A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

A small local tax for street repairs

Written September 15th, 2014 by Hasso Hering
Charging his batteries at LBCC last week, the owner of this car need not worry about a fuel tax.

Charging his batteries at LBCC last week, the owner of this car need not worry about a fuel tax.

The League of Oregon Cities would like the 2015 legislature to raise fuel taxes and vehicle licensing fees to help pay for street and road repairs. This would not be wise because some of that extra money would be wasted. Instead, let the cities look to local solutions, as Multnomah and Washington counties and 14 cities have already done.

The administrations of Governor Kitzhaber and his predecessor spent nearly $200 million, most of it for consultants, on planning for a new Columbia River bridge before the project was abandoned for the time being. A couple of sessions ago the legislature authorized hundreds of millions of highway projects favored by influential members regardless of statewide needs, hardly a powerful inducement for raising state taxes.

Cities are allocated only 20 percent of the state highway fund. So rather than calling for more state revenue, cities would be better off raising money for their own street maintenance and repairs. Eugene and 13 other cities have done just that. Eugene is the largest of them and levies a 5 cent local gas tax. The others, as small as Veneta and as big as Tigard, collect local fuel taxes ranging from 1 to 3 cents a gallon.

Over the last 30 years or so, Albany has considered doing the same. Once the voters said no, and at other times the idea was shot down before it got to the ballot. Now the price of gas hovers around $3.75 a gallon, having come down from nearly $4 since the spring. The idea of a 3-cent local gas tax — or even 5 cents — would not be nearly as shocking as it seemed some years ago when fuel cost a dollar fifty or so.

The need for street repairs is greatest at the city level. ODOT does a good job maintaining state highways and Interstate 5 with the resources it has. Among counties, Linn County keeps roads in excellent shape, and its road fund is still plump enough to serve on occasion as a kind of county investment bank. It’s city streets in some older parts of Albany that feel like rumble strips. And city voters might accept a modest local fuel tax when they see that it results in better pavement on their own streets. (hh)

11 responses to “A small local tax for street repairs”

  1. Rich Kellum says:

    Hasso, I find it Ironic that you show the picture of an electric car while talking about a gas tax. Those electric cars, bicycles, and other non road use tax-paying users of the streets should pay their way as well, and no, I do not know what it is right off hand, but that doesn’t change the fact that all users of the streets should help pay for the streets.

  2. Richard Vannice says:

    Amen to Mr. Kellum!!!!! It’s gas tax money, in part at least, that is paying for the bike path between Albany and Corvallis. Sure bike riders probably drive cars and pay fuel tax too; but, it seems a little unfair for them to get exclusive use of something that others pay for but cannot use.

    How about a yearly bicycle license requirement for everyone who rides a bike that is say 18 and older?

    • Hasso Hering says:

      OK by me on the bike license fee as long as we also charge a license fee to everyone who walks on a road or sidewalk. And then, how about a fee on everyone who breathes, exhaling CO2 and contributing what the EPA is pleased to consider air pollution. As for public bike paths, no one is barred from them, so it is mistaken to say that paths are something that “others pay for but cannot use.” (hh)

      • Rich Kellum says:

        Cars are barred from them, you can walk or ride a bike, maybe a horse, Corvallis had a bike license in the 1960’s that I had to pay as a student at OSU. It is not just that the road is being used, it is also the preferential rules bikes are given, attitude of bikers not wanting to stop at stop signs, riding full speed down the sidewalk etc. It is like there is a certain group of bicyclists that think they should have the right of way and we should pay for it. OK off my soap box

        • Hasso Hering says:

          What preferential rules? As a driver, you’re not supposed to run down a cyclist from behind, but that goes for pedestrians and livestock too. As for not wanting to stop at stop signs when no traffic is coming, motorists don’t want to do so either and in fact usually don’t. Even though they could without falling over. (hh)

          • Rich Kellum says:

            If I am sitting at a light in a car signaling for a right hand turn, the bicycle lane to my right is empty until you arrive while I am waiting for the traffic to abate you arrived 20 seconds after I did and now are in position at my front bumper keeping me from turning, but now you as a jonnie come lately have the right of way because you snuck up on my right side and are now physically blocking my route…. preferential treatment, Bikes whip in and out of traffic passing on the right or left at their whim, obstructing traffic, causing motor vehicles to have to slam on their brakes to avoid hitting them, when we honk our horn we are given the “I am saving the world look” and sometimes a single digit response….. I may not have to worry about being arrested if you jump in front and jam your brakes on or fall down, but it would not keep me from feeling awful if I ran over you. as to the taxes, I also pay tax on my home and business, so if that is the tax bicyclists cite when they say that they pay their way, then I should not have to pay fuel tax for my vehicles either.

            Bikes rarely stop at stop signs, Motorists almost always do, we get a ticket if we don’t stop, you on the other hand rarely get a ticket.

          • Hasso Hering says:

            Thanks for the response, but your assertions lack any factual foundation. Sure, sometimes human beings make mistakes in traffic, but experience and traffic accident stats say that motorists and cyclists make mistakes roughly in proportion to their numbers. How often have I had to slam on the brakes of my truck because a driver turned left in front of me? I lost count. But I can remember maybe just one or two instances where some kid on a BMX bike — not a cyclist — caused me to do the same. (hh)

  3. Gordon L. Shadle says:

    The gas tax is a dinosaur. Two factors make the gas tax unsustainable.

    First, the increasing fuel-efficiency of gas driven vehicles.

    Second, the increasing availability of vehicles that no longer run on gasoline alone.

    These dynamics will result in a never ending pressure to increase the gas tax. Think ODOT.

    If you want better city roads, the city should compete with the capital needs of all the local taxing districts by asking voters to approve more debt.

    Voters are in the best position to decide the capital priorities of local governments.

    It also enables voters to provide feedback on the general efficacy (or lack thereof) of city governance. Given the current lack of trust, road bonds would probably be a hard sell. But that could change with some new faces in city hall.

    • Hasso Hering says:

      Gordon Shadle is right that the gas tax is becoming less useful, for the reasons he cites. But given the problems of the property tax, I don’t think bond issues backed by that tax are much better, especially not for ongoing maintenance and repairs. In Portland, the mayor and a commissioner are pushing a street user or utility fee that would be billed monthly. Naturally, it is running into strong opposition. Still, a user or utility tax for the street system would make some kind of sense. Especially if it was combined with a kind of guarantee: “The street in front of your house will not have potholes as long as you pay the tax.” Based on such a tax, a city might even be able to issue revenue bonds to tackle a huge backlog of paving work right at the start. (I think my imagination is running away with me here.) (hh)

    • Ray Kopczynski says:

      “Given the current lack of trust, road bonds would probably be a hard sell. But that could change with some new faces in city hall.”

      Changing the “faces” in no way changes the need….nor the ready-available tools to us –and the roads will continue to deteriorate because of recalcitrant voters…

  4. Bill Kapaun says:

    We probably wouldn’t have so many “recalcitrant voters” if they felt their money wasn’t “squandered” on such projects as “Talking Waters” and the “promenade” on Broadalbin.

    CARA money would be better spent providing maintenance “help” for low income home owners that can’t afford to keep up with home repairs.


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