Portland Auditor Says Transportation Bureau Did Not Monitor Gasoline Tax Spending Closely

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The City of Portland auditor on Thursday said the Portland Transportation Bureau had failed to adequately track and account for gasoline tax money allocated to repair and safety projects for vehicles. streets.

Portland voters in 2016 approved a temporary 10-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline purchased within city limits, and they renewed the tax in 2020.

The Transportation Bureau dubbed the effort the “Fixing Our Streets” program and pledged to use 56% of gasoline tax revenues for road repairs and the remaining 44% for safety improvements. pedestrians and bicycles, especially near schools.

The auditor found in 2019, and again on Thursday, that the city had not closely followed how much money had been spent on repairing roads and how much had been spent on improving pedestrians and bicycles, in especially when the projects incorporated both.

“Projects that had expenses for safety improvements and repairs were not counted separately,” Auditor Mary Hull Caballero’s office said in a press release, “making it impossible for the city to ensure to the public that she kept her promise to voters. “

Transportation Bureau spokeswoman Hannah Schafer said Division 56-44 was a component of the first iteration of the Fixing our Streets funding measure and was not included when voters approved a second version of the project in 2020.

She said the most recent report from the first iteration showed the city spent almost 60% of the budget on maintenance and 40% on security. Gross gasoline tax revenues from 2017 to 2020 were approximately $ 74.7 million.

“While the 56-44 division was a solid compromise in theory, the reality is that project budgets fluctuate as the prices of individual components (steel, asphalt, lumber, etc.) change,” Schafer wrote to The Oregonian / OregonLive in an email.

Schafer also said that many of the first draft projects have been expanded with funding from additional sources. She said this included “simple” paving projects being developed into more comprehensive projects with sidewalks, level crossings and protected cycle paths.

“All of this makes tracking the split difficult, if not impossible, as many projects contain both safety and maintenance aspects,” she said.

Schafer said that when the city sent back a renewal of the program to voters in 2020, it changed the approach, describing voters to a list of specific projects instead of a general percentage split between repair and safety projects. .

These projects, described in a Transportation Bureau report, include $ 25 million for paving busy roads and streets, $ 5 million for new traffic lights and crosswalk markers, $ 6 million for improving safe pedestrian routes near schools and $ 1.5 million in neighborhood safety improvements. .

But the city auditor’s office said in a dashboard created by the Transportation Bureau to track project spending so far, it had not broken down paving and safety items for individual projects.

“As a result, the Bureau will likely encounter the same problems it had in validating the voter engagement of the first iteration of Fixing our Streets,” the report said.

The auditor is unlikely to follow up again. The office usually stops issuing progress reports after the second year following an audit.

Steve Novick, the former Portland city commissioner who crafted the gasoline tax proposal while overseeing the Transportation Bureau, said officials always knew it would be difficult to distinguish between repairs and security – but the fact that voters approved a tax renewal has spoken to its success so far.

He added that for some projects, Transportation Bureau officials may not be comfortable making sharp distinctions in spending for projects that include safety and repair components.

“But they keep the commitment to do lots of repairs and lots of safety projects, and 75% of voters approved of what they did,” he said in an email to The Oregonian / OregonLive .

The renewal of the gasoline tax was adopted with 77% of “yes” votes in May 2020.

– Jayati Ramakrishnan; 503-221-4320; [email protected]; @JRamakrishnanOR


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