SALEM — Even though lawmakers say action on a funding plan for road and bridge repair and other transportation needs is unlikely before the 2016 election, advocates say it’s not too early to start talking again.
“We need to pick up the work that has been done and not let it fall away,” said Craig Campbell, who represents the American Automobile Association of Oregon and also is president of the Oregon Transportation Forum coalition.
“We need to discuss it and work it,” said Campbell, whose coalition includes transportation users, governments and some environmental groups.
While House Speaker Tina Kotek vowed recently that “we still need a transportation package in this state,” she said the lead time required for laying out details is such that action is unlikely before the next long session in 2017.
Some say a good starting point is where a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers left off in the 2015 session.
“Elements of the proposal that emerged late in the legislative session represent an encouraging starting point for future discussions, especially the proposed $80 million in funding for transit systems,” said Chris Rall, Northwest field organizer for Transportation for America, a national group that backs state and federal funding.
The proposal attempted to couple funding for road and bridge work, and for public transit operations, with alternatives for greenhouse-gas reductions from transportation.
The funding for road and bridge work would have come from a 4-cent increase in Oregon’s gasoline tax — now 30 cents per gallon — and increases in vehicle registration fees. Under the Oregon Constitution, those sources are earmarked.
For transit operations, a tax on employee wages was proposed for districts that already have authority to levy a payroll tax on employers. It would have raised $80 million annually for two of Oregon’s largest systems, TriMet and Lane Transit District, plus smaller systems in Wilsonville, Sandy and Canby.
Last year, the League of Oregon Cities and Association of Oregon Counties issued reports saying they are a combined $500 million short each year of what they need to maintain roads and bridges.
The Oregon Department of Transportation maintains 8,000 miles of highways that carry about 60 percent of Oregon’s traffic. It reported in 2014 that 87 percent of its pavement was in fair or better condition. While that is above its goal of 78 percent, ODOT also said it is unlikely to remain there without an infusion of cash in the next couple of years.
A sticking point
But the legislative proposal foundered on the alternatives proposed to a low-carbon fuel standard, which Democratic majorities pushed through over Republican opposition. While senators from both parties were willing to craft alternatives, House Democrats and environmental groups were unwilling to jettison the standard after just three months.
“I was assured there were alternative ways of approaching this issue that would be acceptable, but that turned out not to be true,” said Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, one of the bipartisan negotiators.
One of the alternatives, which mirrors a potential 2016 ballot measure sponsored by fuel distributors, would have proposed graduated reductions in the carbon content of fuel. But the total reduction would have amounted to 5 percent, less than the 10 percent set by the standard over a decade.
Another alternative overstated the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions projected through improved traffic flows to relieve congestion.
“Given more time, we could have refined the numbers and shown a carbon reduction that would have beaten the low-carbon fuel standard,” said Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, another negotiator. “But now we have not been given that opportunity.”
Republicans argued that the standard would result in higher fuel prices, which they said would be too much on top of a smaller tax increase. A tax increase requires 60 percent supermajorities for approval, and that means at least one Republican in the current House.
“I think the most important thing for us to know in advance is how much give there is in the standard,” Bentz said. “If they are going to refuse to modify it in any way, this conversation is going to be pretty short.”
But Andrea Durbin, executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council, said Oregon needs both the standard and a funding plan put forth by the Oregon Transportation Forum, which it is a member of.
“To put one against the other is a false choice and helps no one,” Durbin said.
Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said the dispute may be resolved outside the Legislature.
Fuel distributors have gone to U.S. District Court with a lawsuit that asserts the standard violates the federal constitutional guarantee of interstate commerce, although a similar argument failed to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a challenge to California’s standard in 2014.
Fuel distributors also have filed two ballot measures, although neither has received enough signatures to start the petition-circulating process for the 2016 general election ballot.
“I think you will not see much of an effect on the cost of fuels,” said Beyer, one of the bipartisan negotiators, who also was the floor manager for the fuel-standard bill. “The environmental groups have the skin they want to hang on their wall.”
A turning point?
In the 2013 Oregon Values & Beliefs Project survey conducted by DHM Research of Portland for a coalition of public and nonprofit agencies, 72 percent of those sampled say road and highway maintenance is very or somewhat important — fourth of 20 government services.
New roads and highways, on the other hand, ranked 19th.
One economist said Oregon, like other states and the federal government, must consider that fuel taxes alone can no longer shoulder the costs of road and bridge upkeep.
“When you adjust it for inflation, you are lowering it, and it’s not generating as much revenue,” said Joe Cortright, who leads the Portland consulting firm Impresa, and is a former legislative staffer. “People also are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles and they are driving less.”
Multnomah and Washington counties levy their own gasoline taxes, and so do 22 cities. Among them are Canby, Milwaukie, Sandy and Tigard; Pendleton and Stanfield, and Astoria and Warrenton.
But there has been local resistance to increasing fees for street and road repairs, most recently the shelving by the Portland City Council of a proposed street fee and voter rejection in Washington County last year of a registration fee increase.
“What people are saying when they oppose higher gas taxes is that they hate being stuck in traffic, but they do not stick a value to it,” Cortright said. “We do not want to spend more money to get more roads.”
Public opinion may be changing, however, at least in the Portland area.
Asked in a fall 2014 survey conducted by Oregon State University for the Oregon Department of Transportation how serious traffic congestion was to them, almost 60 percent of the 1,288 respondents said it was minor or nonexistent. But 43 percent said it was somewhat or very serious — up 7 percentage points from two years ago.
In Portland, 63.4 percent of those sampled called traffic congestion somewhat or very serious — far more than in any other area of the state.
Gov. Kate Brown acknowledged that there is “significant statewide support” for transportation spending, “and I am willing to continue those discussions.” But she has not specified when or how they will happen.
While Beyer thinks there’s little chance of anything happening before the 2016 election — when Brown will be up for the two years remaining in the term she assumed when John Kitzhaber resigned Feb. 18 — he said there may be some hope in the blue-ribbon panel Kitzhaber named to look at Oregon’s system over the next 30 years.
“I was originally skeptical when he put it together, but actually, a couple of the meetings of the group that I was at were pretty productive,” Beyer said.
Also on that panel is Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who was one of the bipartisan negotiators. She thinks there is still value in having the group of eight resume meetings.
“We were briefed so thoroughly on many of the elements that would have to be included in a comprehensive transportation package that I think it would be a shame to start all over again,” Johnson said.
“This group spent so much time together and is now so knowledgeable.”
AAA’s Campbell said the recent closed-door talks in the governor’s office did not allow participation by many of the transportation users and local government members of the forum.
“If you do not get the right people in the room for the discussion, you can make mistakes that cost you time,” he said.
“But I am sure this will be just as important in 2017 as it is now. The transportation system is not going to fix itself.”