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OP-ED: Metro-area congestion solution needs leadership – now

SC2013_DJC_320x320Mike SalsgiverRecently, I spent several days driving from Portland to Denver and back. I picked the route in part because I wanted to get away from flying. But I also wanted to see the highway and bridge construction work being done in states that passed transportation funding bills recently.

Like any other road trip, I passed through some small towns and saw some wonderful scenery, but one sight in particular struck me in every state I drove through that set Oregon apart in a very unfortunate way.

In every state I drove through, there were scores of highway and bridge construction projects under way. The projects were small. They were large. And in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, I saw roads and highways that were dotted with orange cones, full of workers and equipment, and flashing signs warning drivers of projects ahead.

But not in Oregon.

For the construction industry, summer is the key season to work on transportation systems. And make no mistake about it: the volume of work needed to keep our highways, roads and bridges in good repair is enormous. So when it comes to such projects, why is Oregon lagging other states in the West?

Let’s revisit some basic transportation system information.

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 C-, which is slightly better than the nation’s overall infrastructure rating of D+. Approximately 23 percent of those bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. With existing funding mechanisms, Oregon’s bridges by 2018 will become structurally deficient at a rate of 25 per year.

Without a comparable increase in funding, conditions will continue to deteriorate even faster. Until a solution is found, Oregon motorists will incur annual costs of $654 million ($236 per motorist per year) from driving on roads and bridges in need of repair. Waiting to address the problem will only increase costs.

Despite the best efforts by AGC and the broader business community to gain the passage of a transportation funding package during the 2015 session, the Oregon Legislature failed to deliver. Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Montana have recently passed gas tax increases to fund their transportation infrastructure projects. In fact, the Washington State Legislature passed a $16 billion transportation package. The Oregon Legislature couldn’t find the votes to pass a package 45 times smaller.

Lack of funding has interrupted the flow of highway construction work in the pipeline. These delays have further added to the nearly $12 billion backlog in transportation-related work. Many Oregon contractors are now looking outside the state for work, moving key staff and workers where work is actually happening. The lack of transportation funding has also contributed to a nasty, growing problem in the Portland-metro area – major congestion and rush-hour gridlock.

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.

Between 2000 and 2013, 40,354 new commuters joined the Portland area alone and have rapidly clogged aging and outdated infrastructure. With 240,000 new residents and 140,000 new jobs predicted over the next 20 years, a solution was needed yesterday; it’s absolutely imperative now.

In the past year alone, the Washington state gas tax has increased 12 cents per gallon. That’s twice as much as Oregon’s gas tax has increased in 23 years. And while other ways should be sought to pay for our transportation system, the gas tax will be a big part of any funding formula for many years to come.

It is clear that 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 filled with commuters.

Is this the Oregon of the future? It’s become normal for our elected leaders to kick the solutions to major funding problems further and further down the road.

We can’t settle for that.

Oregon used to be a state where thoughtful discussion and bipartisan problem-solving through collaboration took place. And we must acknowledge that we are beginning to see glimpses of this sort of engagement.

Earlier this year, Gov. Kate Brown, House Speaker Tina Kotek, and Senate President Peter Courtney agreed that transportation funding must be a priority in the 2017 session. Kotek and Courtney established the bipartisan Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation and Modernization that is working to fully understand how serious the problem is while on an “information gathering tour” throughout the state. AGC applauds the work of this committee. We expect these elected leaders and committee members to take what they learn this summer and work with key stakeholders in the coming months to find a long-term solution in the 2017 legislative session.

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, including the joint transportation committee members, to end that losing streak in 2017 and get us back in the transportation ballgame.

Finding a funding solution to our growing transportation crisis will be tough. But we have done tough things before. Come 2017, it will be time to quit talking and fix this problem.

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

This article originally appeared in the DJC and can be found here (subscription required).

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