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Governor can make a difference on roads

There are several key ingredients needed to turn the corner of transportation woes

A leadership breakthrough for Oregon's future came earlier this month when Gov. Ted Kulongoski said it was time to make significant investments in the state's transportation system an immediate priority.

Kulongoski's timing couldn't be better.

The governor has the bully pulpit and authority to bring focus to the requirement to improve the state's transportation system.

Strategic investments are needed to enhance the state's transportation-dependent economy, as well as to improve public safety, Oregonians' quality of life and the state's environment - all of which are suffering due to increasing congestion.

It was only a few months ago that legislative leaders went home saying this wasn't the time to invest in the state's roads and highways, even though Oregon had not increased its road funding since 1993.

The Legislature's inaction came despite an economic report that said that without strategic transportation investments the state risked mounting economic losses approaching $1.7 billion a year and 16,000 jobs by 2025.

Largely silent on transportation in the last legislative session, Kulongoski was wise enough to take stock of recent events and change course.

The bridge collapse in Minnesota raised significant concern. While a review produced a clean bill of health for state-maintained bridges in Oregon, the investigation did not examine local bridges, many of which, including the nearby Sellwood Bridge, are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Meanwhile, left unaided by the Legislature, a growing number of local governments, including Portland, Metro and Washington County, are moving closer to individually asking their voters to approve piecemeal, local funding measures to pay for important projects and maintenance.

At the same time, a hodgepodge of varied business and legislative transportation groups have been forming to plot their own strategies for the 2009 session.

Kulongoski was correct to tell legislative, local-government and business leaders that he is sensitive to these many needs, but that what's needed is a unified approach. That said, it won't be easy, and anything achieved in 2009 will only be a first step.

An increase in state funding will address only a portion of the more than $1.3 billion annual funding gap for the Oregon Department of Transportation, the $200 million needed by the city of Portland, or the more than $2 billion required regionally. Congestion can be reduced over time, not eliminated.

Along the way, several requirements are essential to turning the corner on transportation solutions:

n It's time to stop talking about transportation as an isolated topic and instead talk about transportation as a way to invest in the economy, jobs for Oregonians, public safety and livability.

n Leadership is only one needed component. It's time to build trust and confidence among Oregonians that investing in public infrastructure can make their daily lives and communities better.

n Greater transparency, accountability and partnerships among all political parties and interest groups are required.

n Because Oregon's needs are so great, the state won't catch up overnight. But the effort must start now and over many years build momentum.

n New partners in transportation are needed. Yes, the state's roads are failing and need attention. To confront this problem fully, representatives of transit, port, business and environmental groups must be full partners in addressing road and highway solutions.

Kulongoski is the key that starts the engine of change that for the next two and a half years can drive Oregon ahead and make an essential difference.