Among the anniversaries that passed unnoticed this year was one on November 21, the 75th anniversary of the 1941 death of a Portland city commissioner of the 1920s and 1930s. You think you don't know his name, but you do, and if you own a Portland house that was built before 1931, his work is on your wall. He was Asbury Barbur, first elected to the council in 1920. One of his pet causes was to clean up Portland's system for naming streets and numbering buildings. I should say "systems" instead of "system," for Portland's naming and numbering plans included not only the elements of the Great Renaming of 1891, but also the systems of Sellwood and St. Johns, annexed to Portland afterward. (A remnant of the Sellwood system survives in the Clackamas County portion of the Garthwick neighborhood.)
Portland was plagued by similar and confusing street names, such as Tenth Street, North Tenth Street, East Tenth Street, and East Tenth Street North. Intersections were similarly confusing: for example, from their intersection 42nd Avenue SE ran east-west, and 42nd Street SE ran north-south. The post office misdelivered 2000 letters a day, and streetsigns often didn't match the streets they were on.
Commissioner Barbur spent 10 years persuading the rest of the council to adopt a single unified system of addresses and numbers. In 1931 the council, having been cajoled, wheedled, inveigled, and bullied into joining the modern era, adopted the Barbur plan, which with slight modifications is what we enjoy today. In the Barbur plan, odd numbers were on the west or north sides of streets, even numbers were on the south or east sides of streets, all streets ran east-west, all avenues and places ran north-south, and all boulevards were scenic (he missed the mark on Holgate). Burnside, the river, and Williams Avenue became the baselines, and we adopted the five quadrants of North, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, and Northwest as directional prefixes. Numbers increased by 100 per block and 2000 per mile. You could tell from an address such as 4010 SE 40th Avenue that it was on the east side of SE 40th Avenue, 2 miles east of the Willamette River and 2 miles south of East Burnside Street.
Few politicians are brave enough to advocate a plan that would inconvenience every registered voter in the city. Commissioner Barbur took some of the sting out of changing everyone's address by having the city hire a company to manufacture hundreds of thousands of numbered ceramic tiles - the classic black-on-white "Asbury Tile" -- and then hiring crews of the unemployed to go from house to house to install the tiles on the front walls of every building in Portland. They completed their work in 1933. If you have an old house within the 1931 city limits, you probably have Asbury tiles next to your front door, courtesy of the city council.
Another part of the Barbur plan was to rename streets, not just to get rid of the duplicate and confusing names that had accumulated since 1891, but to give continuous streets a continuous name. The most prominent roadway to be renamed was a highway that ran south from downtown, along bits of roadway named Fourth Avenue Extension, Witham Street, and Miles Street. It's now called Barbur Boulevard, and it honors the man who gave you your address.
One consequence of giving money to a committee of persons who represent different interests is that they will quickly find ways to spend the largesse several times over. The City of Portland discovered in January that it believes it will have $19 million more in revenue in the next fiscal year than it had planned to receive: $4.6 million of recurring revenue and $14.4 million of one-time income. At the end of January the council voted 4-1 (Commissioner Saltzman dissenting) to adopt a policy proposed by Amanda Fritz to allocate at least half of the extra money (so about $7.2 million) to "infrastructure maintenance or replacement," meaning "emergency preparedness, parks and recreation, and transportation." This policy will apply not only to fiscal year 2015-2016 but also to the three following fiscal years.
Within a week after the council adopted Commissioner Fritz's resolution, the Housing Bureau made a pitch to receive all of the remaining $7.2 million. Not coincidentally, the Housing Bureau operates under Commissioner Saltzman.
It's a wise idea for the city to devote some more money to maintaining what it already owns instead of building new things and starting new programs such as the Office of Equity (a project of Commissioner Fritz, as it happens). I'd like to encourage the council to resist every temptation to allocate any of the unexpected manna to any new project or program -- not just the $7.2 million that Commissioner Fritz's resolution requires to be allocated to maintenance and replacement, but the entire $14.4 million. I would allocate half of the $14.4 million to patch and repair roads and the other half to repair sewer and water lines underneath the roads before they're patched and repaired.
Until the city repairs the potholes and cracking pavement that it already owns, it shouldn't be building any more. Similarly, until the city brings its parks up to par, it shouldn't acquire any more. Feed the pets we already have before buying new ones.
The Portland City Council, having awakened to find that the city's streets are falling apart, has scheduled an advisory vote for May to solicit the public's opinion on how to best tax homeowners to pay for repairing the streets. The council will then adopt the winning proposal and move on to determine how to tax nonresidential property. Options include an income tax, a property tax, a gasoline tax, and others yet to be named.
The particular history is that in 1988 when the City Council first realized that Portland's streets were deteriorating, the council considered allocating 28% of the utility franchise fees that it receives to street maintenance and repair. At the time, the city needed $38 million to catch up on street repairs. The council set 28% as a target, but never achieved that target; in the first 8 years the council sent 12% of the utility fees ($29 million) to the transportation department for street repairs, instead of the 28% ($67 million) that the target called for. The amount of money that the council chose not to send would have caught the city completely up on street repairs and the city would not now be facing a cost of $200 million or more to catch up.
I like the idea of the council asking the voters for their thoughts, except that the council is asking one question too few. Instead of merely asking how the voters prefer to be taxed -- rather like the choice that Utah used to offer to condemned criminals, asking whether they would prefer to be shot or hanged -- the council should also ask the voters whether they agree or disagree with the choices of twenty years of city councils to divert money from street repair to other projects -- that is, whether the voters agree or disagree with the council's view that it's more important for the city to subsidize the Portland Public Schools and the Regional Arts Coordinating Council than to maintain the streets.
Uber started operating in Portland Friday evening at 5:00. Welcomed by riders, Uber faced frowns from the City, which filed suit against Uber on Monday in state court. Today Uber removed the suit to federal court (a routine step) and the battle lines are being drawn.
A few days ago I advanced the idea that Uber could comply with part of the City's car-for-hire code by recruiting its drivers from among the hundreds of persons whom the City's licensed to drive taxicabs, and then to bypass the strict limit on taxicabs by prohibiting the passengers from specifying which route the drivers will take to the passengers' destinations. (This would make the Uber vehicles not be taxicabs, thanks to a quirk of the City's code.)
A well-connected member of the Laquedemimonde passes along the tantalizing tidbit that despite this loophole being wide open for Uber to transit (so to speak), Uber won't do business with licensed cabdrivers. Why this should be, I do not know.
One unlikely possibility is that Uber hasn't figured out this loophole. I call this unlikely because Uber's lawyers have undoubtedly already parsed the City's code with attention usually reserved for the Talmud or the utterances of the chair of the Federal Reserve. Another more likely reason is that Uber believes that licensed cabdrivers must then charge riders the rates that the City has fixed for taxicabs, without the discounts that Uber usually offers or the surge pricing that it commands in peak times -- or, even worse for Uber and its passengers, that Uber must charge the 35% premium over taxi rates if it is a limousine or executive sedan service
When I read the City's complaint (the filed suit is here), I noticed that the City asserts that Uber's cars violate either the taxicab or the limited passenger transportation (LPT) vehicle rules, meaning that the City doesn't know whether Uber's cars are taxis or not. (The LPT rules are a catchall for anything that doesn't meet the definition of a taxicab.) Whether they are taxicabs depends on whether the drivers let the passengers pick the routes, something the City doesn't know. It should be a jolly bit of litigation.
Uber has an even simpler answer to getting into Portland legally than I'd thought of this morning, which is to get the roster of licensed vehicle operators from the City (the City must sell the roster to Uber if Uber asks; it's a public record) and then to solicit those operators to use their own cars to provide Uber service. Because Uber doesn't need to be licensed if it doesn't operate taxicabs, and because the cars aren't required to be licensed as taxicabs if the passengers can choose the destination but not the route, and because the drivers will be licensed as operators (thus properly tested and insured), Uber's Portland operation will comply with the city code. Presto! Legal Uber!
One thing to keep in mind as the Portland City Council debates the street fee -- charging residents and businesses a fee to maintain the streets, on the ground that the City's revenues aren't sufficient to pay to maintain the streets -- is that this is not a new problem. The City, its residents, and its muffler shops have known for years that the streets have been decaying faster than the City was maintaining them. Something over two years ago, the City announced that it would stop maintaining most streets at all, reserving its paving dollars for arterials and streets needed for emergencies.
A few months earlier, in late 2011, the City Council created the Office of Equity. The Council allocated it $1.2 million from the budget for fiscal year 2013-2014. While $1.2 million won't patch a lot of potholes, it still represented a new program at a time when the City Council was painfully aware (or should have been painfully aware) that it didn't have the money to fund its existing programs.
Another way to look at it is that the Councilors all agreed two years ago, and again last year, that funding the Office of Equity was more important than patching potholes and repairing the streets.
The aftereffects of my celebration of the demise of the Columbia River Crossing took longer to wear off than I expected. I think I'm back to normal now.
Today's paper Oregonian (the story doesn't appear to be online) reports that the Oregon Department of Transportation is running out of money and likely will not be able to undertake new projects or even maintain the existing highways and bridges. The reasons are threefold. First, Oregonians are driving less and using more efficient cars, so gas tax revenues are down. Second, federal grants for state highways will stop when the federal Highway Trust Fund goes dry next year. (Yuxing Zheng of the Oregonian wrote about that on March 28, here.) Third, ODOT is making massive debt service payments of nearly $200 million/year, maxing out at $210 million/year) on the $2.5 billion in bonds it's issued to finance the road and bridge construction projects under the Oregon Transportation Investment Act of 2001 and its successors.
Declining revenues, large debts, no federal funds: what's an agency to do? The public is reluctant to raise taxes to finance even the best highway spending, and residents of low-tax areas of the state, mainly rural, don't like to contribute to funds that they see as mainly spent to help urbanites.
At the same time it must be conceded by all but the most Teaful of the Party that the state gasoline tax is cheaper now, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it's been for years, possibly since our first gasoline tax of 1c/gallon in 1919. From 1967 to 1981 the tax was 7c/gallon, from 1981 to 1984 it was 8c/gallon, increases in 1984, 1985, and 1986 brought it to 11c/gallon. From 1993 to 2011 it was 24c/gallon. In 2011 it was raised to 30c/gallon, where it is today, standing at about 9% of the pretax retail price of gasoline. In 2004 Oregon's tax of 24c was about 19% of the pretax retail price (24c out of $1.35 or so). In 1972 the 7c tax was nearly 30% of the pretax price of 25c/gallon. (The state and federal taxes brought the retail price of branded gasoline to 36c/gallon then.)
Herewith, therefore, the Laquedem Pay to Pave Gas Tax Plan. Let us vote on raising the gasoline tax to 40c/gallon, with the extra 10c devoted 95% to road and bridge maintenance (no new projects) and 5% to what the planner-types call "active transportation": bike paths, sidewalks, wheelchair ramps, and other aids to unpowered mobility (no light rail). The first Laquedem catch is that we'll tally the vote county by county, and impose the tax only in those counties that approve the measure. If you and your neighbors don't want to pay the tax to maintain your state highways, you don't have to pay it.
"Why would anyone vote for it?" you ask. That's the second Laquedem catch: ODOT will be authorized to spend the money only in those counties that approve the tax. If, for example, Curry County rejects the tax, then ODOT may not spend any money from the fund in Curry County. People who are willing to pay for paved highways can have them; people who don't want to pay for paved roads can enjoy their potholes while they salute Ayn Rand.
Ten Washington legislators wrote to the Oregon Legislature, asking our Solons to kill off the Columbia River Crossing Project, the Oregonianreported yesterday. Observing that Clark County has voted against light rail several times, Rep. Liz Pike of Camas asked the legislature not to give in to "special interests who are attempting to override the will of citizens and locally elected county officials."
The story's author, Jeff Manning, quoted this reaction of Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, a prominent supporter of extending light rail across the Columbia: "Individuals like Sen. Ann Rivers, Sen. Don Benton and a couple of local supposed "Republican" Representatives have dismissed the desire of our public. Instead of faithfully representing the will of the representatives of our local community, these individuals are entwined in political expediency, manipulation, and ideological rhetoric."
Did you notice the twist in Mayor Leavitt's statement? The mayor is suggesting that the job of the elected officials is to represent the will "of the representatives of our local community," not actually of the public. In other words, he's implying that Clark County's legislators should be representing Clark County's other elected officials, and not the voters who elected them.
Besides the intriguing descent into meta-representative government that this implies, some facts get in the way of Mayor Leavitt's argument. For instance, on the C-TRAN board, two of the three Clark County commissioners voted against light rail, and two of the three elected representatives of cities other than Vancouver voted against light rail. Rep. Pike is more in touch with the views of the elected officials of Clark County than Mayor Leavitt is giving her credit for.