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OP-ED: No transportation bill: a failure of vision, leadership

DJC300This column originally appeared in The Daily Journal of Commerce in Buildings Bridges and Roads
By: Mike Salsgiver

Mike SalsgiverFrom Interstate 5 stretching from California to Washington, to Interstate 84 from the northwest coast through the Columbia Gorge to Idaho, to the bridges that stretch across the Willamette and the Columbia Rivers allowing ships into our ports, our region’s travel corridors, intermodal facilities, and access gateways are essential to our quality of life and to our economy.

For the construction industry, summer is the key season to work on Oregon’s transportation system. And make no mistake about it: the volume of work needed to keep our highways, roads, and bridges in good repair is enormous.

Oregon has 7,656 bridges and 74,493 miles of roadway. Per the American Society of Civil Engineer’s Infrastructure Report Card, these roads and bridges are rated a C-, which is slightly better than the nation’s overall infrastructure rating of a D+.

In Oregon, 23 percent of the bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. With existing funding mechanisms, Oregon’s bridges will become structurally deficient at a rate of 25 per year by the year 2018. Of the state’s 59,262 public roads, 7,841 are major roads, and 6% are in poor condition. Without a comparable increase in funding, road conditions will continue to deteriorate even faster.

The need to invest in our state’s transportation system is not a partisan issue. Investment in transportation infrastructure—in fact, any kind of public infrastructure—is a public duty. Finding resources to pay for transportation maintenance, modernization, and operations is a fundamental obligation of government—arguably one of the most important obligations our government has.

Unfortunately, despite AGC and the broader business community’s efforts advocating for a transportation funding package this session, the Oregon legislature failed to deliver. The Washington legislature passed a $16 billion transportation package. Oregon’s legislature couldn’t find the votes to pass a package 45 times smaller.

Coming into the 2015 session, the legislature’s leadership—Republican and Democrat alike—called for a transportation funding package as one of the critical items of the session. Unfortunately, the Democratic majority immediately forced the passage of the low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) in March. Based on the state’s own estimates, the LCFS program will increase the cost of fuel by up to 18 cents per gallon when fully implemented—without one cent of it going toward maintenance and enhancement of roads. Because Republicans made it clear they would not support this program, the LCFS bill effectively ended the early efforts to draft a transportation funding package.

AGC continued to work with our business partners, legislators, and the governor’s office in hopes of finding a way to approve a package that included a replacement to the LCFS. In late May, Governor Kate Brown convened a bipartisan group to craft a bill that would accomplish both goals: repeal the clean fuels law and replace it with new carbon reduction measures and the raising of taxes and fees to fund state highways, county roads, and city streets.

Late in the session, the Senate appointed a special transportation committee to draft a bill that became known as the Sustainable Transportation Act. The package was a carefully negotiated agreement by a group of bipartisan legislators convened by the governor. AGC supported the agreement, which would have resulted in transportation infrastructure investments, new consumer protections to fuel price increases, and technically feasible carbon reduction strategies.

In short, the package would have:

– Reduced greenhouse gas emissions
– Created new funding:

$206 million per year for state and local roads
$80 million per year for transit improvements
$2.5 million per year for airports
$55 million for ConnectOregon VI

– Gas tax increase of four cents per gallon (phased in over two years)
– Increase in title, license, and registration fees
– Required ODOT to study and report on how it will redirect $50 million per year toward operations and maintenance of state highways

After intense opposition from environmental groups to any modifications of the LCFS, 19 House Democratic members signed a public letter declaring their opposition to any modifications to the LCFS. Within days, Governor Kate Brown publicly declared the Sustainable Transportation Act dead. This failure by Oregon’s leadership is a significant blow to our industry and to Oregon’s economy. Because of the time it takes to negotiate large packages such as a transportation bill, it is unlikely that we will see movement on it anytime soon.

With a new governor, with some legislators who did not view transportation investments as a priority, with Republicans unwilling to accept a new carbon reduction scheme that will cost Oregonians millions without really reducing carbon emissions, and with too many legislators willing to take direction from the environmentalists, the 2015 Legislature was unable to find a path to make the critical investments needed for our entire state’s transportation system.

To their credit, a number of legislators from both parties and chambers worked hard on the funding package. But in a rush to get things finished in the last few weeks of the session, it proved impossible to put together something as complex as a transportation package and hold the votes to get it passed. Until a solution is found, motorists will incur costs of $654 million a year from driving on roads in need of repair, which is $236 per year per motorist.

The path to finding a solution is not clear now that Oregon’s elected leadership will be looking forward to the 2016 elections. Highlighting the need for ongoing infrastructure investments will be a major focus of our efforts now through the start of the 2016 “short session” and beyond, if need be. We can only hope that the industry and the state’s economy will be able to withstand the economic effects of a fully-implemented LCFS law.

At some point, there needs to be political will inside and outside government to face this problem and get major projects flowing again. The longer we wait, the more our transportation system will deteriorate and the more expensive it will be to fix it.

Mike Salsgiver is executive director of the Associated General Contractors Oregon-Columbia Chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or

To view the column online, please click here (DJC subscription required).

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