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Transportation system changes can't wait

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Oregon's transportation system is at a critical crossroads.

Countless highway projects are planned for but remain unfunded - not just in the millions of dollars, but billions of dollars. Operations and maintenance of existing roads and some transit systems are slipping so badly that city and county officials now are asking: Why build new projects when we can't even finance what's already in place?

Meanwhile, the projects that are proposed are so complex that they take years to plan, years to fund and years to build. Even once they are completed, the problem of congestion or safety has simply moved a short distance away.

The trouble is growing. Thanks to inflation and shortages of some basic building materials - such as oil-based asphalt, cement and steel - highway construction costs are as much as $100 million over budget, and the cost increases have caused other projects to be postponed or scaled back.

There is little change in sight. Many of the problems are due to decisions of the past.

For much of the 1990s, Oregon only flirted with comprehensively addressing its transportation needs. As a result, the state and most of its cities and counties grew further and further behind in dealing with more immediate and future matters.

Recent investments by the state's Oregon Transportation Investment Act have made a small dent in funding a limited number of new projects. The most significant result of the act was saving Oregon's failing bridge system, which over decades of use and rising truck volumes had become unsafe and, in some cases, very hazardous.

Looking ahead, both regionally and statewide, elected and appointed officials are developing transportation plans for the future. The Oregon Transportation Commission will adopt its plan this fall. Metro will approve its updated regional transportation plan next spring.

These are good, but limited, steps. Current conditions - the backlog of billions of dollars worth of projects, limited funding, city and county officials' desire to spend money on maintaining existing roads, and rising construction costs - cannot be corrected without dramatic change, not incremental ones.

Already, state and regional leaders are entertaining new funding sources such as highway tolls. The state also is considering building new major highways such as the Newberg-Dundee bypass with a private partner because ODOT doesn't have enough money to do the work on its own.

Another idea is building business and citizen support for projects that make a difference in the economy, regional livability and the lives of local residents - and then gradually convincing taxpayers and businesses that new funding is needed to accomplish even more.

The effort already is under way. Regionally, businesspeople are working with elected officials to better communicate the benefits of an effective transportation system and the expense of not maintaining one.

In Salem, Democratic Sen. Betsy Johnson of Columbia County is among the most vocal of leaders. But to date, Gov. Ted Kulongoski has not made long-term transportation solutions a cornerstone of his re-election campaign. And his chief opponent, Republican Ron Saxton, is often more comfortable saying that ODOT staff is the problem.

Much more leadership is needed, and solutions call for more than talk. Action is required to build public and business understanding - and ongoing support - of transportation projects that can make a difference now and in Oregon's future.