With gas tax stagnant, money for road repairs, construction is uncertain

The big question now looming over all major regional transportation projects is, How are we going to pay for them?

The funding question was a recurring theme when the Columbia River Crossing Task Force met Tuesday evening. Although the 39-member task force moved closer to studying both a large replacement bridge and a smaller supplemental bridge between Portland and Vancouver, Wash., its staff said either project could cost the same - up to $6 billion, including a new transit line and related interchange improvements.

'There is a lot of concern about costs and who's going to pay,' said Commissioner Sam Adams, the city's representative on the task force that is trying to reduce congestion and increase safety on and around the Interstate Bridge.

But even though the crossing project is potentially the most expensive transportation effort in the region's history, the same question of who will pay can be asked of major future road projects.

The largest single source of state and local transportation funds is the 24-cents-a-gallon state gas tax, which has not increased since 1993. Motor vehicle fees were increased in recent legislative sessions, but only to fund bridge repairs.

As a result, though the Oregon Department of Transportation has identified more than $9 billion in critical highway projects around the state, it will have only about half of that money over the next 25 years.

The situation facing cities is even worse, said Andy Shaw, a government-relations associate with the League of Oregon Cities, the organization that represents cities in Salem.

Although road repair costs are increasing faster than inflation, the amount of state gas tax money going to the cities is stagnant. Not only that, Shaw said, but the state property-tax limitation measures passed since 1990 have reduced the ability of local governments to generate more funds for road projects.

'Cities are dependent on the state coming up with the revenues they need to maintain their roads,' said Shaw, who notes preliminary figures show cities currently face a $160 million-a-year road maintenance-funding shortfall.

Some heavily timbered counties are facing even greater problems. A federal program that compensated them for the loss of revenues from federal timberlands has expired, potentially forcing some Southern and Eastern Oregon counties to make deep budget cuts, including trimming their transportation budgets.

As a result of these problems, many groups are looking to the 2007 Oregon Legislature to increase transportation funding. They include the LOC, the similar Association of Oregon Counties and the appointed Oregon Transportation Commission that sets statewide transportation priorities.

Groups sign on for goals

Several business organizations also have joined the effort, including the Oregon Business Council and the Portland Business Alliance, which have formed a steering committee on the issue co-chaired by Randy Pape, president and chief executive officer of the Pape Group Inc., and Steve Clark, president of the Portland Tribune and Community Newspapers Inc.

'The focus is on first developing a list of outcomes and results that such a package would support before we talk about how much money they would cost and what funding mechanisms would be needed,' Clark said. 'We hope to be able to nail that all down by the end of March and then present it to our business and legislative partners.'

Adams - who has made repeated trips to the Oregon Capitol to lobby the Legislature on the issue - hopes that agreement can be reached on a broad transportation-funding package soon. According to Adams, city and county transportation officials across the state currently are finalizing a list of top-priority projects that would be funded by such an increase.

'It's vital to be able to show the public exactly what they can buy in their own communities,' Adams said.

Planned projects in limbo

In the meantime, local governments are scrambling to find ways to pay for transportation projects. One of them is the Clackamas County Board of County Commissioners, which must find $600 million to pay for the Sunrise Corridor, the long-discussed corridor that is the missing transportation link between Interstate 205 and U.S. Highway 26.

The project is considered essential for the development of Damascus, the state's newest city, in northern Clackamas County. Regional growth planners hope Damascus will grow to provide homes and jobs to 60,000 of the 1 million more people expected to move to the region over the next 20 years.

A new highway linking Damascus to the rest of the region via I-205 is considered essential to its development.

Also being studied is the funding package for whatever version of the Columbia River Crossing project ultimately is approved. According to ODOT Communications Director Pat Cooney, the federal government is expected to pay around 90 percent of the highway portions of the project and around half of any new transit line. Motor vehicle tolls to help pay for the state match still are under consideration.

The task force will take up the supplemental bridge option at its March 27 meeting. If a proposal can be developed that meets the overall goals of the project, it will be added to the draft environmental impact study phase of the project.

The task force tentatively has agreed to begin studying a staff recommendation to build a replacement bridge with either a new light-rail or rapid bus line. That decision will be revisited when the supplemental bridge option is discussed later this month.

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