Mounting urban congestion and rural road problems throughout Oregon are conspiring to substantially harm the state's economic future and its prized quality of life.

A report released last week says that without significant and strategic investments in Oregon's transportation system, by 2025 statewide travel delays will exceed more than 150,000 hours each day and will cost $1.7 billion per year and 16,000 jobs. The report was prepared by the Boston-based Economic Development Research group as part of the 2007 Oregon Business Plan. It follows on the heels of a Portland-area cost of congestion study released 16 months ago.

The report also describes the critical connection between the Oregon economy and effective transportation - more than one in five jobs in the state are either transportation dependent or reliant. It describes how Oregon's transportation system is an economic connection to the rest of the nation and the world. And it forecasts that the value of freight moved in Oregon will increase from $530 billion in 2000 to $1.3 trillion in 2030 - more than 85 percent of which will be carried in trucks.

Economy needs attention

The report arrives at a critical time and should serve to both inform and provide an immediate call to action for Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the state Legislature. Since opening the session, state leaders have considered many issues, including education funding, health care for future and young Oregonians and a rainy day fund to protect the state budget. But we think insufficient focus has been placed on immediately investing in Oregon's economic future. This is in a state that relies on the economy to generate income taxes to pay for most state programs and public education.

Business leaders across Oregon (led by a group co-chaired by Steve Clark, president of Community Newspapers) are calling on state leaders to expand their attention. Lawmakers must not leave Salem without first addressing the state's economic quality of life by approving a comprehensive increase in highway funding.

The last time the Oregon Legislature successfully increased the state's gasoline tax was in 1987. At that time, it allowed for phased increases that ended in 1993.

Don't put discussion off

Raising taxes is difficult for any politician. But we think the task is made easier if the debate centers on funding economic outcomes and achieving public benefits. To that end, a handful of legislators, including Hillsboro's Sen. Bruce Starr, have quietly been discussing a transportation system investment strategy.

Last week, Sen. Rick Metzger outlined a package that would use revenues from a new state license plate to provide additional funds for projects of statewide significance. Metzger also favors taking some state highway savings and giving them to needy rural counties. And he supports an in-depth interim examination of transportation in preparation for the 2009 legislative session.

Metzger's ideas are a beginning, but they are insufficient. They may perpetuate a 20-year tradition in Oregon of putting off until tomorrow the discussion of how to provide sustained investments in the state's transportation system.

Metzger's plan does not fully recognize that Oregon's entire transportation system, including city and county roads, is not keeping up with growing demands and apart. Meanwhile accommodating growth is an expensive burden. Officials in Washington County project that they will need more than $200 million to simply serve urban growth expansion areas such as Bethany with road connections to Highway 26. And more and more cities are thinking of joining Tigard in passing their own gas tax or road fees to keep up with local needs that are not being addressed by a state funding solution.

The bottom line? Our state and local transportation system needs help now, not in 2009. The governor and legislators this session should heed the transportation study released last week by agreeing to increase transportation funding. Only then should the Legislature create an interim joint legislative, business and citizens committee to consider the future.

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