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Transportation panel has money to burn

$400 million in bonds is destined for roads, bridges in Portland area

SALEM Ñ A flurry of new road and bridge improvements could get under way soon throughout the Portland area.

That's because the Oregon Transportation Commission will be meeting in Salem on Jan. 16 with something quite unfamiliar to members in recent years: more money.

It comes from the Oregon Transportation Investment Act, approved by the 2001 Legislature. The measure authorized $400 million in bonds: $200 million for new construction and $200 million for road maintenance and bridge repairs.

The list of Portland area projects coming before the panel includes $68 million in new construction, $7 million to continue rehabilitation of the Broadway Bridge and $7.9 million to repave Northeast Sandy Boulevard from 13th Avenue to 47th Avenue.

Under a key requirement of the new law, projects must be completed within three years of issuing the bonds.

'We want to see the money out and the work under way as soon as possible,' said Bruce Warner, director of the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The bonds signal a new direction for financing Oregon's critical highway needs.

'Revenue from the gas tax is limited,' Warner said. With a combination of more fuel-efficient cars, political instability in the oil-rich Middle East and the proliferation of hybrid vehicles that use two fuels, Oregon's 24 cents-a-gallon gas tax no longer generates sufficient revenue.

In addition to the bonds, the Legislature authorized the creation of a Road User Tax Force to study alternative funding options.

'That could include toll roads,' Warner said. Other options include 'congestion pricing,' requiring motorists to pay more during peak traffic hours and system development charges.

Warner said such charges could be a tough sell with the driving public. 'It's a big change, and any change will take time,' he said.

The major metropolitan area projects that the commission will act on at its Jan. 16 meeting include:

• Northeast Sandy Boulevard, 13th to 47th avenues: Work includes repaving, eliminating confusing traffic patterns and improving pedestrian crossings in the Hollywood District. Funding under the transportation act is $7.9 million.

• U.S. 26 (Sunset Highway) from the Highway 217 interchange to the Camelot interchange: Add an eastbound lane and install sound walls, ramp meters and a separate bike lane. Funding is $20.6 million.

• East Columbia Boulevard: Construct a wider underpass to replace the existing, substandard two-lane railroad underpass at Northeast 92nd Avenue, and widen the Columbia Boulevard approach to Interstate 205. Funding is $19.76 million (total cost, $24.76 million).

• Interchange at U.S. 26 and Jackson School Road: The project is designed to reduce accidents at the current at-grade crossing and will facilitate increased traffic that's expected from the expansion of Intel's Jones Farm campus in Hillsboro. Funding is $16.1 million.

• Broadway Bridge: This is the largest bridge proposed for rehabilitation under the bonding program. The so-called Phase 7 work includes replacing failing structural members and repainting. Funding is $7 million (total estimated cost, $45.2 million).

• Northeast 33rd Avenue: Replace the bridge over the Columbia Slough and strengthen the bridge over Lombard Street and the Union Pacific railroad tracks. Funding is $4.95 million.

• McLoughlin Boulevard in Milwaukie: Overlay and reconstruct about one mile of roadway, add landscaped medians, sidewalks and bike lanes, and install additional pedestrian crossings. Funding is $2 million (total cost, $4.1 million).

A proposed $21.8 million widening of Sunnyside Road in Clackamas County from 122nd Avenue to 142nd Avenue is on the list of recommended projects, but could be scaled back to allow work to begin on another Clackamas County project.

That project is the city of Wilsonville's request for $7.8 million for a road to the old Dammasch State Hospital site, which is being considered for a mixed commercial-residential development.

Some $10.4 million in bonding for Sunnyside was recommended, at the expense of the Wilsonville request. The Transportation Commission, however, told local jurisdictions to come up with a compromise to allow some dollars to be diverted to the Boeckman-Tooze connector street in Wilsonville.

The Transportation Department's Warner is pushing to sell $150 million in bonds by the end of the year, with two more sales scheduled before 2007. The bonds would be repaid from higher auto and truck title fees, higher charges at the Department of Motor Vehicles Ñ already approved by the Legislature Ñ and increased utility permit fees.