Opinion » Editorial

When it comes to paying for transportation infrastructure, locals may be paying twice

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In Central Oregon, housing and transportation infrastructure represent two of the region's biggest challenges. With explosive growth in recent decades, people know the housing shortage can drive up rents and make buying more difficult. They also know that certain roads are "avoid at all costs" during certain times of the day, due to congestion.

A recent report, "It's Not About Growth," developed by the Portland-based public relations firm, Hubbell Communications, in partnership with the Bend Chamber and DHM Research, arrived at the conclusion that it's time to start "shifting the conversation in Bend," advocating for people to stop talking about whether growth is a good or bad thing. Instead, people should begin looking at solutions, and toward messaging that can help residents understand the benefits tourism can bring to the region.

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As the report states: "We found speaking to how certain growth-related activities like tourism help the community invest in roads and infrastructure creates a shift in sentiment. If we told participants in our survey that millions of dollars of local tourism taxes go toward roads and infrastructure maintenance—which they do—70% said they felt more positive about promoting tourism in general."

Figuring out how to draw the line between tourists and the benefits they can bring was an important takeaway of the report. One option for drawing that line: a gas tax, which compels visitors to pay something for the use of local roads. Our editorial board has championed this solution in the past.

A proposal for a gas tax failed in 2016, but we hope to see it back on the table sometime soon, following the recommendations released by the Funding Work Group of the City of Bend's Bend Transportation Plan Steering Committee, released Jan. 30. According to the report, funding tools currently in place to fund roads—which include the State Highway Fund, the city's general fund, Transportation System Development Charges and others—are forecasted to bring in about $582 million between 2020 and 2040. The group estimates there's a funding gap of about $223 million for capital uses—the funds needed to build new projects, and that doesn't even include projects in the city's Urban Growth Boundary expansion areas.

A gas tax will start to chip away at Bend's transportation infrastructure needs, but it won't even begin to cover all the costs. Funding projections included in the report estimate that a seasonal gas tax (higher in peak tourist seasons; lower in low seasons) would bring in about $1.87 million per year, or roughly $37 million of the $223 million funding gap.

Meanwhile, a General Obligation Bond could bring in a lot more. In its report, the FWG recommends a bond of approximately $100 million as a "reasonable starting point." The FWG's initial funding assessment proposes a handful of "core tools" to fund transportation, including the GO Bond, the seasonal fuel tax, a Transportation Utility Fee, and possibly a restaurant sales tax and increased Transportation System Development Charges as options to explore.

That represents a combination approach that spreads the cost of transportation needs across a "range of payers," including property owners, new development, visitors, commuter and major employers—but with the GO Bond, it's recommending the largest sum come from property owners.

People in our community often complain about Bend's transportation needs, saying that "they" should do something about it. Local leaders are well on their way toward doing something about it—but it should come as no surprise that the "they" who will be paying for it will be all of us.

City leaders are placing so much focus on this funding issue that they've gone as far as selecting the recent City Council appointee based on how they thought he'd influence support for the GO transportation bond.

Text messages we obtained through a public records request revealed a text exchange between Mayor Sally Russell and Karna Gustafson, co-chair of the FWG and also a representative of the builder's association, in which the two posited that Republican Chris Piper would be more likely to spur voters to support a bond. Would that, in the minds of the people pulling for Piper, mean the public would see a more "balanced" council as less biased, less tax-happy? Or was it that the people who advocated for Piper—such as the Bend Chamber, local builders and realtors—would only sign on to support a bond if they got the council appointment they wanted? Since that Council appointment was handled so poorly—away from the text messages and emails that are subject to records requests and community scrutiny, we don't have the information necessary to answer those important questions.

Because of this, Bend finds itself in interesting times. Voters may soon be asked not only to support a gas tax, but also to support adding more to locals' property tax bills in order to fund transportation infrastructure. And as we know, having new roads also helps get new housing built faster.

How important will transportation needs be to voters when they're asked to pay in at least two different places? It may, like the "It's Not About Growth" report states, come down to local leaders being able to adequately communicate the financial needs to the community, and to tie them to tax-based solutions. Yet after the botched, opaque Council selection process, we have our doubts.

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