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Oregon gets more in federal transportation funds

Gains are modest, but law ends long standoff.


PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Oregon is finally assuered of some addtional federal transportation funding - but not nearly enough to solve all the congestion and maintenance problems.Oregon will get a little more federal money for highways and transit — and the prospects of more money to ease the movement of freight — as a result of congressional action on transportation funding.

President Barack Obama signed it a day after Congress completed action on what is known as the FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act.

At five years and $305 billion, it’s less than Obama’s six-year, $478 billion proposal he sent to Congress early in 2015. But it’s also the first long-term authorization of federal transportation in a decade, after 37 short-term extensions — some as brief as a few weeks — since the most recent authorization ended back in 2009.

“This five-year bill will give states, cities and counties the capability of dealing with longer-term problems that confront our transportation system,” says U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and a key negotiator on the bill.

It does not make a big dent in Oregon’s multibillion-dollar backlog of maintenance and construction projects, but the law does provide a little more federal money.

Oregon Department of Transportation officials offered their assessments of the law’s effect in memos and during a recent presentation to the Oregon Transportation Commission.

Oregon’s federal share for highways, which had been flat for several years, will increase about 5 percent from $482 million to $507 million in this budget year. That share will then rise about 2 percent annually through 2020.

Federal funds account for about 20 percent of the ODOT budget, which like all state agencies is on a two-year spending cycle.

Oregon also will get $98 million in the first year, about 5 percent more than current levels, in federal transit funds. Much of that is passed on to regional agencies such as TriMet.

The law creates two new programs to help states deal with freight bottlenecks on highways.

One program guarantees money to Oregon and other states when they develop detailed plans to relieve freight congestion. Oregon will start with $14.5 million in the first year and end up with more than $19 million in 2020.

The other program does not guarantee money, but offers a large pot to states, metropolitan planning organizations, cities, counties and ports for “nationally significant” projects of at least $100 million. The pot will start at $800 million and eventually reach $1 billion in 2020.

“It will help us become more competitive in the world economy and make more investment in moving goods efficiently into and out of our country in access to our ports,” DeFazio says.

Chairwoman Tammy Baney of the Oregon Transportation Commission says that Oregon must position itself to take advantage of this pot for such large projects, particularly for resiliency work that will help highways and bridges withstand a severe earthquake or other disaster.

Ted Leybold, transportation planning manager for Metro, says that because officials now know the amounts and prospects of federal money, they can do a better job of trying to leverage it with potential new regional and state sources.

Metro and the Oregon Legislature have been weighing their own actions to generate more money for transportation needs.

Oregon used to receive 99 cents in federal payments for every dollar it contributed to the highway trust fund, making it a donor state. In 2005, the formula changed so that Oregon now gets $1.25 in federal payments for every dollar contributed.

“Oregon will receive $325 million more over the next five years than we would have if Congressman DeFazio had not been in a continuous position of leadership on transportation policy in Washington, D.C.,” says Matt Garrett, ODOT director.

Shortcomings

While all of Oregon’s representatives and senators voted in favor of renewed transportation funding, some of them say the law did not go far enough.

Although most of the highway trust fund will be filled by federal gasoline taxes, the new law will shift $70 billion from other unrelated programs to offset a projected shortfall in the fund. Among them are increased tax collections generated from private collection agencies.

“The collection of budget gimmicks paying for the legislation are, in many cases, questionable,” says U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. “This is one of many ways the bill is paid for, basically to disguise the use of the Treasury’s general fund instead of the traditional user fee model.”

The current federal gasoline tax is 18.4 cents, most recently raised in 1993 under a Democratic president and congressional majorities. Before then, it was raised twice (in 1983 and 1990) under Republican presidents and split or Democratic congressional majorities.

Blumenauer was one of two chief sponsors of a bill to raise the tax by 5 cents in each of the next three years. But Republican congressional majorities resisted tax increases.

“I am hopeful that we can use the next five years to build upon the positive framework of the legislation and for Congress to accept the overwhelming consensus of the people who build, maintain, and use our surface transportation system,” he says.

The advocacy group Transportation for America, which consists of business and civic leaders, echoed Blumenauer’s criticisms and more.

“Only a handful of elected leaders were willing to even discuss raising or indexing the gasoline tax to pay for the level of investment our country desperately needs,” James Corless, the group’s director, said in a statement.

“When it comes to policy, this bill falls far short of the transformational, outcome-based approach needed to keep our cities and towns prospering as our nation experiences profound shifts in demographics, consumer preferences and technology.”

In addition to inadequate funding, Corless says, the law ignores emerging development of driverless vehicles and shared transportation networks such as Uber.

The future

DeFazio says that while the law has its shortcomings, Congress can plow more money into transportation funding in the future if future sessions can come up with sources.

The law does provide money for states such as Oregon, which is experimenting with a mileage tax as an alternative to a fuels tax to pay for road and bridge repairs.

The law also sets aside money for agencies to prepare for and respond to spills of oil and other hazardous materials shipped by rail. It also requires railroads to share information with public safety officials about such movements. Oregon recently updated its rules on the issue.

DeFazio says Congress talks a lot about creating jobs, but this bill does it.

“There is no way we can do more for the American economy than making these long-term investments and putting hundreds of thousands of people to work rebuilding our critical infrastructure,” DeFazio says.

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