Month: July 2019

You and Your Car: Portland Public Enemy No. 1

By Micah Perry

Driving around Portland could get a lot more expensive. The Portland City Council just passed a resolution to create an “equitable mobility task force” to study how imposing steep new fees on city drivers could reduce congestion.

Proponents say the fees will help Portland meet its carbon reduction goals. They also claim that, by increasing the cost of driving and parking, low-income residents and people of color will be better off. Ironically, the city itself noted that “65% of peak car commuters in Portland are medium or low income,” meaning any new fees will actually hurt the communities they seek to help.

Fees being considered include increased parking prices, Uber or Lyft surcharges, a mileage tax, and tolls to enter certain areas of the city. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to most, as Portland frequently pursues anti-car policies, such as a citywide gasoline tax, a reduction in street parking downtown, and the city’s notorious “road diets,” which essentially create congestion by design.

If Portland truly cared about easing congestion amid a growing population, it would add lanes wherever possible. And, rather than try to tax people out of their cars, the city should reevaluate its approach to transit and create a public transportation system that can be attractive to commuters without having to resort to coercion.

Micah Perry is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Congestion by Design on the New Sellwood Bridge

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Portland-area motorists who have to regularly cross the Sellwood Bridge may wonder why the new structure is twice as wide as the 1925 bridge, yet has the same number of travel lanes. The answer is simple. Portland transportation planners don’t want to solve traffic congestion problems; they prefer to make them worse.

We know this because 20 years ago, Metro published a report entitled the “South Willamette River Crossing Study” (SWRCS), which examined the long-term bridge needs in the stretch of the Willamette River from the Marquam Bridge down to Oregon City. The study found that by 2015, levels of traffic congestion on those bridges would be at “unacceptable or grossly unacceptable levels” if new capacity wasn’t provided.

The study also looked at numerous potential sites for a new bridge but ultimately recommended that no new crossings be constructed. The Metro Council decided instead to focus on “transportation demand management” (TDM) to address the growing congestion.  TDM is an amorphous concept utilizing public relations campaigns and regulatory mandates to encourage drivers to shift to other modes of travel.

Once the decision by Metro was made to place a freeze on new bridge capacity, it was easy for the City of Portland to implement a new policy downsizing Tacoma Street in Sellwood from a four-lane arterial to a two-lane “Main Street,” with lower speed limits. That made it politically impossible for Multnomah County, owner of the Sellwood Bridge, to replace the aging structure with a four-lane bridge.

The decision to build a new bridge was made in 2006, and construction began in 2012. The design featured two 12-foot-wide travel lanes for motor vehicles, two 12-foot-wide sidewalks, and two bike lanes. All the proponents claimed that dedicating more through-capacity for cyclists and pedestrians than vehicles would create a world-class, multi-modal showpiece that would finally tame the automobile and shift drivers to other modes.

In fact, when a USDOT official spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony while presenting an oversized check for $17 million, she told the audience, “We looked all over the country for the best projects, and I have to say, the application for the Sellwood Bridge project knocked it out of the park!”

Unfortunately, all of the hype turned out to be wrong. Extensive monitoring by Cascade Policy Institute over the past three years shows that on a typical day, motor vehicles account for 95% of all passenger-trips. Transit gets about 2%, and walking/cycling combined garner the final 3%. Traffic congestion is growing worse by the month because regional population is growing and the bridge infrastructure has not kept pace.

With a price tag of $328 million, the new bridge is 43 times more expensive than the original; but it’s not 43 times more useful. In fact, it’s less useful, because trucks are not allowed and TriMet never restored the promised transit service.

Metro’s no-growth policy was a predictable failure. It’s time for the Metro Council to admit the mistake, and begin a new planning process with the goal of building at least one new bridge for motorists in the South Willamette River Corridor.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research institute. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on July 11, 2019.

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Fresh Spinach for Indifferent Students: Oregon’s Costly Farm-to-School Program

By Helen Cook

When did you last hear a child profess his love for spinach?

Oregon’s Farm-to-School program awards grants to school districts across Oregon to give them the funds needed to purchase fresh foods from local farms and vendors. Advocates hope that by using the words “fresh” and “local,” K-12 students will nurture a healthier taste for fruits and veggies. This hope prompted legislators to budget almost $15 million for the program at the end of the 2019 session.

This is a significant increase from the program’s $200,000 budget in 2012, largely because legislators rephrased the bill to allow entities separate from Oregon school districts to accept grants. This technical rewording allows for summer meal programs, nonprofits, and even the local vendors selling food to the districts to accept grant money.

But frozen foods benefit students more than local produce does. Frozen fruits and veggies have equal or superior nutritional value and lower costs. This is important for school districts who prepare meals by the thousands.

Since the program’s main benefit is not Oregon’s students, I suggest the state reevaluate the expensive Farm-to-School program to be more cost-effective and call this current grant program what it is: a subsidy for local vendors.

Helen Cook is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Portland’s Clean Energy Tax: A High Cost with Low Benefit

By Rachel Dawson

In January 2019 the City of Portland implemented a voter-approved a 1% tax on certain “retail sales” within Portland to fund clean energy projects and jobs training. This tax will be applied to retailers with $1 billion or more in total sales, $500,000 of which must be from within Portland city limits. Retailers can pass the cost of the tax along to the purchaser of the good or service. Thus, it is likely consumers—not retailers—will ultimately be paying for it. Once collected, these funds will be administered by the Portland Clean Energy Fund.

Despite claims that the Portland Clean Energy Fund is unique, the energy efficiency projects funded by this tax are already being completed by the Energy Trust of Oregon (ETO) and Oregon Housing and Community Services through a surcharge on ratepayers’ utility bills. In some cases, the Portland Clean Energy Fund will be triple-taxing Portland utility ratepayers.

Approximately 40-60% of funds will be allocated to clean energy projects including renewable energy, conservation, and green infrastructure for residential, commercial, and public school projects. At least one half of clean energy project funds must benefit low-income residents and minorities. The Portland Clean Energy Fund will also be used to help Portland meet its goal of using 100% community-wide electricity from renewable sources by 2035.

Many voters believed this tax would only affect large retailers. However, senior deputy city attorney Kenneth McGair admits the tax will affect public works projects and construction equipment wholesalers, as well as disability insurance plans and insurance policies. The only exempt transactions will be groceries, medicine, and health care services. Due to its impact on construction, this tax will increase the cost of taxpayer funded projects such as affordable housing.

While 1% may seem like a small amount, it will add up to millions of dollars when applied to high-cost construction projects. For example, the tax will add an estimated $2 million to Lincoln High School’s $200 million renovation costs.

Voters may be unaware that they are already paying for similar clean energy projects through a surcharge on their utility bills known as the Public Purpose Charge (PPC). The tax rate from the PPC has grown to over 6% for many electric utility customers and up to 5.8% for ratepayers who consume natural gas.

ETO uses funds from the surcharge to support energy efficiency projects for low-income families (low-income weatherization), rehabilitation and construction of low-income housing, above-market renewable energy, and energy conservation and market transformation. Not only will the Portland Clean Energy Fund be completing similar projects to ETO’s, but ETO projects that involve construction, such as their affordable housing and school green infrastructure projects, will now be further taxed to support energy efficiency. Some ETO ratepayer-funded clean energy projects will be taxed to further fund clean energy projects. And many Portland area residents will be caught paying for both.

In addition to the ETO, the Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS) agency also benefits from the PPC surcharge to fund additional low-income weatherization projects, arguably the same demographic the Portland Clean Energy Fund aims to help.

One of these tax programs should be repealed: either the Portland Clean Energy Fund or the Public Purpose Charge. Doing so will ensure that Portland residents are not double- or triple-taxed for multiple programs that provide the same services.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Public Debt for Public Housing

By Vlad Yurlov

In the 2018 general election, voters approved a bond measure that enabled Metro to borrow about $652 million for low-income public housing in the tri-county area. This money will be given out to localities within Metro. With the minimum of 3,900 housing units to be built, the price-tag would be more than $165,000 per unit.

When pressed for completion times for this project, a high-level Metro staffer stated new units can be expected to be used in eight to ten years. This schedule should not surprise anyone who has dealt with government bureaucracies, but a decade is a long time to wait for a crisis we’re having today.

For comparison, more than 6,700 housing units were constructed per year between 2010 and 2018 in the tri-county area, based on the U.S. Census Annual Housing Estimates. This means that even a target of 3,900 units would be roughly 60% of just one year’s worth of private construction. In addition, if Metro does build homes, private companies have less incentive to build, thereby compounding the current crisis.

A good government delivers public services on time and on budget. Right now, Metro is taking the bucks, without making much of a bang.

Vlad Yurlov is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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