05 Jan

From Portland streets, you can see the road to Roman ruins

Traveling through Italy, some people are moved by the pasta, or the chianti, or the views of the Mediterranean. On his honeymoon there a few months ago, Portland city Commissioner Steve Novick noticed something else.

Looking around Italy, Novick recalled last week, reminds you that “civilizations collapse all the time.”

Just like the Portland road system.

Lack of maintenance, it seems, can have an impact something like barbarian invasions.

For the past few months, Novick may have felt besieged himself, as the transportation commissioner has sought a new tax stream to slow the crumbling of the city’s roads – ideally without a detour to the ballot box. So far, he hasn’t found a plan with either universal approval or a solid third vote on the five-member City Council.

So last week, Novick put forth a pick-one proposal: a residence-and-income-based formula that he hopes could pass the City Council and not spark a signature-driven ballot referral, and a Plan B, a progressive income tax that he would expect to fight out on the 2016 ballot.

The same ballot, of course, would also feature Novick himself, running for re-election, which doesn’t bother him.

“Me campaigning for a progressive income tax to improve the streets,” he calculates, “would be totally consistent with the rest of my career.”

In fact, Novick would actually prefer Plan B – except that the first plan would let the city get started on its reconstruction sooner, a useful move when your arterial roads are beginning to resemble a Roman aqueduct.

There would certainly be clarity in putting whatever proposal emerges on the ballot, where it might be going anyway. Novick calculates that his Plan A might avoid the ballot, because unlike an income tax or a gas tax, no major group has threatened to take it there.

“It’s generally an interest group that gets it referred,” he says. “This proposal might offend few enough people that it doesn’t get referred.”

Assuming, of course, that it finds a third vote on the City Council Jan. 14. Right now, Novick has the support of only Mayor Charlie Hales.

If, as he suspects, there will be an income tax on the ballot next year, polling isn’t terrific. Current support is around 55 percent, and support for a tax measure drops over the course of a campaign. Novick knows that general faith in government has plummeted over decades – and that events like the botched rollouts of Obamacare and Cover Oregon don’t help – and that wage stagnation leaves most people with less disposable income.

Still, he thinks there are Portland groups that will show up for a progressive income tax campaign. And while council meetings like the one this Thursday will produce a wave of denunciation, people who come up to him in the streets say they hope he can get something done.
Even if a street fee is enacted – either Plan A or Plan B – Novick calculates that it would only slow the deterioration of Portland streets, like a foot stuck out to slow a runaway scooter.
Right now, he says, 12 percent of the major streets in the city are in poor condition. In 10 years, if no other revenue source is found, that number goes to 29 percent. Even if the city finds the additional $43 million – by either Plan A or Plan B, plus a business tax that doesn’t seem to be stirring a massive uprising – in 10 years the number projects to 19 percent.

To get all the city’s streets into good condition in 10 years would require an annual additional $143 million, a figure not imagined even in nightmares – neither fiscal or political ones.

Plus, Novick figures, the city should be spending more on infrastructure for earthquake preparation and its water and sewer pipes. After his first two years on the council, he says, “I feel like I’ve gone from a balcony seat to a fifth-row seat to the deterioration of American civilization.”

Still, there are things that can be achieved. Talking to voters in east Portland during his campaign, Novick recalls, their highest transportation concern was more regular bus service.

TriMet has told him that with the safety improvements in his package, it would run more frequent service along East 122nd: “So I would at least be able to cross off one thing that I offered in my Voters’ Pamphlet statement.”

And looking around at 2,000 years’ worth of infrastructure ruins in Italy can send one message that might even be reassuring for Portland:

Even if your roads collapse, you can still eat pretty well.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 1/4/15.