The two candidates vying to represent a large swath of Portland on the Metro Council say they support the regional government’s proposed payroll tax designed to raise billions for transportation projects and neither said they’d commit to imposing a sunset on the tax if elected.
Mary Nolan and Chris Smith, the candidates competing in a runoff to represent District 5, which covers portions of North, Northwest and Northeast Portland, agreed they aren’t over the moon regarding the $7 billion transportation package or the payroll tax on employers to fund it. Nolan, a former majority leader in the Legislature and city of Portland bureau director, called the package “imperfect” but said the good parts outweigh the bad.
Smith, a retired computer engineer and longtime advocate and representative on influential Portland transportation and planning committees, said the package isn’t what he would design but he believes it will be “ultimately positive” for the region.
The candidates shared many of the same viewpoints on the measure itself – they were uncomfortable with how Metro ended up exempting public employers the same day they voted to refer it to voters, but they agreed there are limited funding options on available.
Smith, long an opponent to the proposed Rose Quarter freeway project, stood apart from Nolan in saying Metro should advocate at the Legislature to divert the legislatively approved $30 million per year for that project to other developments.
The duo made those comments during an endorsement interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Editorial Board on Friday.
Both candidates were asked whether they would impose a sunset on the proposed payroll tax, which voters will decide whether to approve with a maximum rate of .75%. Opponents have argued the tax is permanent, while Metro officials have said it’s too soon to say that.
Nolan and Smith said they would take a wait-and-see approach if voters approve the tax.
“I think there’s plenty of time later to put a sunset on it,” Nolan said. “We need to run the program long enough so we can deliver the projects that the voters would want to approve,” she added.
Smith said he favors starting at a lower rate, .6%, which at least two members of the council endorsed. “I wouldn’t commit to and ending date,” Smith said, noting that a decision like that could be 10 years out and he wouldn’t want to lock future councils into that.
The $7 billion transportation package includes dozens of projects across the tri-county region that would be built over a 15-year period. The biggest ticket item is a 11-mile light rail extension to Bridgeport Village, which is expected to cost nearly $3 billion and would pull in nearly $1 billion from the federal government. Other projects include hundreds of millions of dollars in safety and bus rapid transit projects on Tualatin Valley Highway, 82nd Avenue and McLoughlin Boulevard, three of the most dangerous roads in the metro area.
The measure also includes 20 years of funding for transportation programs, like subsidizing transit passes for all students in the metro region and helping pay for TriMet’s transition to non-diesel buses.
Both Nolan and Smith said the project list does not do enough to address climate change, though Smith said if the region takes concrete steps toward congestion pricing, he believes that combined with the transit improvements would make the measure a net plus for reducing carbon emissions.
Nolan was more pointed. “For the level of investment in this measure, I think it’s inadequate” she said of the climate aspects of the measure.
Smith was quick to describe the region as facing a slew of crises – housing, climate-related and related to racial justice issues. He said he was willing to pursue a Metro takeover of TriMet – an agency which is currently authorized under the state law – though he stopped short of saying exactly what failures he’d need to see to push for that takeover. “TriMet needs to step up to a bigger role in the region,” Smith said. The agency hasn’t done enough to move people around the region and respond to climate change, he said. “We haven’t seen that vision at TriMet yet,” he said.
He highlighted that the TriMet board is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, meaning that legislators from Southern Oregon have as much say over the board in some ways than Portlanders. “I’m not settled on what the right model is, but it should be accountable to the region, not Salem,” he said.
Nolan, the former state legislator, highlighted that she was more of a collaborator than Smith and said she would work with the transit agency. “I think metro can encourage TriMet with some cajoling,” she said, noting that the agency could do more to “think outside the box.”
She said TriMet could become a competitor to Lyft or Uber and mentioned using paratransit-like vehicles to potentially set up a service that would be more accessible and help people book direct trips to parts of the region.
The candidates will debate before Portland City Club Oct. 13 starting at 5:30 p.m.