How to Pay for Road Upkeep? Road Problems Plague Bernard, Brown

By Peter Toll

Jim Bernard and Kate Brown share a problem: their respective road systems are falling apart from lack of proper upkeep, and there’s no money to fix them.

Clackamas County Commissioners put an advisory measure on the November ballot asking voters if they liked the idea of a gasoline tax to raise money to maintain our roads. Portland voters approved a 10-cents a gallon tax, after all, to fix roads there.

Two years ago, Governor Brown and the Legislature tried to put together a package involving a clean fuel proposal and a gasoline tax. In both cases, voters representing largely rural areas shot both tax ideas down.

Clackamas voters told Chair Bernard by a 2-to-1 margin that they already had enough taxes, thank you, and a gas tax was a bad idea. Find another plan, is what Chair Bernard and the commissioners heard.

Similarly, Republican legislators, most of whom are from outside big cities, said, no. For the state to raise gas taxes, it would have to cut taxes elsewhere in the budget: social programs, schools, and Medicaid, for example, are always the biggest Republican targets.

While all this cajoling and carrying on were under way, the roads weren’t paying attention. They just kept getting worse. All that snow this year isn’t helping.

Chair Bernard and his cohorts are trying to get creative. One idea they’re looking at is a surtax on vehicle registration, say $5 or $10 per year per vehicle registered in the county. The road maintenance cost is over $20 million now, and it is not going down by being ignored.

As for Gov. Brown, she may have to get creative, too. A $5 per tire annual tax on studded tires was once viable; maybe it’s on the table again. Fuel tax? Oregon’s current gas tax is 31.12 cents per gallon, about in the middle of the states.

To compare, our northern neighbor, Washington, is at 49.4 cents and California is 38.13 cents, according to the Tax Foundation. Highest is Pennsylvania with a 58.2 cents per gallon tab, much of which is dedicated to that state’s turnpikes, and Alaska is the lowest at 12.25 cents.

Highways are just one thorny problem in a thicket of troubling issues. Counties and cities are wrestling with income needs and the state has a whopping $1.7 billion deficit to confront, which, if met, will still mean big cuts and a lower level of service than we have now.

For Jim Bernard and Kate Brown, the biggest challenge is getting folks to understand that things like road repair cost money and, like not fixing your roof at home, the longer you wait to repair it, the worse it gets.

Peter Toll is a licensed financial advisor, 28-year Clackamas County resident, and active Democrat.

Editor’s Commentary

As the guest editorial correctly states, both Clackamas County and the state have a financial problem. This problem stems from years of underfunding all levels of government. Instead of paying for maintenance, the county, and to a lesser extent the state, chased economic growth as a solution, blissfully unaware that economic growth comes with a price. More Oregonians means more drivers on the roads, more demand on water and sewer systems, more need for police.

Yet for decades, Oregonians have lived with property tax caps and following the misguided Republican logic of the 1980s, when the state reduced taxes on corporations in an effort to get them to come to Oregon. The price of such folly has been underfunded schools, bad roads, and other infrastructure stretched beyond belief.

The time has come to think beyond gas taxes and vehicle registration fees. Why? First unless these are graduated, these taxes hit lower income and middle class citizens harder than the one percent. Second we need to have a tax structure that not only generates the necessary revenue but is fair and reflects the values of Oregonians.

This suggests new ideas, such as a tax on carbon at the producer level, a graduated tourism tax dedicated to a wider array of services then the current version. Likewise working with Metro and the Port of Portland to develop a regional tax on air travel to be shared by all three counties. Air travel is one of the most significant contributions to carbon pollution. Raising fees for non-recyclables deposited at the landfill sends a message that reuse and recycle is a value rather than use and dispose.

Portland has a tax on corporations based on the the pay gap between the highest paid employee and the lowest. This is another idea worth investigating. As Clackamas County Democrats, we are committed to seeking the revenue we need to help all of our citizens not just survive but thrive. This needs to happen in a fair and equitable way.

In case you may have forgotten, the highest income tax rate under President Dwight D Eisenhower was 91 percent on the top income earners. Today it is 39.6 percent.