Today I attended a “bicycle brown bag” series presentation at city hall in Portland, OR. These lunch lectures, usually occurring on the third Thursday of each month, provide a forum for discussing transportation best practices and latest research while promoting citizen participation and engagement. I’ve previously heard some amazing research presented by some amazing Ladies (and Lady-lovers), and usually leave feeling empowered and hopeful. Woefully, today was not such a day. I was again reminded that most of our elected officials just don’t get it. They’re unable, or unwilling, to see the whole picture; a picture that includes Ladies (and Lady-lovers) who commute each day, just hoping to arrive home alive and un-maimed.
Today’s presentation focused on creating a model to replace declining gas tax revenues. As automobile fuel efficiency rises, electric cars become more prevalent, and people drive fewer miles (likely contributable to increasing gas expenses coupled with stagnant wages), gas tax revenues will continue to decline. This is non-bueno for PBOT who relies on 17.3% of their revenue coming from a combination of fuel taxes, licensing fees, and the weight-mile tax. But how else can you raise money for road maintenance and repair?
“Well, we have a solution!” says ODOT.
It’s incredibly simple! Road usage fees of around $1/mile are applied on a per-mile basis, or an optional high usage flat-rate of $45/mo, for cars with 55mpg efficiency and above (all these numbers, of course, are suggestions that are likely politically infeasible, he noted, so expect passable fees to be less thanks to our lily-livered representatives in the state house whom refuse to vote for anything substantial on any matter lest they anger voters and lose their cushy jobs). Now all you need to do is install one of several optional devices in your car to measure mileage, or report it yourself with manual yearly readings, and choose a state or privately operated (That’s right! Private industry wins, too!) collection agency to receive a refund on your gas tax expenses.
I’ll admit that this idea is significantly better than the gas tax. It helps ensure revenue streams as CAFÉ standards become more stringent, which is better for our health, community, and environment, and it forces those who drive more to pay more, discouraging excessive amounts of miles traveled.
The only issue: this “solution” is only half of the answer. It still relies on car ownership and usage, fails to address expenditure, and does not seek to adjust the proportion of PBOT’s budget, a full 75%, that is reliant on revenues from steel-boxes and fuel tax revenue. We’ll continue to legislate for imminent funding crises unless we start thinking beyond 2030.
It’s reactionary revenue. A mere band-aid for long-term shifting demographics, like decreased car usage and ownership in our increasingly elderly population and decreases in car ownership and usage in younger generations. You cannot rely on automobile usage for transportation funding, and ultimately automobiles are the problem on the expenditure end of the equation: car infrastructure is incredibly expensive to maintain and expand.
This policy only addresses half of government’s responsibility to the public. It fulfills the role of very basic maintenance of infrastructure. But what about the importance of shaping behavior and patterns for the betterment and safety of the community, society, and ensuring the economic viability of the city?
“Your vision is short-sighted, good sir!” this Lady says.
The issue isn’t about sustaining what we currently have, it’s about pro-actively shaping infrastructure for our future population and economic realities. Wages continue to be stagnant, leaving real income, or what we can actually buy with what we’re paid, lower than at any other point in recent history. Fewer people can afford car ownership and its associated expenses. City expenditures for preventable illness, pavement thick enough to support our steel-enclosed monstrosities, and the host of social ills associated with disconnected communities that steel-coffins promote are well beyond any funding structure ODOT can throw together. Cars cost our city exponentially more than public and active transit, and they cost our citizens in quality of life
The road usage funding structure, the funding model of the future, needs to be bundled with expenditure planning for the future of transportation.
Allocating funds to re-envisioning city centers dedicated to future transportation modes (bicycles, pedestrians, and public transit) and subsidies that expand access to public transit and upgrade pedestrian infrastructure are essential to long-term civic, economic, and environmental sustainability. Only when these things are implemented together can we realistically address funding shortfalls and needs of the changing face of transportation in Portland, Oregon, and the US.
And so, Ladies (and Lady-lovers), I turn it over to you. What do you think? How can we better fund and shape our transportation?
Keep smiling, loving, speaking out, and riding, Ladies (and Lady-lovers)!