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Cities debate charging for roads.

Byline: MATT COOPER The Register-Guard

As Eugene and Springfield consider ways to fill truck-sized potholes in their street funds, it's come to this: telling the residents and businesses who've been using the roads that it's time to pay up.

Both cities' elected councils on Monday will consider adopting "transportation system maintenance fees," which means residents and businesses would pay monthly fees based on their use of city streets.

That's only the half of it: Early next year the cities will consider adding an approximate 3-cent local gas tax to the price of a gallon - and doing it before the gasoline lobby can convince the Legislature to stop them.

The funding crisis for street repair has been building for a long time, said Eric Jones, a spokesman for Eugene Public Works.

"In Springfield, their street fund operating budget has been getting leaner and leaner," he said. "(In Eugene) we've been increasingly unable to keep up with a backlog of repair projects, mounting for years."

Both cities blame the state's stagnant gas tax - unchanged since 1993, Jones said - for failing to bring in revenue that keeps pace with the ever-rising costs of maintaining streets.

Both also note the cutbacks in funding from road partnership agreements with Lane County, which itself has endured a drop in revenue from federal timber harvests.

The upshot?

Eugene's street fund is $7.3 million - enough to pay for ongoing operation and routine maintenance, Jones said, but insufficient to address the monstrous backlog of needed projects totaling $93 million.

Springfield, meanwhile, pulls in about $3 million annually and spends $4 million, said technical services manager Len Goodwin.

The city plans to cut $1 million in projects before the budget cycle beginning next July. Even then, Goodwin added, the street fund will run dry in June 2004 without new money.

"(State) gas tax revenue isn't getting any bigger," Goodwin said. "Expenditures keep going up, everything costs more with general inflation, and the system is larger - we have 180 miles of streets, compared with 160 miles 20 years ago."

If the Springfield council supports it Monday, Springfield's road user fee could start showing up on Springfield Utility Board bills as early as next July, Goodwin said.

He's confident city leaders favor some version of a fee-tax combination, but that's a bigger question on the other side of Interstate 5.

Eugene Mayor Jim Torrey said he believes his City Council is split evenly on the fee issue, with two potential swing votes.

Torrey himself cast the tie-splitting vote last August to reject a fee ordinance, but has since had a change of heart:

"If it's a tie vote, I'll vote to support the transportation user fee," he said. "I just don't see the state providing us any additional revenues. (The county) is not prepared to do anything. We just can't wait; the roads won't fix themselves."

Such sentiment doesn't win Torrey points at the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber flatly opposes a transportation user fee without an accompanying gas tax, contending that the cost to businesses and property owners could be egregious, said Terry Connolly, director of government affairs.

The chamber is more agreeable to a fee-tax combination, Connolly said, but on these conditions: a reduction in fees assessed to users of storm water drainage; a commitment that much of the street work will go to the private sector; a pledge to keep administrative costs down; and a guarantee that the money raised will go solely to the backlog of road projects, not other city needs.

"We would want to make certain that the public sees their potholes being filled," Connolly said. "We don't want the revenue raised and spent as overhead and engineering. Put the money on the ground and take care of the (backlog) problem - there should not be the administrative costs."

Where the gas tax is concerned, the cities could face an even bigger problem at the state level.

The Oregon Gasoline Dealers Association and Oregon Petroleum Marketers Association intend to lobby the Legislature to keep cities from enacting a local tax that disrupts the playing field on which gas stations compete for business, said Brent DeHart, president of the gasoline dealers association.

If cities pass gas taxes, owners of gas stations there won't be able to compete with those outside city limits, DeHart said. Station owners, he said, would have two choices: pay the additional tax themselves - a potentially exorbitant monthly cost - or add 3 cents to the price of a gallon, and watch motorists drive outside the city for better prices.

"It's incredibly unfair to tax the one station, when the one across the street is not taxed," DeHart said.

As opposed to the "piecemeal, quilt-like situation" of city-approved gas taxes, DeHart said, the gasoline associations are pushing Salem for a uniform solution: raising gas prices 3 cents across the state, and ensuring that the additional money goes back to the cities and counties, not the state Department of Transportation.

He hopes the proposal will entice cities that don't want the political bruise of passing a local gas tax, and constituents who want the money returning to their streets.

"This money is designated toward the local streets and roads," DeHart said. "It's more palatable than a statewide increase that goes to ODOT."

PAYING FOR STREETS

The Eugene and Springfield city councils on Monday will consider ordinances to charge residents and businesses for road maintenance. Both also will consider an approximate 3-cent local gas tax early next year.

Eugene: Residents could pay $2.90 per month; businesses, depending on size, could pay from $20 to $1,150 monthly. For more information, visit www.ci.eugene.or.us/pw/streets/ or call 682-5010.

Springfield: Residents could pay $1.75 per month; businesses from $20 to $550 monthly. For more information, visit www.ci.springfield.or.us/dept_pw.htm (transportation system and pavement needs) or call 726-3700.
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Title Annotation:Funding: Claiming to face a backlog of projects, Eugene and Springfield will look at fees or a gas tax.; General News
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 8, 2002
Words:981
Previous Article:Rules made moot will get the boot.
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