Friday, May 28, 2010

Oregon's Vehicle Fee and Gas Tax Hikes

This isn't about food, although it could potentially have an affect on food prices in stores.  It's about politics, my second biggest interest.

I am both a paid and volunteer petitioner for a campaign to bring Oregon's vehicle fees and taxes to ballot.  I sent the following op ed piece to Eugene's Register Guard and will send versions with less Eugene/bike path commentary to another eight or so papers tonight. 

You may have noticed petitioners at gas stations in Portland, Eugene and Roseburg and wondered if they were protesting the federal gas tax increase to pay for the BP oil catastrophe.
Despite the coincidence of timing, the petitioners are addressing vehicle fee and fuel tax hikes in Oregon. In May, 2009, the Oregon Legislature quietly passed HB 2001, the largest increase in vehicle registration fees, over the road fees and fuel tax in state history. The Bill is called The Oregon Jobs and Transportation Act, a warm and fuzzy title for a bill that will cost us all money now, but will provide temporary construction jobs beginning 2013 and 2014 after two or three years of traffic and alternative use studies.

Registration fees for non-government vehicles increased by 59-104%. Over the road fees for commercial truckers increased 24.4-24.6%. The state gas and diesel taxes will also increase by 25% by January 1, 2011. HB 2001 also allows Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington, Lane and Marion Counties to raise registration fees beginning in 2013.

Truckers and industries dependent upon them are especially burdened by these fee and tax increases during a recession. Already struggling businesses are likely to close. Retail goods and groceries are likely to become more expensive.

A loophole in the Oregon Constitution currently allows the Legislature to raise these fees and taxes without a public vote. Campaign to End Highway Robbery, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Silverton, filed an initiative petition (IP66) to require legislators to put all proposed vehicle fee and fuel tax increases in excess of 3% to a public vote, retroactive one year to include HB 2001.

When legislators have to explain plans to spend tax and fee increases, they generally spend less and distribute revenue more fairly. A thorough reading of HB 2001 shows the representatives and senators who sponsored the bill strongly favored their own districts. Although the entire state will have to pay increased fees and taxes, the Portland metro area gets an enormous chunk of the revenue. Budgeted plans for Portland total $548 million out of $943 million. Portland's population is approximately half of the entire state‚Äôs, so on the surface, that would seem almost reasonable. However, the bill's other projects planned for Portland do not yet have estimates, including a bridge over the Willamette, traffic and emissions reduction studies and bike paths. Representatives Edwards and Hunt and Senator Starr, all sponsors of the bill, happen to live in the Portland metro area. Two other sponsors, Representative Berger and Senator Courtney, are just outside Portland in Salem.  Another sponsor, Senator Metsger, serves Clackamas County east towards Hood River; his district will also benefit. 

Moreover, the remaining money is not shared equitably. Although all coastal residents who use motor vehicles will have to pay increased vehicle fees and taxes, the only planned improvement to Highway 101 is at the junction of Highway 6, which goes to Portland. Highway 101 is a major tourist attraction as well as an often used route from Washington to California; it is riddled with potholes and needs guard rails in many places to prevent errant vehicles from plummeting down cliffs to the ocean. However, the only repair, aforementioned, is in the district of Senator Johnson, a sponsor of the bill.

The following counties will receive no benefit from the tax and fee hikes: Clatsop, Columbia, Lincoln, Polk, Benton, Curry, Wasco, Gilliam, Wheeler and Josephine Counties.

One of the sponsors of HB 2001, Representative Bentz, serves the very desolate Baker, Malheur, Harney and Grant Counties, with a combined population of only 49,000 people. Bentz secured 15.5 million in road (as opposed to highway) repairs; another 15.5 million in additional repairs is under consideration. On Chandler Lane alone, Baker County will receive 4.5 million dollars worth of repairs. Compare that with areas in which no one sponsored the bill, like Douglas County (population 104,000), which gets the shoulder on I-5 widened near Sutherlin for a truck climbing lane, at a cost of 4.1 million and will share some sort of improvement (10 million) on curvy portions of Highway 42 with Coos County.  Not surprisingly, Douglas County Representatives Hanna and Freeman and Senator Kruse all voted against this bill. 

The Eugene/Springfield metropolitan area, with 350,000 residents, seven times more than in Representative Bentz's entire district, will receive only improvements to Beltline Highway at the junctions of I-5 and Delta Highway. The State wants the Eugene/Springfield metro area to conduct alternative land use studies and present findings to the Legislative Assembly by July 1, 2013. The goal is to "accommodate planned population and employment growth while achieving a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less". Before you start envisioning a glorious future for Eugene with a subway, The Departments of Transportation and Land Conservation and Development intend to provide "technical assistance, grant support and guidance" but Eugene is to raise funds to pay the bulk of the expenses. Graciously, the State says that the Eugene/Springfield metro area is not required to complete these planned projects if adequate funds are not raised. The likely result is another bike path situated where no one will use it for commuting.

After disparaging bike path plans twice, I should probably state my own political views. I consider myself a libertarian environmentalist. I visited Congress the first time when I was only eight years old, lobbying to save the 804 trail in Yachats from casino development. Since then I have written thousands of letters and hundreds of articles in defense of sustainable communities and farms. I believe locals are better stewards of the environment than multinational corporations or governments will ever be. I am in favor of road improvements and bike paths, but I believe the public should be consulted regularly in the planning and budgeting. Town hall meetings are an excellent way to learn where the worst intersections are, where bike paths are needed for commuting (rather than recreation) and how much we are willing to pay for projects. I suspect that the lawmakers who place bike paths in lovely park settings are either thinking of photo opportunities or have never actually ridden a bike to work. Especially in urban environments where cars parallel park, biking is very dangerous. A person in a parked car could open their door at any second, sending a bike flying into the path of a moving vehicle. Drivers are nervous trying to pass bikers on crowded streets.

Commuters want bike paths located in congested areas to increase safety for both bicyclists and drivers, to encourage green transportation and to reduce competition for parking. At least one major north/south road and one east/west road downtown and by University of Oregon should have bike paths. Roads with wide sidewalks decorated with large ornamental planters are an excellent first choice; planters can always be relocated. A second choice would be to replace some parallel parking spaces with bike lanes and racks. Construction can move one block at a time to disrupt traffic as little as possible. The increased visibility of store windows and signs and the ability to attract perhaps ten cyclists to park in front of a store or restaurant where previously only one car could park should more than make up for the inconvenience of construction to existing businesses.

While collecting signatures on the petition to bring fuel tax and registration fee increases to the ballot, I have repeatedly heard Lane County residents express anger over frivolous projects that waste vast sums of money. Pretty, rather than useful, bike paths are frequently mentioned, as is the plan to rename Beltline Highway exits. Voters are willing to accept the current state fuel tax of 24 cents per gallon, which is 4 cents higher than average, because Oregon does not have a sales tax. However, nearly everyone feels that raising taxes and fees during a recession is a bad political move.

Lawmakers, we live here, too. We pay your salary as well as the funds you use for your projects. We demand the right to participate in planning how our tax and fee dollars are spent. We will prove it by collecting more than enough signatures to bring HB 2001 to ballot.

Larisa Sparrowhawk


Blogger Larisa said...

Unfortunately, the petition campaign ended early. Those in charge realized we were not on track to get enough signatures and decided to regroup and try again for next year. Apparently this was held up in court by labor unions (not truckers or industries, obviously) for seven months and that is why we got such a late start. So look for us again in six months or so!

June 12, 2010 at 7:19 PM  

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