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The road to a better economy

With Oregon suffering the impact of a full-on economic recession, Gov. Ted Kulongoski wisely says it's time for an old-fashioned public-works program to keep thousands of people on the job and put thousands more to work.

Kulongoski proposes spending $499 million per year on transportation projects that would bring immediate benefits to Oregon's economy by giving a boost to the construction industry.

But the governor's plan also creates a literal foundation for broader economic success by improving a decaying transportation system that's essential for the movement of goods, people and services. The plan also would begin to turn Oregon's transportation system into a healthier environmental and economic model.

On Monday, Kulongoski unveiled his Jobs and Transportation Act of 2009. The plan calls for spending $227.5 million each year on state highways and for splitting the remainder between transportation-starved counties ($136.5 million) and cities ($91 million).

To fund this effort, the governor would increase the state gas tax - which hasn't changed in Oregon since 1993 - by a modest 2 cents per gallon. Vehicle registration fees would rise by a more substantial amount - from $27 to $81 per year. And the governor also wants to increase title fees on vehicles.

Thousands of jobs at stake

The governor concedes that the proposed higher fees will not go unopposed. But even with the increases, Oregon would remain one of the most affordable places in the nation to own a vehicle.

Kulongoski's plan addresses other critical needs by:

• Creating a state Transportation Utility Commission that would bring more financial accountability to the system.

• Emphasizing partnerships and cost savings between state and local governments.

• Promoting new vehicle technologies and providing incentives for the use of alternative fuels.

• And better linking land-use planning and transportation systems to reduce greenhouse gases.

Kulongoski's call for investments and new priorities likely will see tweaking from legislative leaders, but we believe lawmakers must move rapidly to approve this package early in the 2009 legislative session.

At stake is the annual creation of an estimated 6,700 jobs that Oregon's economy and citizens need right now. And the governor's transportation initiative also is likely to complement similar federal economic-stimulus efforts. Congress and President-elect Barack Obama are focusing on investing in infrastructure - roads, bridges and the like - as one part of a comprehensive strategy to get the national economy moving.

Legislators cannot delay

Clearly, Kulongoski's plan is no seat-of-the-pants initiative. The proposal arises from nearly a year's worth of study by three governor-appointed work groups that recommended a comprehensive, long-term approach to improving transportation in Oregon. (For the record, Portland Tribune President Steve Clark chaired one of these committees.)

We think Oregonians will be pleased that Kulongoski's plan places heavy emphasis on the need to reduce greenhouse gases by starting now to alter transportation systems. These provisions are important for the overall environmental and economic sustainability of the system.

But for the next 18 to 24 months, nothing is more important than putting people to work quickly. Legislative leaders should take up Kulongoski's Jobs and Transportation Act of 2009 as their first order of business for the next legislative session.