Let's say, in a perfect world, everyone could agree that government needed more money to build up a transportation network.
How, exactly, do you spend that money in a way that leaves everyone feeling like they got their money's worth?
Members of the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation tackled that topic Thursday, in an open-ended conversation that followed a chat from Rep. Earl Blumenauer.
Blumenauer has been beating the drums of a gas tax increase for months, noting that the federal gas tax hasn't been raised since 1991. Without any increases, the federal government has to take money from other tax revenue – namely, the income tax – to cover road construction costs.
With transportation projects competing with the military, social programs and education for federal general fund dollars, there's less money available to build roads and other transportation improvements in the United States.
Blumenauer, a Democrat from Portland, proposed a bill last year that would raise the 18 cent-a-gallon gas tax to its inflation-adjusted 1991 value – around 33.4 cents a gallon – and peg it to inflation so the tax doesn't lose value every year.
Meanwhile, people are driving less and their cars get better mileage.
"The gas tax is in a downward spiral that ain't gonna change," Blumenauer said. In contrast, he said, "Half the American public thinks the gas tax goes up every year."
He said his proposed increase was the first such proposal in 21 years.
"There's a reason nobody's introduced it (a tax increase) in 21 years – it's not particularly popular in some quarters," Blumenauer told JPACT. "The gas tax has become a proxy for people's crankiness about gasoline prices, oil uncertainty and volatility."
But, he said, the overwhelming majority of Americans thinks the country needs to invest in infrastructure.
"We need to do it through a user fee, and the majority would even increase it," Blumenauer said.
He pointed to cities in right-leaning states that are embarking on tax-funded transportation projects, like Houston's plan to build 150 miles of bike trails around that sprawling city. Half of the proposal's $200 million cost will come from private donations.
Phoenix is in the planning stages for expanding the city's six-year-old, $1.4 billion, 20-mile-long light rail line. By comparison, Portland MAX system will be 59 miles long when the Orange Line opens next year.
"How do we engage the public on the issues of value?" Blumenauer asked JPACT. "It's the vision. What is it that people actually want, expect and we can deliver on?"
After Blumenauer left, JPACT engaged in a lengthy discussion.
"While we were a leader, we're probably not there right now," said TriMet general manager Neil McFarlane said. "That is a different place for us to be in as a region."
Later in the meeting, it became clear that there is no one vision for what the people of the Portland region want. Unlike last quarter of the 20th century, when there was a clear public sentiment opposed to the Mt. Hood Freeway, and westside residents pushed for MAX to extend to Hillsboro instead of merely ending in Beaverton or Aloha, there's little regional agreement on where transportation money should be spent.
Most transportation agencies push for an austerity-oriented "fix-it-first" mentality on highways, making it even harder to make the case for increasing the gas tax, simply to maintain the existing system.
"We've taken great pains to do the best we could with the money we had," said Rian Windsheimer, interim director of ODOT's Portland region. "We bonded out to replace failing bridges and replaced a huge number of them – but now we're paying for that. We tried to do the best we can, and almost covered up the problem of funding to this point."
Vancouver City Councilmember Jack Burkman said his state faces similar problems – construction projects were bonded, so the gas taxes of the past will be on the books for decades, paying off bonds that paid for construction a few years ago.
"Now they're (the public) not recognizing the projects they got, because memories are short and they go, 'That's nice, what do you have for me now?'" Burkman said.
Even if there was money for big new construction projects, several JPACT members said the multi-modal nature of the region's transportation priorities makes it hard to get behind one thing.
"The perception of the citizens is… if you're going to increase the gas tax, what do I get for the money?" said Clackamas County Commissioner Paul Savas. "In Clackamas County, our topography and our issues where our employment lands are – the lack of transportation linkages to highways is a big issue."
Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick, who has spent the summer pitching some sort of new funding stream for his city's transportation system, said it can be hard to convince the public that money is well spent.
"In every local government, people think the money is being spent on 'other unimportant stuff,'" Novick said.
Earlier in the meeting, Novick pointed out a bit of fiscal reality the transportation bureau is facing as it considers a fee hike.
"We did a calculation using AAA figures," Novick said, "and concluded that a typical household is spending $49 a month on gas taxes and registration fees – as opposed to $80 a month on cable TV."