The deplorable congestion on Portland-area freeways and roads is more than an aggravation that sends blood pressure spiking and makes people late for appointments all over town.
Ever-present traffic jams harm the region's economy, health and environment as productivity suffers, idling cars send fumes into the air, and freight movement is impeded. These consequences have been amply documented over the years by cost-of-congestion studies, and any Portland-area motorist can attest that the problems are only getting worse.
For those reasons, we agree with Oregon legislators and transportation advocates who say something must be done. The Oregon Department of Transportation doesn't have the best management record, which means legislators also should insist that new spending be accompanied by more active oversight.
However, despite our misgivings about ODOT, it would be unwise to forgo what could be a bipartisan opportunity in the Legislature for major transportation investments.
The legislative package, still in the joint transportation committee as of Monday, raises money in a variety of ways, including increases in gas taxes and registration fees, surcharges for bicycles and electric cars, a small tax on new and used vehicle purchases and a commitment to use tolls when appropriate for new construction. Its fate has become entwined with other major issues in the Legislature, including spending reforms, a previously approved clean fuels law, and a proposed new method of taxing businesses.
Some public union leaders have even threatened to take the transportation package to the ballot, through a referendum, if they don't get what they want in the way of business tax increases. That would be a mistake — just as it would be wrong for Republicans to stall this legislation in an effort to revive the clean fuels debate. A failure to address transportation would hurt all Oregonians, regardless of where they stand on other issues.
Union members and business owners alike experience the frustration that comes from sitting in traffic for hours each week. Anyone who uses local freeways on a regular basis will immediately recognize the value of dealing with three major chokepoints where new lanes are desperately needed: Interstate 5 near the Rose Quarter, Highway 217 in Washington County, and Interstate 205 from the Abernethy Bridge at West Linn to Stafford Road.
Those specific projects are included in the legislative funding package. The Oregon Transportation Commission would determine the priority for other projects.
The commission oversees the state Department of Transportation, which has come under fire lately for cronyism, waste and mismanagement. The Portland Tribune's Nick Budnick has documented instances when ODOT has fallen short of responsible use of public dollars.
Layered on top of concerns about ODOT is the unfortunate fact that the Portland region doesn't have a perfect record for pulling off massive transportation projects. The boondoggled Columbia River Crossing provides an example of how a much-needed improvement can be swamped by process until it finally — $300 million later — drowns of its own weight.
The three big metro projects in the legislative package don't have the complication of having to cross state lines, as the CRC did, but they will be complex, expensive and potentially messy.
To improve chances for on-time and on-budget delivery of these projects, the Legislature and governor should consider "super siting" them in a manner similar to the westside light-rail construction in the 1990s. That would shorten timelines, cut red tape and reduce opportunities for legal challenges.
To further ensure a successful outcome, it's important for all local jurisdictions affected to formally show their full support now for these improvements.
Widened freeways will enhance most people's quality of life, but they don't suddenly appear without substantial disruption and side effects.
The biggest challenge we see, however, is ODOT's organizational culture. A transportation package that would produce up to $8 billion in new revenue over 10 years should be accompanied with a detailed plan for getting the best people — both inside and outside ODOT — focused solely on making sure the biggest projects are completed quickly and within budget.