Agency plans aggressive pitch for federal funds
Oregon plans to turn up the heat on the federal government to get more transportation money in the next few years.
States get federal money through various funds, some general, some specific, such as those supporting rail, scenic highways, safety, reductions in drunken driving and more.
But the biggest pot of money for the states is the Federal Highway Fund, which provides Oregon with 95 percent of its federal transit money. The fund gets its money from the federal gas tax, but Oregon pays more in gas taxes than its gets back.
The Oregon Transportation Commission wants that to change.
'We need to be aligned behind the strategy to advocate for a higher level of funding for all parts of our transportation infrastructure so we can get to some of these other projects,' said Gail Achterman, a member of the commission.
The other projects she referred to are nine that were left off a wish list for federal money that the transportation commission approved earlier this month. Two Portland area projects are on the list.
The Portland area projects are:
• Interstate 5: The freeway would be widened to three lanes in both directions between the North Lombard Street and Delta Park interchanges. The state is asking for $32.8 million in federal money, while another $8.2 million (20 percent of the total) would come from the state.
• Oregon Highway 217: The arterial through Washington County would grow to three lanes in both directions from the Sunset Highway to the Tualatin Valley Highway. The state wants the feds to put up $26.9 million, with another $6.7 million coming from the state.
Missing from the list was the proposed Newberg-Dundee bypass in Yamhill County. All five members of the transportation commission said they remain committed to the bypass, but it didn't meet the criteria needed to get on the federal wish list.
To be included, a project must be ready to be built in the next six years, have local matching funds Ñ be they state, county or city Ñ and have local support, usually demonstrated through public hearings.
'The Newberg-Dundee project is a project of statewide importance that needs to be done,' said commission Chairman Steve Corey. 'But it's a matter of timing. It does not meet the criterion of construction within the six-year life of the bill.'
'We want projects we can build,' added Patrick Cooney, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. 'We don't want projects that are going to be challenged or mean significant environmental delays. We don't want the money just sitting there. So constructability was important.'
The fate of the bid for federal money, though, remains up to Congress. All, part or none of the money could wind up in the final congressional bill, Cooney emphasized.
The money would not come out of the Federal Highway Fund but from a new transportation appropriation that Congress is expected to pass this year. The new bill, which will provide extra money to the states for transit, will replace the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which expires in September.
Two Oregon representatives, Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer, both Democrats, are on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
State officials say they already are applying aggressively for money through the various federal programs. But Cooney said the state is trying to increase what it gets from the Federal Highway Fund. Congress, he said, likes to see local support and citizen involvement in choosing transit projects.
'What we hear all the time is, 'Let's go to the feds,' ' Cooney said. 'But the first question they will ask us is, 'What have you done in the last 10 years?' We have to do our share.'
Increasing Oregon's standing in the formula used to allocate money could mean another $150 million a year out of the new bill, or almost $1 billion over six years.
Cooney said a spate of recent transportation initiatives should help Oregon's congressional delegation wrangle more money out of Washington.
In the last two years, he said, the Legislature has approved $500 million in bonds for road improvements. More recently, Gov. Ted Kulongoski has proposed a $15 annual increase in the vehicle registration fee for road and bridge improvements, and the auto club AAA Oregon is considering whether to back an increase in the gas tax Ñ something the organization once helped scuttle.
'We're waiting to see what happens with all these proposals so we can say, 'Look, we're doing everything we can at the state level.' We need to demonstrate our resolve,' Cooney said.