Metro refers controversial transportation measure to Nov. 3 ballot
The Metro Council unanimously referred a controversial $5.2 billion regional transportation measure to the Nov. 3 general election ballot on Thursday.
The measure would create a .75% payroll tax on businesses with more than 25 employees. The tax would not be imposed until 2022 and could be phased in over a number of years.
Before the final vote, the council unanimously voted to exempt governments in the region from the tax.
Testimony at the hearing was overwhelmingly in favor of the measure and the referral. Only Portland Business Alliance vice president for public affairs Jonathan Isaacs and a couple of other witnesses asked the council to delay the referral because of the economic downturn. Several large businesses are prepared to fund an opposition campaign, however. As first reported by Willamette Week, they include Intel, Nike, the Standard, Precision Castparts and U.S. Bank.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, other elected officials and additional backers testified when invited supportive witnessed were called at the beginning of the hearing. Wheeler said the measure would support many of the city's goals, including fighting climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He and others also said it would support racial equality and other goals.
Isaacs said many businesses in the region cannot pay the tax because of the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 300,000 workers in the state have lost their jobs and many businesses have closed because of the restrictions imposed to slow the sprerad of the virus, Isaacs said.
"Everything has changed" since the measure was nearly completed earlier this year, said Issacs.
The first critic did not testify until the public testimony portion more than two hours after the hearing started. Clackamas County Commissioner Paul Savas, speaking for himself, said the measure "woefully" underinvested in his constituents, saying it including no expansion of transit service in his county
The measure had wider widespread regional support before the economy crashed. The Portland Business Alliance helped choose the projects and funding, along with a wide range of affordable housing, alternative transportation, community, environmental and social service organizations.
But after the payroll tax emerged as the primary — and then only — funding source as the economy shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many business organizations and individual employers called for a delay in the referral, arguing many companies cannot afford it now.
The opposition was not mentioned until 90 minutes into the hearing, when Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp, whom supports the measure, said he disagrees with it.
The measure is intended to raise and invest a total of $8 billion in 17 transportation corridors in the region. If approved by voters, it would generate $4.2 billion from within the region for transportation projects and another $1 billion for transportation-related programs. The regional funds are expected to leverage an additional $2.8 billion in federal transportation funds.
Some businesses, including the members of Business for a Better Portland, continued to support the measure, saying it was a step toward racial equity and other benefits.
The referral is also supported by the Getting There Together Coalition. It includes AARP Oregon, APANO, Coalition of Communities of Color, Disability Rights Oregon, East Portland Action Plan, Hacienda CDC, 1000 Friends of Oregon, OPAL Environmental Justice, the Oregon Environmental Council, Oregon Walks, Portland African American Leaders Forum, Safe Routes Partnership, Street Trust, The Street Trust, Urban League of Portland, Verde, Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center.
Business organizations opposing the referral include the Beaverton Area Chamber of Commerce, the Building Owners & Managers Association of Oregon, the Clackamas County Business Alliance, the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center, the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce, the Portland Business Alliance, the Smart Growth Coalition, the Technology Association of Oregon, the Westside Economic Alliance, the Working Waterfront Coalition, the East Metro Economic Alliance, Oregon Business & Industry, the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, and the Tualatin Chamber of Commerce.
"We urge you to consider whether current changes of the magnitude we are experiencing in our economy require all of us to pause on a new business tax proposal," the organization said in a recent letter to the council.
Projects and programs in measure
Planning for the new MAX line began many years ago. It was always considered to be part of comprehensive transportation improvements between downtown Portland and the rapidly growing portion of Washington County that includes Tigard and Tualatin. Cities and counties along the route also realized that more affordable housing would be needed to minimize displacement caused by increasing property values, also known as gentrification.
But because the measure will be proposed by a regional government, there also is a need to give voters outside the corridor a reason to vote for it. That provided an opportunity to create a regional transportation improvement program to be funded by the measure. The council has indicated its support for around 150 projects in 16 transportation corridors in all three counties within Metro's jurisdiction.
According to the draft plan, the largest investment would be $975 million to help finance the new MAX line in the Southwest Corridor. The federal government is expected to pay half the cost of the project, currently estimated at $2.8 billion.
Other investments for projects and planning in the draft plan include: 82nd Avenue, $540 million; McLoughlin Boulevard, $230 million; Burnside Street, $370 million; Central City, $240 million; Southwest 185th Avenue, $190 million; Highway 212/Sunrise Corridor, $240 million; Clackamas-to-Columbia/181st Corridor, $150 million; Southeast Powell Boulevard, $110 million; 162nd Avenue, $100 million; 122nd Avenue, $100 million; Albina Vision project in the Rose Quarter area, $65 million; Highway 43, $70 million; Highway 217, $18 million; Highway 99W, $5 million; Highway 26, $1 million.
Another $250 million would be raised each year for the next 20 years for transportation-related programs. They range from Safe Routes to Schools to annual TriMet youth programs for high school students in the region.
If the measure is approved by voters at the Nov. 3 general election, Metro is likely to issue revenue bonds before the fee and tax become effective to begin work on some of the projects as soon as possible.
Readers can find more information about the measure here.
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