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Potholes on the road to prosperity

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 month says that without significant and strategic investments in Oregon's transportation system, by 2025 statewide travel delays will exceed 300 million hours annually, costing 16,000 jobs and $1.7 billion per year.

The report was prepared by the Boston-based Economic Development Research Group as part of the 2007 Oregon Business Plan. It follows a Portland-area cost-of-congestion study released 16 months ago.

These two reports make it clear that transportation problems are not limited to Portland; the barriers to moving people and goods affect communities throughout the state.

The issue is particularly urgent in cities like Forest Grove and Cornelius, which are aggressively seeking to boost their industrial base. Luring employers west of Hillsboro will be a tough sell if their goods can't get to the I-5 corridor and their workers are stuck in traffic.

Indeed, last month's report describes the critical connection between the Oregon economy and effective transportation. Even in the era of e-mail and text-messaging, more than one in five jobs in the state are either transportation-dependent or transportation-reliant.

The report 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.

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 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. And this 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 are calling on lawmakers to address the state's economic quality of life by increasing highway funding. The last time the Oregon Legislature increased the state's gasoline tax was in 1987. At that time, it allowed for phased increases that ended in 1993.

Raising taxes can be tough on elected officials. But we think the task is made easier if the debate focuses on funding economic outcomes and achieving public benefits. To that end, a handful of legislators quietly have been discussing a transportation system investment strategy.

Last week, state Sen. Rick Metsger outlined a package that would use revenues from a new state license plate to provide additional funds for projects of statewide significance.

He 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.

Metsger's ideas are a beginning, but they don't go far enough in recognizing that Oregon's entire transportation system, including city and county roads, is falling apart.

The decaying transportation system needs help now, not in 2009. The governor and legislators should heed the new transportation study by agreeing to increase transportation funding this session.