Gas taxes, Jeff Mapes, Russ Walker and enviros

Steve Novick

I don’t know that I’ve blogged much about transportation – I’m no expert. But in the past week or so I’ve read a book by Jeff Mapes, a quote from anti-public-services activist Russ Walker, and a letter from major players in the Oregon environmentalist / conservationist community to legislative leaders and the Governor that, together, prompted a few thoughts.

Mapes’ book was very uplifting. “Pedaling Revolution” is about bicycle culture and bicycle transportation politics around the country and the world.  Mapes shows that there’s a movement afoot – excuse me, apedal – all over the place, from Portland (of course) to Davis, California to New York City (yes, really) to Europe to make streets more bike-friendly.  It’s not a naïve movement: where it’s been tried, it actually works – when it’s made feasible, a significant number of people will travel by bike. (George Will notwithstanding.) And we’d better do all we can to encourage this movement – because if we want to stop spending more and more money on health care, if we want an insurance policy against the high gas prices of the future, if we don’t want global warming, bicyclists are out best friends.  They’re cheap in all the right ways: It doesn’t cost much to make streets bike-friendly, bicyclists are healthier and less likely to get diabetes and other expensive conditions, we don’t have to send armies to the Middle East to get gas for them.

The letter from environmental leaders to legislators and the Governor was depressing.  The Oregon Environmental Council, 1000 Friends, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Environment Oregon and OLCV wrote to say that they supported the Jobs and Transportation Act introduced at the beginning of the session, but they don’t like what’s happened to it.  According to the enviros, the original JTA required that 1.5% of street and highway expenditures (up from the current 1% requirement) be spent on bike and pedestrian facilities.  It authorized $35 million in lottery-backed bonds to keep the Amtrak Cascades train running in Oregon. It required that the six major metro areas adopt land use and transportation plan amendments based on a strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.  Now, the enviros say, those provisions have all been stripped out.  I don’t know that the 1.5% part is the most important to the greens – but after reading Mapes’ book, I found it especially depressing.  New York City has a revolutionary transportation leader creating hundreds of miles of bike lanes and hiring David Byrne of the Talking Heads to design bike racks – and we can’t spend 1.5% of road money on bike and pedestrian projects? 

The quote from Russ Walker was predictable.  He said that he might not gather signatures to refer a tax increase on the wealthy to the ballot; he might just focus on the gas tax.  I guess the guy can read a poll.

Now, I know that the Legislature has a tough job. I know they want to get Republican votes, and maybe going from 1% to 1.5% for walkers and bikers would have cost them some Republican votes. But I ask them to remember this.  The last time Oregon voters considered a gas tax – I though it was in 1998, but the Secretary of State’s web site says it was 2000 – it was a gas tax approved by a Republican Legislature. It was also a gas tax that the conservation community refused to support, because there wasn’t much in it for them to like, and because it repealed the weight-mile tax on trucks, which green transportionists thought was a very bad idea. 

What did the voters do with this Republican-approved gas tax? They rejected it 87.5% to 12.5%.   Apparently, that’s what Republican legislators’ support for a gas tax gets ya: 12.5%.   The vote count was 767,329 to 109,741.  And 29,090 of the ‘yes’ votes were from Multnomah County, where I doubt the Republican legislators’ support was very influential. 

I’m not saying that conservationist support for a transportation bill guarantees that voters will support it.  But I do think that legislators need to think twice before assuming that, in the event of a referral, it’s more important to have Republican legislators than conservationists on their side.  

  • meg (unverified)

    Bike registration fees.

  • (Show?)

    I know what you're saying, Meg, but I'd hold off on that until we've gotten a few more people on their bikes. Healthy people are hugely subsidizing unhealthy people through health insurance premiums and taxes for Medicaid and Medicare, so I suspect bicyclists, being generally healthier, aren't really getting away with anything.

  • (Show?)

    Bike Registration fees were floated during this session and ones prior as well.

    Besides it being flatly unpopular, it fails two important tests of public policy:

    1. Equity/pay as you go: Almost no bike riders are car-free, so they all pay gas taxes, yet the fraction of gas taxes that support bike infrastructure is less than 20% of what would be equitable per the current mode split. Studies show that cyclists pay more than their share, and get less in return. Moreover, sidewalk engineering for pedestrians are much more expensive than striping a bike lane, but there are no calls for a "tennis-shoe-tax."

    2. Feasibility: To charge bike riders a rate equal for driver licensing or car registration simply doesn't pay for the state to administer, because the volume of cyclists is so small, there's no benefit of scale, so it would costs the state general fund / otherwise reduce more proper government spending.

    The other big picture impact, is that anything that discourages cycling, has significant downstream costs in healthcare and in nursing along our addiction to oil-based transportation.

    We don't have to force our grandmothers to ride bikes to family christmas, and we don't have become daily bike commuters ourselves, but when given the chance to proportionally spend transportation revenues to the cheapest and cleanest alternative people are already choosing, let's get things rolling!

  • Jesse O (unverified)

    We've debated bike registration again and again.

    Here's an interesting breakdown on the transportation package and benefits by county, per resident.

  • (Show?)

    OK, enough about the bike reg fee distraction. Let's get back on topic and discuss the substance of Steve's post. We can go off on tangents later.

  • Assegai Up Jacksey (unverified)

    Policy aside, here's a dirty little secret, already born out in the US data of the last 5 years.

    The Netherlands, Germany, Italy- most of Europe- tax gas at 10x per liter what the US does. They've done that since long before there was a global warming debate, when people weren't driving big cars, making single passenger trips, and were using a lot of mass and alternative transit.

    15 years later...they're buying and using cars EXACTLY like Americans. A "billy" waiting to get out of every European. It has not dented sales one iota. They've skyrocketed. Ford is doing great in Europe.

    The moral of the story is that the public will groan, vote the government out, threaten revolution, cry a river...and then pay it. They'll pay and pay and pay. I think what that says for leaving any policy decision to people that obviously can't act in their own long term interest, and what it says for the latitude government really has to solve the problem, should be considered carefully.

    You certainly don't base the decision on a poll. I'm sure 90% of Germans think their gas taxes suck big green donkey dongs, are repressive, and are mad as hell. The fact is, the German government is in a much better position on this than we are. It's called leadership.

  • Cosmogonic Irregularity (unverified)

    Brainstorm! As well as the way topics rotate through and disappear from the front page, why not have a set of permanent topics? If Sam and climate change and bike registration and gay marriage are never ending debates, then don't end them! That's why people spam onto other topics. They're not done talking. I really think that would cut down on cross-talk. You would be able to mercilessly nuke anything off topic without being accused of censorship, because it would be clear it simply wasn't the time and place. And those debates aren't useless. Occasionally (very) they might produce a new and interesting point, which might then find its way back onto the front page via a new post. Another reason would be that looking through the archives, there are a lot of examples where people continue to talk to the void for months and years after a topic is posted.

  • Jim (unverified)

    Steve, I think your points should be made as clear as day to every Democrat and every politician in the Portland Metro area.

    This transportation bill has cut out almost every environmentally preferable transportation project. There will likely be strong support for a referral of this bill by those who support a balanced transportation bill.

    And the spending in counties outside the metro area is approximately 4 times per capita that within the metro area. This is a massive shift of public resources from the metro area to projects in the rest of Oregon. Make no mistake, every Portland area voter will soon know that this bill does not help the Portland area ( eg. no funds to help for the Sellwood Bridge, only help for one approach ramp) and further subsidizes the rest of the state.

    If the Oregon Legislature wants a transportation act, they better go back and start over.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)

    Steve Novick:

    And we’d better do all we can to encourage this movement

    Bob T:

    So long as encourage means just that, and not force.

    Bob Tiernan Portland

  • Insider (unverified)

    The 2009 Jobs and Transportation Act is the most environmentally-friendly transportation package ever negotiated and soon-to-be-passed in Oregon. It includes: $24 million per year in new flexible funds for non-road projects $3 million per year in new bike/ped funds $100 million in one-time multi-modal funds for rail, marine, aviation, and transit projects Authority for the tri-county area to enact a new local vehicle registration fee to fund an environmentally-friendly Sellwood Bridge replacement immediately -- and to enact a local vehicle registration fee for any purpose after four years New MPO Planning language and funding to better incorporate transportation and land use planning in the Portland metro and Eugene/Springfield areas Authority for Tri-Met and LTD to increase their local funding and access more federal money to expand transit New state money for transit operations A major investment in reducing congestion on Oregon's state, county, and city roads -- thereby reducing air pollution * Etc., etc.

    And all this is in a TRANSPORTATION package. When is the last time you saw an environmental bill that did something to support road transportation?

    If environmental activists threaten and kill this package, Oregon's economy and environment will be the victims.

  • Anonymous (unverified)

    Nice slur. Calling someone you disagree with an "anti-public-services activist" is an intentional distortion.

    Typical Novick -- personal attacks all the way, and no room for respectful disagreement.

  • billy (unverified)

    There is a very simple way to get a gas tax increase passed:

    Promise that 100% of ALL gas taxes will go to increasing road capacity and congestion relief and ZERO for freeloaders like bikes, peds and transit.

    But of course, the goal here is to get drivers to support special interests that want a free ride because they think they are better than the rest of us. They aren't.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    I respectfully suggest that the best way to insure passage of a fuel tax increase is doing away with the silly prohibition against self serve that Oregon shares with only one other state.

    Regarding the overall transportation package, one provision is a sure fire winner for Vanvouver, WA - Authority for the tri-county area to enact a new local vehicle registration fee to fund an environmentally-friendly Sellwood Bridge replacement immediately -- and to enact a local vehicle registration fee for any purpose after four years

  • Jim (unverified)

    Insider - your really are going to have to tell me that if this is what aids 'balanced' transportation, how it 'balances' against $500 million of road projects, heavily skewed outside the Metro area.

    $24 million per year in new flexible funds for non-road projects that share is good for about 2 sidewalks in Portland $3 million per year in new bike/ped funds make that 3 sidewalks $100 million in one-time multi-modal funds for rail, marine, aviation, and transit projects just like Connect Oregon, subsidizing more $750 flights to non-used airports in Newport and Astoria Authority for the tri-county area to enact a new local vehicle registration fee to fund an environmentally-friendly Sellwood Bridge replacement immediately -- and to enact a local vehicle registration fee for any purpose after four years we get to tax ourselves so the state can send the gas tax funds outstate New MPO Planning language and funding to better incorporate transportation and land use planning in the Portland metro and Eugene/Springfield areas Metro and Lane are doing fine - the whole point was to get this statewide Authority for Tri-Met and LTD to increase their local funding and access more federal money to expand transit we get to tax ourselves so the state can send the gas tax funds outstate New state money for transit operations how much * A major investment in reducing congestion on Oregon's state, county, and city roads -- thereby reducing air pollution this is pure BS - moving MORE traffic FASTER does not reduce pollution - it never has, and it never will - this is pure highway lobby talking point

  • Robert Collins (unverified)

    "we don’t have to send armies to the Middle East to get gas for them. "

    Typical Novick statement. Inflammatory posturing. You definitely belong in politics.

    That being said, the biggest bicycle culture in the world, China, is dumping bicycles and building automobiles as fast as they possibly can.

  • Jonathan Radmacher (unverified)


    I really think we should aspire to be more like China. So astute on population control. No problems with pollution and acid rain. No coal-burning. They're just great.

    Is it possible that China dumping bicycles and buying cars because many Chinese can afford to do that? That would put them a couple of decades behind us -- consuming because they can, without thinking about the consequences. We should move to bicycles now not because we can't afford cars, but because we can't afford not to drive them less.

  • Terry Parker (unverified)

    Far too much of the burden of paying for bicycle infrastructure and transit alternatives has been discriminately placed on the backs of motor vehicle taxpayers. Increasing the gas tax and motor vehicle fees should NOT even be considered unless it is combined with a bicycle tax, bicycle license and/or bicycle registration fee. Although Oregon’s gas tax has not been raised since 1993, a bicycle tax paid by bicyclists has been a missing leg of the transportation taxing stool for a much longer period of time.

    Millions of dollars are being spent on bicycle infrastructure, often negatively impacting motor vehicle travel. As an example, 1.9 million dollars is currently being spent on the misaligned priority to add a bike lane to the Morrison Bridge in Portland. That dangerously compromises the safety of motorists who continually must cross the slippery worn out grading on the draw span, now in narrower lanes. Numerous injury crashes have occurred before the lanes narrowed even sending a vehicle into the river. The priority use of motorist paid transportation dollars should be to replace the grading.

    The Sellwood Bridge is another example of where bicycling community needs to be taxed to pay their share. An average of about 30,000 cars and trucks use the current Sellwood Bridge on a daily basis. Yet, only about 50 percent of the deck surface on the chosen replacement design is allocated for motor vehicles. Even with the wildest projections, the numbers of bicyclists and pedestrians added together using a new bridge in 2030 only add up to about one-fourth the number of motor vehicles that use the current bridge today. The deck surface for motor vehicles is being rationed while the deck space for bicycles and pedestrians is unnecessarily super-sized. Therefore, bicyclists and the residents in the Sellwood Neighborhood who will use the sidewalks on the bridge need to be kicking in a proportional amount of the funding that would be in total, an equal match to the motorist paid funds allocated. .

    An equitable, balanced and just transportation funding package requires a multi-legged tax stool whereby the users of all vehicle modes of transport are directly taxed to pay for the specialized infrastructure being used. Iinstead of just receiving a freeloader pass and ranting for more money to be spent on bicycle infrastructure, the pedal pusher bicyclists themselves, and NOT motorists, need to be the ones that pay for this specialized infrastructure.

    Finally, the proposed increase in motor vehicle registration fees is much too high and will negatively impact small businesses, low income and working class Oregonians. The $43 a year needs to be scaled back to a figure in the range of $30 to $35 dollars a year, and then also apply to bicycles to make up the difference.

  • (Show?)

    Terry, as has been shown repeatedly, car drivers need to be PAYING bikers to ride, because it's the car owners who incur the greatest social costs. Every additional biker makes it CHEAPER for a car owner to drive, not more expensive. Get a clue.

    How is it a cheap shot to call Russ Walker an anti public services activist? That's what he is--he fights against funding of public services. And how is it inflammatory to point out that bikes don't run on gas, and we tend to get a lot of gas from the Middle East?

  • Terry Parker (unverified)

    “Every additional biker makes it CHEAPER for a car owner to drive, not more expensive”

    torridjoe – One less car is one less taxpayer. You must be tuned in to the deceptive BTA oratory listening post that continually attempts to scam the public into thinking constructing bicycle infrastructure for freeloaders saves drivers money. There is no free lunch. If the bicyclists don’t pay for bicycle infrastructure, somebody else does. That usually means discriminating against motorists and poaching the money from motorist paid roadway funds.

    The two examples I posted - spending $1.9 million to add a bike lane to the Morrison Bridge and replacing the current Sellwood Bridge with a bridge that has nearly more space for bicycles then for cars - proves my point. On the Morrison Bridge, instead of constructing the bike lane, the $1.9 million could have been used towards fixing the worn out grading on the lift spans, which still needs to be done, and therefore drivers must pay twice. As for the Sellwood Bridge, the simple fact is that if bicyclists were directly taxed to pay for their proportional share of the deck space and superstructure, it would cost motor vehicle owners half as much.

    Because bicyclists don’t pay for what they use and rant for, nor do they follow the traffic laws designed to keep all of us safe - deceiving and scamming the public is what bicyclists do best.

  • Perpugilliam Brown (unverified)

    - deceiving and scamming the public is what bicyclists do best.

    That's rich, coming from an auto salesman!

  • Democrat (unverified)

    Steve - this is not really off topic because ultimately here you are talking about your view and acting on your desire to shape public policy. Some of us have no way to reach you or talk to you privately, and would not be so presumptuous as to intrude that way without being first invited. We instead have to wait until you speak publicly in a public forum such as here to speak publicly to you.

    We as Democrats need someone from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party to run against Ron Wyden in 2010. From health care to economic equity to foreign policy in the Mideast, he has abandoned most of the defining principles of the Democratic Party as the party that speaks for working people, and instead has chosen to become the representative of the power elite as you'll find anywhere in DC, albeit with a carefully choreographed NW pseudo-liberal facade. He simply has the audacity, and sadly an awareness of the credulity of his core NW urban liberal elite audience in Oregon, to lie to our face.

    As a good Democrat, I know you will have little choice here but to say you don't agree. But some of us have enough perspective to well understand the level of denial Blue Oregonians tend to cling to, as how in these pages you see blind defense of any politician who cynically puts a "D" next to their name regardless of what they actually stand for and do, and the unfortunate practical political constraints that puts on anyone who seeks public office in Oregon.

    It's obviously unreasonable to ask you to make that run again and go up against Wyden in the 2010 primary (especially since the talk here is that you're thinking about the Governor's race. But I'm asking anyway. You have proven you can stand up with a fresh, principled voice and against what has recently been termed the "feckless" core of both political parties.

    If you feel you can't be the one, I make the plea on behalf of every Democratic voter I I've talked to here in Oregon for at least the last two years: Would you at least help us in the grassroots raise the conversation about the change we desperately need in Democratic Party to help create the environment that can bring forth a candidate who will once again restore those values that made the Democratic Party the principled voice it once was for working people and the disenfranchised?

    Before you launch into even an obligatory rebuttal of this comment, Steve, I would just ask you to listen fairly and carefully to Wyden's cynical and hypocritical new commercial on 620KPOJ for his re-election campaign. You may not be able to answer him as I do, and perhaps you even disagree and so aren't the candidate we need, even though we still need your voice. Nonetheless I answer to him thus: No Ron, just because you claim you have "split the baby" on health care reform, one of the defining issues of the Democratic Party and the values we will stand for over the next decade, some of us know the truth that you have not because we know the issue. We also are horrified at your the character you display in claiming that because you have "split-the-baby" and supposedly have upset all sides is an argument you must be doing the right thing.

    Thanks for reading this Steve.

  • Democrat (unverified)

    Now I'll address your comment Steve: In honesty and respect, I have to say your argument for bike and pedestrian projects is little more than an amusing, throw-away political appeal to the elitist, urban-liberal wing of the base. Bicycles have a limited positive role in the ways you say, but they simply are not the game changing transportation reform, and particularly so in a maritime rural state like Oregon, that your argument invites readers to believe.

    Nor have you provided any serious discussion of what really went on in the legislature and why fighting for 1.5% rather than 1% for bike and pedestrian projects on behalf of that elitist, urban-liberal contingent would have been in the best interest of the state in view of the real problems the vast majority of people in our state face. I think it would have been a very unpersuasive argument, frankly. The fact they didn't have any influence is the important thing to notice.

    The big problem with your comment is how you mainly just mouth the unsupported argument by the professional, elitist, urban-enviro lobbyists for that community that the Democratic super-majority capitulated to a Republic minority. That's of course smart, but utterly transparent, politics by that professional lobbying community. And it certainly will get the bowels in an uproar of the small activist base who have that narrow perspective those groups represent.

    And please don't resort to quoting the size of their membership, at least based on numbers of those who have casually contributed dollars or signed a membership form. Unless, that is, you support the supposed probative value of those numbers by demonstrating that those members can express an understanding of the particulars of the legislative agendas of those organization and how the transportation bill was specifically responsive to those particulars.

    What we are seeing actually is further evidence of a community that continues to render themselves ignorable because they have chosen to devote their energies to simplistic, almost cartoonish viewpoints. Just because they parasitically attach themselves to issues and projects which have much wider support, like the Amtrak Cascades, and general but vague ideas of conservation and alternative transportation, doesn't bring their core agenda and themselves credibility or power. Because of their self-centered efforts around myopic, elitist, views, they are easily marginalized by politicians across the spectrum: Their influence is so easily satirized that those they have little choice except to get on the bandwagon and support for can ignore them and those they don't vote for face no risk in spurning them.

    You're appealing here to a base Steve that understandably seems key to the calculus of your next political move. By your own argument on their behalf, I wonder if that community really is that key to the political fortunes of anyone we actually need in office? Or if that community actually has much to offer when it comes to getting done the things we need to get done in Oregon? I hope you'll think about that and what that means for your message and goals.

  • (Show?)

    Really? You're a Democrat?

    I'm shocked that you attack Steve for asking that only 98.5% of investments go to cars, instead of 99%.

    A quarter of Oregonians CANNOT DRIVE. Those people - whether they're our kids, the poor, the sick, etc. deserve choices too. That's not an urban liberal thing to say, that's a very basic thought that the most vulnerable in our society deserve some basic respect. Which is why Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon testified exactly to that fact at the transportation hearing.

    Virtually everyone walks. About two-thirds of Oregonians own bikes. This is simply about choices, and as two-thirds of existing "1%" money goes for pedestrian projects, it's hard to understand how supporting walking is an elitist conspiracy or something not everyone supports.

    The elitist position is to imply the poor, young, old, and infirm should not have the transportation choices the 75% of the rest of us have. And that not all Oregonians should be able to have choices about how to get around.

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