Transportation bill: Not pretty, but a pretty good package of improvements
Watching major bills come together at the end of a legislative session is often compared to sausage-making. But we prefer this analogy: it's like watching mechanics fix the engine on an airplane while it's in flight.
It might work. It might crash and burn. No way to tell until you land.
Last Saturday's marathon session of the Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation and Modernization is a good example. On the line: $5.3 billion worth of transportation investments over the next 10 years; the biggest transportation plan in many years, and the biggest anyone expects to see for the next decade.
But the 2017 legislative session was supposed to end in June. Nerves were frayed, fatigue had set in, normally convivial legislators began snarking at each other. And the 295-page bill had dropped into lawmakers' laps the night before.
This is not the way major pieces of multimillion-dollar legislation are supposed to come about.
But the devil is in the details and, now that a few days have passed, the transportation package appears to be a pretty good collection of initiatives and increases. There's a little something for everyone in every region of the state, not just metropolitan Portland.
This region may not get the much-needed Rose Quarter fix for I-5 (expanding lanes to reduce congestion). Regional leaders will be sorry to see that go. On the other hand, the Oregon Department of Transportation has agreed to fix up the outer stretch of Powell Boulevard and, once it's in good repair, to hand it over to the City of Portland for development and future improvements. The region is rife with so-called "orphan highways" — stretches like Highway 99W and Interstate 10 that run through our cities but aren't owned by the cities.
This bill likely sets a precedent for repairing those streets, then letting the cities control their fate. That's welcome news.
The money will come from a wide array of sources, distributing the load across most Oregonians. That includes an excise tax on the sale of new vehicles — not not as large an increase as originally proposed; a vehicle excise tax to be used for rebates on the purchase of electric vehicles; a $15 flat fee charged on the purchase of new adult bicycles with a price tag of more than $200, with proceeds going toward paying for commuter bicycle and pedestrian paths; and a payroll tax of less than 0.1 percent, to raise money to fund public transit.
Is any one of those popular? Probably not. But everyone has skin in the game, and everyone likely will see some improvements to the state's transportation systems.
There's also a 4-cent gas tax increase that would be triggered in 2018, with subsequent 2-cent hikes every other year. We praise that decision.
Historically, federal gas taxes paid for a great deal of the transportation needs of our communities. That gas tax sits at 18.4 cents per gallon, and it's been stuck there since 1993. The gas tax is not indexed to inflation; if it were, it would have increased by about 65 percent since then, and would pay for a whole lot more repairs to our aging transportation system.
That's unconscionable. It's a dereliction of duty for Congress to allow the fund that repairs our invaluable transportation system to deteriorate this badly.
Not to get too ironic, but every member of Congress is quick to proclaim their love of the transportation infrastructure. Yet they haven't moved to pay for that love since 1993, the year in which one of the top songs on the radio was Meat Loaf's, "I would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)."
A state's transportation system is like the body's central nervous system. It's all connected, and it all has to be healthy. There's no good hub in Southern Oregon to get onions, grown in that region, onto the nation's freight train system. So farmers hire drivers to drive onions through Portland, adding to his region's traffic jams. Fixing the farmers' problem in the south fixes the commuter's problem in Beaverton.
Rep. Greg Smith probably put it best on Saturday. He serves the small town of Heppner but he's a graduate of Sam Barlow High School in the Portland metro area. "What benefits I-5 and I-205 benefits Eastern Oregon," he said.
Credit also Sen. Betsy Johnson, whose district includes portions of North Washington County. She can be terse, tough and terrifying, but she stands up for the things she believes. Not everyone likes her style. But she doesn't have an ounce of quit in her.
Kudos also go to the ODOT leadership and staff who reportedly were working 'round the clock in the last few weeks to help lawmakers get to this bill. Remember, this is the 10th set of amendments on a nearly 300-page opus. ODOT has been the punching bag for a lot of lawmakers and, yes, journalists. Credit where credit is due.
The process by which the Legislature got to House Bill 2017 wasn't pretty. It wasn't the way we like to think that huge, impactful and expensive projects should come together. But in the real world, it's the way it works.
And this time — at least given what we know today — the system works.