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How ODOT is preparing shovel-ready projects in case of federal funding

With the Trump administration expected to unveil a $1 trillion infrastructure bill this year, it's still unclear how much new federal funding would be proposed, if its timeline would be prioritized before healthcare, or what it would include.

Nonetheless, the Oregon Department of Transportation is manuevering to get a piece of that trillion-dollar pie.

Travis Brouwer, assistant director for public affairs at the Oregon Department of Transportation, oversees federal affairs at ODOT and works with the congressional delegation to find opportunities to bring federal money back to Oregon.

"We will be engaging on any infrastructure package working its way through Congress and the White House," Brouwer said. "We've already had conversations with the White House in very early stages — we're still working to define what we'd have available as shovel-ready project we can take off the shelf that we can get going pretty quickly."PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - The 2.15-mile four-lane Sunrise Corridor, which was on the drawing board since the mid-1980s, broke ground in August 2013 and was mostly funded by Oregons 2009 Jobs and Transportation Act (JTA), which contributed $100 million to the project.

The Oregon transportation plan sets maintenance, preservation and safety as the top priorities for ODOT.

"It's pretty clear (the White House) is in the very early phase of working through this process," Brouwer said. "We see new comments made in the media on a regular basis. It's not clear where this is from a timing perspective, whether healthcare or tax reform are going to come in front of infrastructure. It's certainly a bipartisan desire to move forward on infrastructure."

Three specific, essential infrastructure areas ODOT is prioritizing are state-wide bridges, seismic resiliency and freeway congestion.

Financing

Back in 2009, the Obama administration focused most infrastructure resources by providing cash for public works projects.

"Policy papers we've seen from the Trump administration indicate they may go toward using tax credits as a financing mechanism to spur public-private partnerships in which you'd have a private firm come design, build, finance, operate and maintain infrastructure in exchange for some long-term funding stream, whether that is pool revenue or regular payment from the state," Brouwer said.

While that works in spread-out states like Texas's toll roads and beltlines, Oregon hasn't successfully used this model before.

"The public-private partnership model is a little more limited in terms of what you can build using it," Brouwer said. "Across the country there are only a handful of highways in public-private partnerships that move forward. It typically is used to pay for expanding capacities of highways and it's really hard to use it to pay for bridges."

He said ODOT typically has not found a public-private partnership that has penciled out.

"We looked at them in the past — widening I-205 and building the new Sunrise Corridor and the Dundee bypass — through the public-private partnership model," Brouwer said. "Unfortunately, none of them panned out using that PPP model, so we went and built the first phase of them using public dollars provided by legislature."

Brouwer said legislators are interested in ODOT's bridge projects, and the legislature's joint committee of transportation modernization recommends a major investment in maintenance and preservation and seismic retrofits — without putting a price tag on it yet.

"We'll certainly take a look at it and see if we can make it work," Brouwer said. "Most likely, it would cover only a small portion of the system needs, so for example it might help us build a project in the Portland metro region where we need to expand highways in order to deal with congestion, but unlikely to help us deal with aging, and the deteriorating system we have with bridges and pavement that need to be rehabbed."

Currently almost all revenue spend on transit in Oregon comes from either the federal or local governments, not usually from the state, but that's something legislature is considering this time around.

"We're hopeful that the state legislation will step forward and make an investment in transportation, and that action should help Oregon position itself to leverage additional federal resources," Brouwer said. "If legislature were to step up and provide funding, it might help us leverage federal funding. Uncle Sam likes helping those who help themselves and will often contribute the last increment of funding, like the Sellwood Bridge."

Bridges and quakes

A majority of Oregon's bridges were built before 1970 and a lot of cases require major repairs or replacement.

"We have quite a number of bridge projects we could ready for construction early, and then wait until some (funds) come available to build them," Brouwer said. "We believe we could have quite a number of bridge projects we can take off the shelf and get to construction fairly readily."

The disrepair affects hundreds of bridges statewide.

"A lot aren't necessarily huge, sexy bridge projects, they're repair or retrofits projects," Brouwer said. "There are quite a number that would need to be replaced all across Oregon and those take a little longer typically."

Tied to the bridges is the priority of seismic resilience, which ODOT defined as a $5 billion need.

"It's a five-phase plan that probably would take multiple decades to complete if we had the money, which we do not," Brouwer said.

Those projects are largely bridge replacements and seismic retrofits for the bridges.

"Some bridges are so old, you could retrofit it for $5 million, or you could just replace the whole darn thing for a few million more," Brouwer said. "Given the age, it makes more sense from life cycle costs to just replace the bridge. We'd look for federal resources that sort of integrate the bridge and seismic repair and replacement program, which is coincidentally what we're talking with legislature about this session."

Maintenance first, congestion second

ODOT is also looking to aim infrastructure improvements at the congestion.

"Three major projects for priority are I-5 at the Rose Quarter, I-205 at the south end, and the OR 217," Brouwer said. "Those are defined as the top three regional priorities for congestional relief and legislature is looking at ways to fund those."

But Brouwer said ODOT can't focus on expanding the highway system until the maintenance and preservation of existing roads and bridges is upkept.

"Maintenance and preservation are top priorities, but we recognize there is a need to address congestion across the state," Brouwer said. "It's gotten pretty bad here in Salem. Last year we are seeing a pretty significant growth in traffic as we have this massive population and economic growth due to our recovering economy. It has been pretty bad and people are clamoring for some relief. Now there's multiple ways we need to relieve that: not just by expanding highways, we need to invest in transit and other modes to get around."

The future of congestion

Brouwer said that the future of transit in Oregon will include a variety of solutions including public transit as well as self-driving vehicles.

"We do envision that — within a few years you could see autonomous vehicles driving around on Oregon roads," Brouwer said. "What we don't know yet is what impact that will have. Almost certainly it will improve safety. Human beings aren't always real great drivers. Likely in the long term, machines will be more effective to driving, but we don't know what it will do to congestion."

Self-driving cars might increase traffic, because people could live out in the suburbs or with a long commute, and just read the newspaper or relax while the car drives them to work, reducing the travel time disincentive.

"We're looking at what technologies we need across the system both for automated vehicles but also connected vehicles — cars can talk to infrastructure and infrastructure can talk to cars to provide safety information and optimize traffic lights, for example," Brouwer said. "We're going to be looking at what investments we need to make, in some cases as low-tech as making sure lines are clearly painted so that autonomous vehicles can read those lines and stay in their lanes."

By Jules Rogers
Reporter
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