’s poor neighborhoods are three times more likely to be killed in traffic compared to pedestrians in wealthy neighborhoods. We support and are pleased to see a mix of safety projects in diverse, low income communities where the needs are greatest,” says part of a letter to the council signed by representatives of 1000 Friends of Oregon, AARP, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, the Coalition for a Livable Future, the Community Alliance of Tenants, the Community Cycling Center, Elders in Action, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, the Oregon Environmental Council, Oregon Food Bank, the Oregon Opportunity Network, Oregon Walks, the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership, and Upstream Public Health.

Safety projects

The revised fee proposal is intended to raise $40 million a year for six years. Although the exact split has yet to be proposed, maintenance projects accounted for 53 percent of those presented by PBOT. They included both minor and major rehabilitation projects in all parts of town totaling $92 million.

But it was the other projects totaling $81 million that drew the most interest from the council. They are also the one that has caught the attention of most of the advocacy organizations.

Although Hales and Novick have so far referred to them as “safety projects,” they are broken into seven categories, each with its own supporters in the community:

• High Crash Corridors Infrastructure improvements to reduce pedestrian, bike and vehicle crashes by 29 percent along the 10 busiest streets in the city. Cost: $16.3 million.

• Crossing Improvements —Improving pedestrian crossings across streets and intersections to reduce pedestrian crashes by 46 percent and motor vehicle crashes by 39 percent. Cost: $11.8 million.

• Sidewalks — Build sidewalks to separate pedestrians from travel lanes and reduce crashes by 88 percent. Cost: $18.7 million.

• Protected Bike Lanes/Routes Physically separate bikes from motor vehicles to improve safety. Cost: $6.9 million.

• Neighborhood Greenways — Identify and fund a network of residential streets with 20 mile per hour limits, painted bike markings, traffic calming feature and safer crossings. Cost: $5.2 million.

• Alternative Street Designs — Make simple fixes like safer shoulders on streets where sidewalks cannot be added to reduce pedestrian crashes 71 percent. Cost: $5.2 million.

• Safe Routes to School Increase safety on designated routes to increase the percentage of students walking and biking to school. Cost: $8.6 million.

Many of the projects in these categories are drawn from previously approved plans with existing backers. They include the Portland Bike Plan for 2030, the East Portland Action Plan, and the existing Safe Routes to School plan that has mapped numerous routes in need of improvement throughout the city. During the council session, Hales and Novick repeatedly said that not much money is available for the projects in these plans unless the council adopts their street fee.

Hales and Novick plan to unveil a new version of their street fee proposal in a matter of days. The list of projects and additional information can be found at

Impact of utility fees

Advocacy organizations all support a progressive personal income tax for the residential portion of the street fee. That is because they do not want to impose a new financial burden on low-income Portlanders, and there is no easy way to avoid that if a flat residential fee is assessed against all households.

This is true of the city’s method of collecting water, sewer and stormwater charges through the combined utility bills. Single-family households can receive discounts through an existing program, but not multifamily households, where apartments and condominium buildings are served though a single water meter.

After Hales and Novick announced their original proposal, an advisory group began researching how to provide utility discounts to low-income households in multifamily buildings. The Non-profit/Low-Income Workgroup completed its work on the street fee without coming up with a proposal for multifamily utility bills, however.

Instead, Chairwoman Ruth Atkins wrote a letter to Commissioner Nick Fish asking him to appoint a new advisory group to continue working on the issue.

“Our group remains in agreement that expanding existing water/sewer discounts to multifamily residents, as well as helping the (Water) Bureau reach more low-income households with the existing program, is a priority,” wrote Adkins, who works for the Oregon Opportunity Network, a low-income advocacy organization.

Fish says he has long been concerned about the impact of increasing utility costs on low-income Portlanders, including those on fixed incomes, and plans to take the issue up next year.

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