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State road funds stuck in traffic

Lawmakers wrangle barriers to paying for highway, bridge work


Photo Credit: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Oregon lawmakers are trying to figure out ways to pay for repairs to existing highways and bridges as gas tax funds dwindle.Oregon lawmakers next year will face renewed questions about how to pay for maintaining roads and moving people and goods.

But so far, there’s more of a consensus among the numerous interest groups about what the money should go for — than on how to raise the money.

Advocates say the focus will be on fixing existing roads and bridges — far less glamorous politically than new construction — and that the 2015 Legislature also will have to take into account other forms of transportation.

“It’s likely that this package needs to be multimodal,” says Craig Honeyman, legislative director for the League of Oregon Cities, who has been making presentations in several cities about league priorities.

That in itself will set any new financing plan apart from two other recent efforts, which focused on major bridge and new road projects.

“We hope we can go arm in arm to the Legislature with a package,” says Mike McArthur, executive director of the Association of Oregon Counties.

Although specific proposals have not yet been agreed on, one of them is to link future increases in the state gasoline tax — now 30 cents per gallon — with the Consumer Price Index or some other measure of inflation. Other vehicle fees could also be linked.

Indexing has been proposed before, but lawmakers have never advanced it.

“It would keep us from losing ground, while we have a longer-term conversation about the ultimate funding source,” says Metro’s Randy Tucker.

Linked automatically to the gasoline tax is the weight-mile tax that is levied on trucks, based on weights carried and distances traveled.

Unlike the earlier funding efforts, which united most interest groups in 2003 and 2009, this one may be even more difficult.

“I do not know that (unity) is going to happen,” says Bob Russell, the chief lobbyist for the Oregon Trucking Associations. “Instead of a proposal supported by everybody, there may be a list of options. But we generally support a statewide approach, rather than individual jurisdictions taking action.”

Representatives of cities, counties and the state say their needs for road and bridge maintenance are far outpacing the amount of money available.

Although many say they want the option of taking their case to local voters, most say they prefer action by the Legislature.

“When you ask people whether they are willing to pay for it, they say not just now,” says Craig Campbell, who represents the American Automobile Association of Oregon/Idaho.

Washington County voters will decide Nov. 4 whether to add $30 per year for road maintenance to the state’s existing two-year vehicle registration fee of $86. If approved, the higher fee would take effect in 2016.

Portland City Council is still wrestling with a fee earmarked for street maintenance. It is uncertain whether voters will decide the fate of any fee.

According to the League of Oregon Cities, 32 cities have a transportation utility fee.

According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, two counties and 20 cities have their own gasoline tax — from 1 to 5 cents per gallon — in addition to the state tax. A four-year moratorium by the Legislature has been lifted, but city voters will have to approve new or increased fuel taxes.

The 2013 Oregon Values & Belief Project survey by DHM Research found that Portland-area voters were divided on transportation funding. People who live in Portland and close-in communities offered more support for public transit, but communities on the periphery favored more on roads and bridges, according to the survey.

Of those sampled overall, 72 percent rated road maintenance important or somewhat important; 55 percent, buses and trains; 49 percent, new roads.

Funding priorities

Oregon voters decided in 1980 to earmark fuel taxes and vehicle and driver fees for road and bridge work. Between 1981 and 1993, the state gasoline tax rose from 7 cents to 24 cents per gallon.

In 2003, lawmakers approved $2.5 billion in bonds, two-thirds of which went toward fixing bridges on Oregon’s most critical freight routes. Higher vehicle fees paid off the bonds.

Lawmakers acted after cracks appeared and weight limits were posted for some bridges on Interstate 5, Oregon’s main north-south route — and a report from state highway officials warned of higher costs and lost jobs if more trucks were forced into detours.

The final projects — bridges on Interstate 84 near Troutdale and La Grande — are scheduled for completion by the end of this year.

In 2005, lawmakers approved the first in a series of lottery-backed bonds for Connect Oregon, which pays for projects other than roads and bridges. During the decade, those bonds have totaled $382 million plus interest costs.

In 2009, lawmakers approved $1 billion they earmarked for specific state highway projects, and increased gasoline taxes that provided cities and counties with their first new money for road maintenance in almost two decades. The tax went from 24 to 30 cents in 2011.

After lawmakers approved the most recent funding plan, which was weighted toward highways, the Oregon Highway Users Alliance transformed itself into the Oregon Transportation Forum.

“Those of us who were traditional highway people did not really have a good understanding of a lot of the issues that the environmental community was raising,” says AAA’s Campbell, who’s president of the forum. “There was a trust barrier.”

Maintenance needs

Representatives of Oregon cities, counties and the state Department of Transportation say they can demonstrate their needs for maintenance are outpacing the amount available to spend on them.

Of Oregon’s system, about 8,000 miles are in state highways — which carry about 60 percent of all traffic — 26,692 miles in county roads (10,663 miles of them unpaved), and 10,868 miles in city streets.

In a July report, the League of Oregon Cities said cities raised $120.7 million for street maintenance in 2012-13, but that’s $306 million less than what they say they need.

In a May report, ODOT said 400 miles should be paved every year — on a schedule of 20 years for the entire system — but that current funding allows for only 250 miles annually.

“Our pavement programs resurface less than one-half the need, and higher-cost projects can’t be completed with available funds,” the agency said in a May report.

Although 87 percent of state highway miles were rated at “fair” pavement condition or better — above the 2012 target of 78 percent — ODOT says it will be $100 million per year short of what is needed to maintain those conditions in the next three years.

ODOT estimates that major rehabilitation of pavement costs between $3 and $5 — and reconstruction between $8 and $12 — for every $1 spent on preventive maintenance.

“Because of the deterioration of infrastructure, there is a cost to not doing anything,” said McArthur of the counties.

The Association of Oregon Counties didn’t offer a comparable figure for maintenance needs.

But McArthur says counties have taken hits to their road funds from another source.

With the end of federal forest payments, he says, road funds have suffered losses in the 31 counties that have national forest lands, and the 18 counties that have O&C lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. (Some of those counties overlap.)

“We are going to need to do a good job of educating our citizens,” says Mary Stern, AOC’s transportation policy manager and a former Yamhill County commissioner. “We have to say here are our roads, these are the facts, and this is what we need to maintain what we have.”

pwong@PamplinMedia.com

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Here are some of the relevant transportation fees for Oregon drivers:

• Gasoline tax: 30 cents per gallon, set January 2011, increased from 24 cents in 1993. According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, 20 cities and two counties levy an additional tax, which varies from 1 to 5 cents per gallon. Local governments must obtain voter approval for new or increased fuel taxes.

• Weight-mile tax on trucks: 4.98 to 23.04 cents per mile, depending on truck weight and miles traveled, set January 2011. Increases are proportional with changes in the state gasoline tax.

• Driver’s license: $60 for a first issuance, $40 for a renewal, good for eight years, set in 2008. Additional fees apply to knowledge and skills tests and other types of licenses.

• Vehicle registration: $86 for a two-year cycle, set September 2009, raised from $54 in 2003. Counties can levy an additional fee that requires voter approval.


Kitzhaber, Richardson stake out fund positions

Here’s how the major-party nominees stack up on future transportation funding. Comments are drawn from their Sept. 22 editorial board meeting at the Portland Tribune/Pamplin Media Group and EO Media Group:

Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber

Though he anticipates the Oregon Transportation Forum to propose a “small” increase in the state gasoline tax for the short term, he is placing his hopes on the 2-year-old West Coast Infrastructure Exchange to draw private capital and public funds to pay for big infrastructure projects — not just transportation.

“How do we get private investment capital sitting on the sidelines engaged in helping build public projects? The failure of the U.S. government to fund surface transportation system projects suggests we’ve got to be more creative.”

The exchange, whose members are the three Pacific Coast states and British Columbia, aims at securing $1 trillion in funding for projects — including maintenance — over 30 years.

He also backs further study of fees based on vehicle miles traveled, something Oregon has pioneered but not implemented.

Republican Dennis Richardson

“We’re going to have to address the fact that the gas tax is not going to be sufficient to fund these things in the future,” he says. But he is hesitant that Oregon should proceed first with a VMT-based system.

He also says he would not emphasize public transportation, as Kitzhaber has.

He backs more money for projects in the State Transportation Improvement Program and approved by the Oregon Transportation Commission.

“We need to make sure we allocate funds not just for major projects and then watch them be wasted, such as we saw with the Columbia River Crossing,” the proposed new bridge between Portland and Vancouver, Wash.

But Richardson also echoed Kitzhaber’s support for long-term debt financing and private-public partnerships.

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