Backstory to the Upcoming May 19th Transportation Bond Request

assembled group @ Commute Options
Bend City Manager Eric King making his pitch in support of the 2020 Transportation Bond @ Commute Options

An updated Transportation System Plan (TSP) has been over two years in the making.  This policy and planning document sets State-mandated policy and planning guidelines and is the culmination of work that the Citywide Transportation Advisory Committee did with consultants and City staffers in countless hours of public meetings, focus groups, neighborhood association workshops, as well as public polling. Combined, they will inform not only the TSP, but also a potential major funding source for transportation projects: a May 2020 Transportation Bond for improvements and new construction.

For the latest Bond project list,
which include a map and costs, click here.

It’s a historic ask from Bend City Council to voters, weighing in at $190 million, per the latest proposed ballet language (additional info here), which the Council will vote to accept this Wednesday, February 5th.  That will give everyone, including the Bend Bikes Advocacy Team, the chance to fully digest what’s been included and excluded from the bond’s project list, as it has been a bit of a moving target these past few weeks. Additionally, Councilors will vote on a resolution noting their intent to form a Bond Oversight Committee with community members should the bond measure pass, as well as language which ties the bond to a list of projects which were vetted by CTAC, City Staff and ultimately the Council itself.

Why would the current City Council desire this additional resolution?  This excerpt from the resolution may speak to the motivation: (emphasis added)

“The Council recognizes that it has limited power to bind future Councils. However, because of the importance of voter involvement and oversight of the expenditure of bond proceeds, and to build trust with voters, the Council intends that the Committee continue until all projects funded by the bond proceeds authorized by the May 2020 ballot measure are completed.”

How did we get here?

As Bend grows, transportation challenges are a top concern across the community. We can’t meet these needs without building and maintaining our street infrastructure, and that costs money. The City of Bend has limited funds available, and City Council believes that voters may be willing to pay more in taxes in order to see important improvements built.

Bend receives $528/year for a median tax
assessed home, compared to a similarly
sized city such as Beaverton, which
receives $1,072/year.

Why aren’t our existing taxes enough to pay for these improvements? Bend, like other cities across Oregon, has its permanent property tax rate locked per legislation from the early 1990s. What’s unique about Bend’s situation is that its permanent tax rate is one of the lowest across the state. Our fair city receives fewer property tax dollars compared to others in Oregon, leading to very limited funds to meet its transportation needs.

GO Transportation bond presentation
Excerpt from presentation by City Manager Eric King and City Councilor Gena Goodman-Campbell.  Click to download the full presentation.

To augment our comparatively-limited property tax revenues, Councilors recently upped the System Development Charges (SDCs) levied on the construction of new housing. SDCs are currently the main source of revenue for constructing transportation projects in Bend. During a presentation at Commute Options this past Thursday to a group of active transportation supporters gathered by Bend Bikes, Eric King, Bend City Manager, said he expected the current rate of SDCs to bring in approximately $13 million per year based on current projections.  That sounds to be a fair bit of money, but taken in context it is less so: just two roadway extensions such as the ones for Murphy and Empire Roads are expected to cost about $60 million. SDCs have other drawbacks: they may only be used to construct projects on a specific list, and they fluctuate according to the economy. During the recession, SDC revenues hit a low of about $1 million, which was barely enough to meet SDC debt service on bonded projects.

Goodman-Campbell @ Commute Options
City Councilor Gena Goodman-Campbell making his pitch in support of the 2020 Transportation Bond @ Commute Options

Pile on a big helping of dwindling state and federal dollars for city streets, and this less-than abundant financial picture now puts City Council in the uneasy position of asking voters to tax themselves to the tune of about $170/year on average per household.

Even if voters pass this $190 million bond, it’s worth mentioning that bond funds alone won’t be enough to cover all the new construction and improvements that Bend’s roads need.  What’s more, bonded dollars cannot be used for maintenance and operations. Additional revenue sources may be necessary to build what we need and keep what we have in good order.

For a deep dive on funding needs and
potential sources, see page 63 onwards
of this draft funding strategy from CTAC.

What’s next?

Wednesday’s Council vote to send the bond to the May ballot will be a key one, since it’s been identified as a key funding source for transportation updates.  As it stands now, final adoption of the updated TSP is anticipated to happen in June, after the ballot. At the January 22nd CTAC Steering Committee meeting, assembled Councilors felt it was the best way to maintain the fragile coalition they’ve cobbled together in support of the bond measure. Past that, November’s election looms large with four Bend City Council seats in play.  Future councils can have a large impact on the direction of our future transportation system despite any resolutions current council passes.

Regardless of what happens with the updated TSP and the bond, Bend Bikes will work support active transportation as individual projects come before City Council for budgetary approval. Stay tuned if you’d like to learn how you can support those ongoing efforts.