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Portland seeks help for street repairs

PORTLAND — After eight months of backing and filling, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales says the city of Portland is parking the idea of new street-repair taxes, deferring to the Legislature for the next few months.

Hales and City Council member Steve Novick have been trying to raise $40 million a year to work on a backlog of $1 billion worth of street repairs, with little success.

Hales and Novick called a recess in a council meeting on Wednesday for a "top-secret conference call" with Gov. John Kitzhaber and House Speaker Tina Kotek, The Oregonian reported.

At a news conference he called quickly late Thursday afternoon, Hales said the city wants to give legislators a "clean shot" at a transportation package that has emerged recently as a prominent issue for the session that begins in earnest next month.

The city estimates that each 1-cent increase in the state gasoline tax would mean $1.27 million for Portland.

After the legislative session, Hales said, "we can see how much of the problem remains and do we have more tools than we had back in January to solve the problem," he said.

The pause Hales announced is at least the fifth major change in strategy for Hales and Novick.

They haven't been able to satisfy both liberals, who would rather tax income than gasoline consumption, and the city's business lobby, which opposes income-based ideas from the left.

In the process, Hales and Novick haven't been able to secure a third vote on the five-member council, largely because they want to impose taxes without putting them to a public vote.

Most recently, Hales said the council would put several options on the ballot May 19 for a non-binding advisory vote.

"Never underestimate the ability of Portland City Hall to mess things up," said Eric Fruits, a local economist and critic of the advisory vote. "This is something that could have been done in six months if it was done right, and it wasn't done right."

Hales acknowledged widespread comment and joking about the street-fee deliberations, and he invoked the adage about the two things nobody should see being made: law and sausage.

"If people want to watch the sausage being made, they will perhaps be amused, perhaps be appalled, perhaps be engaged," he said. "But one way or another, we've got to actually make the sausage and solve the problem."

People walk by a pothole in Portland. After eight months of backing and filling, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales said the city of Portland is parking the idea of new street-repair taxes, deferring to the Legislature for the next few months. AP PHOTO.