By Steve Novick

Hi. I’m Steve Novick, city commissioner overseeing transportation. I hope I can get a few minutes of your time to address some of the issues involved in the Portland Street Fund discussion. Specifically, I want to address three questions:

(1) Previous City Councils have never raised such a fuss about transportation funding. Why don’t you just let the matter drop?

The City Council has known since at least 1987 that we weren’t investing enough in repairing and maintaining our streets. They also knew that there are parts of the city where, due to the lack of sidewalks and to dangerous intersections, it’s not safe for kids to walk to school or for seniors to walk to transit stops. They considered trying a new fee or tax several times, but backed away when they realized there was no simple, popular solution.

I don’t think it’s responsible to back away. Every month we wait, the streets deteriorate further and become more expensive to fix. Eventually you won’t be able to ride around town without damaging your car or bike on potholes. And I think it’s unacceptable that it’s unsafe for many children and seniors to walk in their own neighborhoods.

(2) Why don’t you just send a proposal to voters?

The concern the mayor and I have about a public vote is that even the people who agree we need more money don’t agree on how to raise it. Some people want a flat fee, some people want a gas tax, some want a progressive income tax. So it’s quite possible that we could send proposal after proposal to the ballot, and all of them would lose – even though most people agree we need more money – because you can’t get 50 percent-plus to agree on how.  In such a case, the mayor and I think political leaders have a responsibility to make a decision and get the job done, even if no particular method is very popular.

The proposal that has the best chance to win approval in a public vote – and which is my personal favorite as well – is a progressive income tax. That would require a vigorous campaign, extending into 2016. The mayor and I are taking one last shot at passing a “user fee” through the council, but if that fails, I plan to campaign hard for an income tax that would be on the ballot either in May or November of 2016.

(3) Can’t you find the money somewhere else?

The vast majority of the city’s “discretionary” money, its general fund, goes to police, fire, parks and housing. There doesn’t seem to be much public support for cutting those services to pay for transportation. I personally think some things, like the mounted patrol, aren’t especially good uses of money, but there isn’t a big, long list of obvious things to cut.

Believe me, I wish that these transportation challenges didn’t exist, or that there was some easy solution. But they do exist, and it is my job, as transportation commissioner, to do whatever I can to fix the streets and make them safer.

Steve Novick is a Portland city commissioner.

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