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OP-ED: Transportation project funding (hopefully) imminent

OP-ED: Transportation project funding (hopefully) imminent

For the construction industry, summer is the key season to work on transportation infrastructure. This year, the industry’s busy season also happens to fall in the middle of the 2017 Oregon legislative session – one in which the governor, House speaker and Senate president promised to focus on and prioritize enactment of a bill to provide new transportation project funding.

Following an unsuccessful attempt to pass a transportation bill in the previous session, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney established a bipartisan Joint Interim Committee on Transportation Preservation and Modernization. It spent last summer gathering information about Oregon’s transportation needs across the state. AGC applauds the work of this committee. We have seen these elected leaders and committee members apply what they learned last summer to develop legislative concepts in the search for a long-term solution.

With the outline of an initial package slowly emerging in the past few weeks, we are all working to ensure passage of one that is fully funded and sustainable. But most Oregonians don’t think of bills and funding and political arguments. What they know is that congestion is getting worse and bridges need to be replaced or improved.

So as elected officials and other policy makers grapple with potential laws, it would be helpful to focus on some basic facts about our transportation system.

From highways to roads to bridges, the volume of work needed to keep Oregon’s transportation infrastructure in good repair is significant. Oregon has 7,656 bridges and 74,493 miles of roadway. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Report Card, the conditions of our roads and bridges are rated a C-, which is slightly better than the nation’s overall rating of a D+. Some 23 percent of those 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 2018.

Without a comparable increase in funding, conditions will continue to deteriorate even faster. Until a solution is found, Oregon motorists will incur new additional costs of $654 million a year from driving on roads and bridges in need of repair. That is $236 per year per motorist. Continued delay to find dollars to address the problem will only increase costs.

A lack of funding has interrupted the flow of highway construction work in the pipeline. Delays have further added to the nearly $12 billion backlog in transportation-related work. Many Oregon contractors have successfully found work outside of the state, causing a number of companies to move key staff and workers to states where work is actually happening.

But why is Oregon lagging so far behind when it comes to projects in other states?

From a funding perspective, Oregon doesn’t have as many transportation funding options as other states. Most states use a sales tax, a tax on vehicle purchases, title and registration fees and some tolling to pay for transportation projects. Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Montana all recently passed gas tax increases. The Washington State Legislature passed a $16 billion transportation package last year. Oregon’s 2015 Legislature couldn’t secure sufficient votes to pass a package 45 times smaller.

In the past year alone, the state gas tax in Washington has increased 12 cents per gallon. That’s twice as much as Oregon’s gas tax has increased in 23 years. Additionally, the usefulness of a gas tax has diminished with technology and time. At the same time, with improved fuel efficiencies and other technologies, gasoline consumption in Oregon has declined by 11 percent on a per capita basis over the past 20 years. It is clear the gas tax is now unable to continue to be the primary transportation funding source in the future.

And yet, Oregonians do not generally support tax increases, and polling shows our citizens are resistant to new forms of transportation funding. So in the short term, while moves should be made to incorporate other ways to pay for our transportation system in the future, the gas tax will likely remain a key part of any funding formula for years to come.

Not surprisingly, the lack of transportation funding has also contributed to significant congestion problems in the Portland-metro area.

Portland is now experiencing the 10th worst congestion in the United States. For our size, the congestion we face every day is now on par with the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles or Seattle. And that’s just the impact from slowed or standstill traffic. It doesn’t account for time lost in hours of traffic or the cost of wasted gas from idling. By almost any transportation measure, we are falling further and further behind.

Since 2010, 200,000 new people have joined the Portland area alone and rapidly clogged the city’s aging and outdated infrastructure. With an additional half-million more people expected by 2040, a solution was needed yesterday, but is absolutely imperative now.

It is clear Oregon has passed the tipping point. Congestion has quickly begun to suffocate vital thoroughfares and trade routes upon which our economy relies. Our state is on a path that will quickly separate it from the rest of the West – and not in a positive way. Instead of being known for beautiful vistas along the I-5 corridor, it will have the reputation of an overcrowded parking lot where an eight-mile commute will take two hours one way.

When it comes to paving the roads and highways and building the bridges of the future, Oregon is now last in the West. That is not a position we are used to being in. And so, once again, AGC is focused on working with our partners in the 2017 legislative session to end that losing streak and get us back in the transportation ballgame.

The construction industry is only as strong as the economy. Our industry will benefit from investment at any level, but our state now requires a thoughtful and sustainable investment in the future of our transportation infrastructure.

Transportation – indeed all public infrastructure – joins education and health care as top-tier issues for all of us. How to fund the transportation system of the future presents a challenging set of questions, but they must be answered.

For our safety, our economy and our quality of life, the Legislature must act – this year.

Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or mikes@agc-oregon.org.

This column originally appeared in the DJC and can be viewed here (subscription required).

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