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Our Opinion: Don't let state transportation plans run out of gas

The Oregon Legislature may be losing a key transportation advocate, but that doesn’t alter the need for this state to improve its roads, highways, bridges and other means of moving people and goods around.

The legislative path to such meaningful upgrades to Oregon’s transportation system did get a little trickier last week with the possible defeat of state Sen. Bruce Starr. The Washington County Republican is a strong voice for transportation who works well with Democrats and members of his own party to fashion transportation packages. He was losing his re-election bid to former state Rep. Chuck Riley.

Starr’s apparent defeat came after a California billionaire targeted him because Starr opposed moving forward with a low carbon fuel program that otherwise would sunset in 2015.

With the possible loss of Starr and defeat of fellow Republican Sen. Betsy Close, Democrats will have an 18-12 majority in the state Senate and they also gained a seat in the House in the November election. Presumably, they have the votes to extend the deadline for the carbon fuels standards, which were approved by the 2009 Legislature but never implemented.

Less clear, though, is what a Democratic-controlled Legislature will see as essential components of a transportation-funding package that’s been expected to emerge from the 2015 legislative session. If Starr had remained part of a more closely divided Senate, we would be confident in anticipating a transportation bill that was balanced between roads, highways, transit, bicycles and pedestrians.

Starr also would have been an influential and credible voice for the need to raise money to pay for these transportation projects. After his defeat, transportation supporters now must work hard to ensure that legislators don’t tilt too far away from traditional infrastructure — roads, bridges and highways.

We aren’t arguing that transit users, bicyclists and pedestrians don’t also need improved facilities, but the majority of commerce — not to mention commuting — still depends on an up-to-date road system. The crucial concept is balance, and legislators should make sure the next transportation package addresses all modes.

Lawmakers also need to tie transportation funding to more sustainable sources of revenue. As cars become evermore fuel efficient, proceeds from the state’s 30-cent-per-gallon gas tax will not keep pace with current and future needs. Oregon is experimenting with a vehicle miles tax as an alternative, but so far, participation in that program will be limited to 5,000 volunteer drivers.

In advance of the 2015 legislative session, a group called the Oregon Transportation Forum has been meeting to form a consensus around a transportation funding and policy package. Among others, this group includes advocates for driving, biking, transit and freight movement. Its daunting goal was to develop a package that everyone could support.

The end result of those discussions can provide a good starting point for legislators. Funding ideas include indexing the gas tax to increases in the fuel efficiency of cars. This is viewed as a stopgap measure, as it still would not affect electric cars or truck taxes.

The forum also is recommending an unspecified general increase in the gas tax to address highway maintenance, preservation and modernization. The group further suggests use of state general fund dollars and lottery funds for specific transportation needs.

The Oregon Transportation Forum’s recommendations provide a rough outline for a legislative package and various groups will seek to improve upon those recommendations, based on their own particular transportation needs. However, no one can argue with the forum’s stated goals: to put Oregonians to work, reduce costly traffic congestion, protect environmental quality and improve health and safety.

Those are outcomes that — no matter who is in the Legislature — ought to be supported by all.

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