Portland’s Gas Tax

As  I mentioned in my last post, I spent this summer working in local politics in Portland, Oregon as a PolitiCorps fellow. One of the assignments we got to complete was a policy exercise: following a piece of legislation or measure through the democratic process. If you know me, you might know that I love city-wide policies (and seriously have considered working in local government in the past). For the purpose of this assignment, I chose to talk about the gas tax, a controversial measure that recently passed in Portland.

I have a particular affinity for public transit and transportation policy in general–I commuted to work using the MAX Light rail all summer and actually even wrote my Common Application essay (back in 2011!) on how I love riding city buses. I believe that transportation should be both sustainable and simple. That being said, the gas tax appealed to me because of how it can improve the walkability and accessibility of Portland’s busy streets.

Did you know that the federal gas tax has not increased in the last 23 years? Nationwide, we are taxed $0.18 per gallon of gasoline (Oregon taxes its citizens $0.30 per gallon and Multnomah County residents pay an extra $0.03 per gallon) The revenue has not increased over time due to inflation and because many Portland residents choose to bike, walk, or take public transit. Indeed, roads have been falling into disrepair and we haven’t had proper road maintenance for almost 30 years. While downtown Portland might seem well-kept, out in East County, many roads lack sidewalks and crosswalks, there is dearth of green spaces, and potholes abound.

The reason for this discrepancy can be attributed to zoning codes: Portland has expanded over the last century and has incorporated more of Multnomah County each decade. County codes differ from city codes–and incorporated land doesn’t have to match up to Portland’s stringent regulations. This means that low-income communities (who have been displaced out of the central parts of the city and have less access to private transport) are dealing with far worse road conditions. According to the nonprofit Oregon Walks, a pedestrian fatality is twice as likely in a low-income neighborhood–the lack of sidewalks really is an environmental justice issue. (This makes sense considering that globally, traffic kills more people than malaria)

City Commissioner Steve Novick led the effort in City Hall to draft the gas tax. By taxing gas $0.10/gallon in Portland, the city could raise $64 million over 4 years to help address safety and maintenance problems on our streets. A PAC, Fix Our Streets PDX, was formed to gain voter support. Supported by 45 different coalition partners–ranging from the AARP to Teacher’s Unions and housing advocates, the measure came to pass this May by a 52/48 margin. The race was incredibly tight because of opposition from the Oregon Fuel Association who raised $75,000 to convince voters that a gas tax was a bad idea.

While the measure will help ease the backlog of road maintenance, the fact remains that Portland needs over $1.2 billion to really address all our road problems. Hopefully under Ted Wheeler’s leadership we will be able to make strides in improving our transportation situation. LA recently set aside $150 billion for transport–and Seattle set aside $50 billion; I hope that Portland is next.

And lastly, even though the gas tax seems like a wonderful idea, it is regressive to an extent. Considering Portland’s high rates of gentrification, displaced people who now live on the outskirts of the city and still have to commute into town for work are now paying even more for transport. Perhaps a luxury car tax or yacht tax would be more progressive for future policymakers to consider.

Thank you to Aaron Brown and Nikki Fisher for both giving me valuable insight on this issue!



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