Portland auditor says Transportation Bureau failed to closely track gas tax spending – OregonLive


Portland’s city auditor on Thursday said that the Portland Bureau of Transportation failed to adequately track and account for gas tax money earmarked for street repair and safety projects.

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

The Transportation Bureau dubbed the effort the “Fixing Our Streets” program and committed to using 56% of the revenue from the gas tax for road repairs and the remaining 44% for pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements, particularly near schools.

The auditor found in 2019, and again Thursday, that the city hadn’t closely tracked how much money was spent on road repairs and how much was spent on pedestrian and bicycle improvements, particularly when projects incorporated both.

“Projects that had spending for both safety and repair improvements were not accounted for separately,” Auditor Mary Hull Caballero’s office said in a news release, “making it impossible for the city to assure the public it kept its promise to voters.”

Transportation Bureau spokesperson Hannah Schafer that the 56-44 split 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 of the first iteration showed that the city had spent nearly 60% of the budget on maintenance and 40% on safety. The gross revenue from the gas tax from 2017 to 2020 was about $74.7 million.

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

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Schafer also said that many of the projects from the first version were expanded with funding from additional sources. She said that included “simple” paving projects being developed into more comprehensive projects with sidewalks, crossings and protected bikeways.

“All 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 referred a renewal of the program to voters in 2020, it changed the approach, outlining for voters a slate of specific projects instead of a general percentage split between repair and safety projects.

Those projects, outlined in a report by the Transportation Bureau, include $25 million for paving busy roads and neighborhoods streets, $5 million for new traffic signals and pedestrian crossing beacons, $6 million to improve safe walking routes near schools and $1.5 million in neighborhood safety improvements.

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

“As a result, the Bureau will likely encounter the same problems it had validating the commitment to voters from the first iteration of Fixing our Streets,” the report said.

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

Steve Novick, the former Portland city commissioner who crafted the gas tax proposal while overseeing the Transportation Bureau, said officials always knew that it would be challenging to distinguish between repairs and safety — but the fact that voters approved a renewal of the tax spoke to its success so far.

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

“But they are maintaining the commitment to do a lot of repairs and a lot of safety projects, and 75% of the voters approved of what they’ve been doing,” he said in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The gas tax renewal passed with 77% voting “yes” in May 2020.

—Jayati Ramakrishnan; 503-221-4320; jramakrishnan@oregonian.com; @JRamakrishnanOR



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