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Road advocates need partners

Supporters of improved road funding to relieve congestion and better maintain decaying highways should take a lesson from — and not resent — successful efforts to expand Portland’s light-rail and streetcar systems. The fact is transit advocates continue to leave road advocates in the dust. Last Tuesday, local and national officials signed an agreement granting $345.5 million in federal funds to expand light rail along Interstate 205 and within the downtown transit mall. Meanwhile, the 2007 Oregon Legislature approved $245 million in lottery bonds to construct yet another MAX line. This route will run from downtown Portland to downtown Milwaukie across a new Willamette River bridge. On top of such MAX success, the Portland Streetcar system soon will be expanded to the city’s east side. Yet efforts to maintain and improve state and local roads are hardly successful. Despite the advocacy of business leaders and studies showing that congestion increasingly will cripple the economy and harm citizens’ quality of life, the Legislature said no to more road funding. Business leaders had sought $300 million to $350 million annually to reduce congestion, improve safety and maintain roads by using a mix of state gas taxes and vehicle registration and title fees. Not now, they were told by legislative leaders, even though it was 1993 when the state and federal gas taxes were last increased. The Legislature also rejected a new vehicle license plate fee to pay for a one-time, $100 million road bond. While acknowledging that Oregon’s roads are in need, the Legislature did create an interim committee to study the problem. In Portland, Commissioner Sam Adams is leading a comprehensive evaluation of fees to help reduce a $327 million backlog in city street maintenance. But after numerous community meetings and polling, Adams admits he is unsure whether he will ask the City Council to consider establishing such a fee. Portland is not alone. Around the region, Metro, local cities and Washington County independently are considering a hodgepodge of their own road fees. It’s time for a change. Roads never will have the appeal of light-rail or streetcar systems. Asphalt isn’t sexy. But roads don’t just move people. Supporters of better roads must convince others that highways are strategic and create needed jobs, economic development and improved quality of life — just as transit boosters tout light rail. It’s time for a large dose of road competitiveness. MAX supporters consistently say if Portland fails to act, other U.S. cities will take its place and capture available federal light-rail funds. It’s time for partnerships. Light-rail and streetcar supporters have learned to expand their ranks. Road advocates haven’t and sometimes don’t even agree among themselves. It’s time for unique leadership for roads. Engaged business leadership is a start. Sam Adams is an effective advocate for all of Oregon — not just Portland. We think it’s time for TriMet to become a supporter of road funding. After all, its buses run on roads. Bike, pedestrian and safety advocates have a stake in better roads, too. And it’s time for an Oregon governor to point the state forward by investing in highways. The last time that happened was in 1985. To date, Ted Kulongoski has said road and highway funding is not among his top priorities. When will it be, Governor? The same timing question needs to be answered by legislators and other advocates for Oregon’s economy, livability and public safety.