The long road to a transportation package

State Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, right, listens to concerns about transportation funding at the John Day City Council meeting Wednesday, Jan. 25.

The Oregon Legislature is again trying to clear the roadblocks to a comprehensive transportation package after failed attempts in 2015.

State Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, co-vice chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation & Modernization, has been working with Co-Vice Chair Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, and Democratic Co-Chairs Sen. Lee Beyer and Rep. Caddy McKeown to develop a framework to present to the entire 14-person committee in the upcoming legislative session.

With the state already facing a $1.8 billion budget shortfall to maintain current government service levels, funding the infrastructure package will be difficult. Democrats hold the majority in both the House and the Senate but not the 60-percent majority needed to pass bills raising revenue, so Republican votes will be necessary.

Bentz said he hopes to develop “a more thoughtful” long-term plan to maintain the state’s roads and bridges. He said, in preliminary discussions, the committee leaders have identified possible components of the package, including how “mega projects” are planned, how state taxes and fees are allocated and how projects are prioritized, as well as how the package may be funded, including gas tax increases, tolling and targeted tax and fee increases.

Last week, Bentz attended John Day City Council, Grant County Court and Southeast Area Commission on Transportation meetings to gauge community needs from such a package.

“At the end of the day, I represent you,” Bentz said. “What do you want me to do?”

Members of Grant County Court said they were open to an increase in infrastructure funding, but County Judge Scott Myers said he would like the Oregon Department of Transportation to use funds more responsibly and eliminate waste.

Roughly half of all funds raised by transportation taxes and fees go to ODOT, while 30 percent goes to the counties and 20 percent goes to the cities, based on population.

Grant County Commissioner Boyd Britton encouraged Bentz to pursue a higher gas tax. The last increase in the gas tax was 6 cents in 2009.

John Day City Manager Nick Green said he is not opposed to a gas tax hike to generate more funding for necessary road projects, but he said the impact would be minimal for John Day.

In fiscal year 2015, the city received $100,779 from the current 30-cent tax on each gallon of fuel sold. A 10-cent increase to the tax would net John Day an additional $33,000 annually. With this additional funding, however, the city would only be able to chip seal one mile of its 13 miles of city roads, Green said.

In 2009, John Day laid out 41 street improvement projects, but only one has been completed. The next project, scheduled to be completed in 2019, will add sidewalks to Canyon Boulevard, where some children currently walk on the shoulder of a state highway to get to school.

At the end of the 2015 fiscal year, John Day had $217,000 in net working capital in its street fund. Green said current funding allows the city to complete about two projects every 10 years.

While raising taxes is never popular, additional pressures make raising the gas tax even less palatable.

The Low Carbon Fuel Standard — requiring distributors to reduce the carbon content of vehicle fuels by 10 percent over the next decade — is anticipated to increase the cost of gas between four and 19 cents per gallon, according to Bentz, who cited figures from the Department of Environmental Quality.

He said Democrats might also try to implement a cap and trade program for carbon emissions — where emissions would be limited and allowances could be bought and sold — which could drive up fuel costs by another seven to eight cents per gallon.

The combination of these factors would leave little room to increase the gas tax, Bentz said.

Bentz said the average Oregonian drives 12,000 miles per year and gets 21 miles per gallon. This equates to each Oregonian paying an average of $153 a year in gas tax, which Bentz said is a good deal for the eastern part of the state.

Bentz said rural communities can most effectively use funds by maintaining roads, rather than letting them deteriorate to the point where they must be rebuilt, which is far more costly. In his district in Eastern Oregon, however, Bentz said 30 percent of city streets are already beyond repair in need of replacement and the other 70 percent are in danger of being lost if not properly maintained.

Green said The League of Oregon Cities, an organization representing cities across the state, is calling for a substantial increase in the gas tax, additional funding for capital improvement projects and an increase in funding to the Special City Allotment program. The Special City Allotment program distributes $1 million set aside by ODOT specifically for city street projects in communities with populations under 5,000, and Green said a substantial increase could have a more significant impact on the city than a gas tax increase.

Increasing funding for the program, however, will face the same constraints as any other program as legislators begin work to try to overcome the shortfall to balance the budget. Bentz and other Republicans have indicated they are willing to discuss additional revenue, through additional taxes, but only if Democrats are willing to discuss cost-saving measures as well.

The legislative session begins Wednesday, Feb. 1.

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