The Real Problem with Portland’s Roads

I picked up the Sunday Oregonian on February 26 and saw the big headline (“Portland’s Roads to Ruin”) over the front page story reporting that Portland has basically stopped preventive maintenance of its street system, leaving hundreds of miles to deteriorate to the point where only full reconstruction can restore them—at crushingly higher cost than periodic resurfacing and repair. The pictures and sidebars with the story make the Oregonian’s editorial slant clear: Portland is “wasting” money on light rail, streetcars, bicycles and “conferences,” rather than taking care of its roads.

But I immediately thought about the real problem: Oregon is no longer collecting anywhere near enough from road-user fees to cover the cost of building, maintaining and repairing the state’s roads, bridges and sidewalks. That’s the sobering cause of the dangerous neglect our streets are falling into, and it’s time we address it with eyes open instead of looking for scapegoats.

One of the great, enduring Oregon myths is that we motorists pay for our roads with our gas taxes, registration fees, and (for big commercial trucks) weight-mile taxes. The Oregon Constitution locks all that road-tax money away in the Highway Trust Fund, protecting it from “diversion” into transit or off-road bike and pedestrian trails. So driving, and gas taxes, form a virtuous circle: We use the roads, but our gas taxes pay the full cost of those roads’ construction, upkeep and repair.

It makes a great story of pay-as-you-go self-reliance. And the part about the Highway Trust Fund “lock box” is true. But the stuff about how we drivers are paying the full cost of the roads we use is just plain wrong, as Sunday’s front page story shows.

The Oregonian’s story made it sound as if Transportation Bureau expenditures for the streetcar, the Rose Festival and the Portland-Milwaukie light rail line are the cause of the road-maintenance shortfall. But those projects aren’t paid for by gas taxes. The story identified only one project to be built with road money that could instead be spent on fixing city streets: Portland’s $80-million commitment to help replace the failing Sellwood Bridge. 

This is what Oregon’s road funding “virtuous circle” has come to: Portland must choose between crumbling streets or a bridge falling into the Willamette—unless it wants to adopt new, non-highway taxes. (The Oregon legislature has prohibited local governments from adopting or increasing local gas taxes.) That’s what other Metro-area cities have done to help repair their streets, the Oregonian reports; Hillsboro, Oregon City, Tualatin and others charge a “street utility fee” of $3 to $11 a month per household, added to water and sewer bills. They use that money to repair streets and sidewalks because the state gas tax doesn’t give cities enough money for basic road maintenance. Washington County uses property taxes to build roads, for the same reason.

What’s going on here? Didn’t the legislature recently raise the gas tax? It sure did. In 2009, legislators voted to increase the tax by six cents a gallon to thirty cents, with a corresponding increase in the fees paid by heavy trucks. The gas tax hike was supposed to raise $300 million a year, with half that amount going to Oregon’s cities and counties. However, the slice received by Portland and other communities has been much smaller than expected, because the six-cent increase is not producing the predicted $300 million.

It turns out that Oregonians are driving a lot less than expected, and they’re driving cars that use less gasoline per mile. The result is devastating to the state’s highway budget, as well as to county and city roads, including Portland’s. Even after the big gas tax, cars and trucks are not paying what it costs to maintain the roads and bridges we have, much less build new ones.

With transit riders paying higher fares for less service, pedestrians and cyclists risking injury or death on unsafe streets, and all road users faced with crumbling streets and failing bridges, it’s time to stop pointing fingers about who’s to blame. We all are. Our transportation funding system is broken—at the federal, state and local levels. (A report from ODOT to the legislature in November 2011 candidly lays out the sobering facts in detail.)

Transportation costs more than we are paying for it today. And the longer we take to figure out a solution, the higher the road-repair bill will grow, the more dangerous roads will become for vulnerable users, and the farther behind our transit service will fall. In a future post, I’ll offer some thoughts about how we might establish a least-cost, user-funded transportation network.