Don't expect big federal aid for transportation, former official says
If Portland wants to reduce traffic congestion and improve the movement of people and goods through the region, a former federal official says don't wait for help from Washington,
"I'll buy you all dinner if we get an infrastructure bill out of Congress," says John Porcari, who was the No. 2 official at the U.S. Department of Transportation for more than four years. "I would be pleasantly but very much surprised if we get any significant bill out of Congress. I hope I am wrong but I do not see it."
Porcari spoke Sept. 20 at a transportation conference sponsored by the Westside Economic Alliance at the Beaverton Building. The conference spotlight was on broader issues of building and funding future systems for the Portland region, not on specific projects in Washington County.
President Donald Trump has laid out no specifics to back up his campaign pledge, and a divided Congress appears preoccupied with other issues.
Porcari and other speakers said the initiative has shifted from the federal government, which paid for the bulk of interstate highway construction during the 1950s and 1960s.
Porcari, a two-time Maryland transportation secretary, was deputy U.S. transportation secretary from mid-2009 until the end of 2013. From 2009 until the end of 2015, when Congress approved a five-year renewal, federal authority for transportation spending hinged on extensions as short as a few weeks. The 2015 law provided for only modest spending increases through 2020.
He was in office when the federal economic stimulus law, which President Barack Obama signed early in 2009, injected $3 billion into transportation spending in 2009 and 2010.
"At the same time (the federal role) has become less predictable and gotten smaller in terms of real dollars, the real action is at the local, regional and state levels," Porcari said. "If you leave here with nothing else today, you need to know that it's really up to you to determine your future."
Oregon and Washington are among the states where lawmakers have approved new multiyear transportation funding — Oregon at $5.3 billion this year, Washington at $16 billion in 2015 — and voters in the Los Angeles and Seattle metro areas passed multibillion-dollar tax and bond measures last year.
"The ones that pass are very specific about what kind of transportation infrastructure you are going to build and when you are going to build it," Porcari said.
John Tapogna, president of the Portland firm ECONorthwest, said he thinks planning is essential now to anticipate the region's population growth in the next 20 years.
"We are not Cleveland," he said. "We are in a natural amenity-rich part of the United States and that advantage is likely to increase with climate change. More and more people are going to be pointed to this region."
Public priority for transportation has risen, and with the cost of housing, may have displaced the economy and education among the top issues in the Portland area.
"What has angered people and changed their attitudes is congestion of cars on the roads," said John Horvick, vice president and political director at DHM Research in Port-
Long list of needs
Even with approval of Oregon's package, which still could be subject to a statewide vote, Metro's Andy Shaw said it will meet only a portion of the Portland area's needs.
Metro's 2014 regional transportation plan, which is being updated, lists 1,256 projects through 2045 with a total price tag of $23 billion — 68 percent of which is envisioned from local sources, 23 percent from federal money and just 9 percent from the state.
"We cannot depend on the state every seven to 10 years to fund that whole list of projects. We are not going to make it unless we start stepping up locally," said Shaw, who is government affairs director. "We've got a long way to go."
TriMet, the regional transit agency, has started a preliminary discussion of a regional measure that would encompass the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail line between Portland and Tualatin and also major highway and bridge projects in other areas.
"What we are hearing from voters is that they want to see balanced investments in the whole system," Shaw said. "We are working to show them that light rail actually will help reduce congestion, especially on I-5, in one of the fast
est-growing parts of our region."
Among the potential projects for inclusion are a widening of I-205 in Clackamas County from two to three lanes in each direction between Stafford Road and the George Abernethy Bridge; a reworking of the Rose Quarter interchange of I-5 and I-84 in Portland, and improvements on Highway 217 between Tigard and Cedar Mill.
Only the latter project is funded at $98 million in the Legislature's 2017 package, which directs the Oregon Department of Transportation to start designing the others likely to total around $500 million each.
"Everybody's boat has to float," said Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers, who also leads the Portland regional advisory commission on transportation for ODOT.
"We'd better be very specific as to what people are buying. Voters will buy something if they think it has value."
But organized opposition to the Rose Quarter project, which would result in three instead of two travel lanes, is forming.
In earlier remarks, ODOT Director Matt Garrett said: "I doubt there is any constituency out there that would suggest what we have right now is what we want."
Preserving a legacy
Garrett said increasing shares of transportation budgets at all levels will have to go toward maintaining and upgrading aging systems.
"From a political standpoint, everybody wants to cut a ribbon for a new bridge," Garrett said. "Not too many people want to cut a ribbon for a culvert."
Washington Transportation Secretary Roger Millar said
neglecting repairs can negate the effects of new construc-tion.
"We talk about the cost of congestion," Millar said. "Let's talk about the cost of not having good repairs."
A separate panel, led by Karmen Fore, transportation adviser and senior director for federal/regional affairs for Gov. Kate Brown, explored how transportation could be transformed by social and physical changes in communities and new technologies such as connected and automated vehicles.
As president of U.S. advisory services for WSP USA — one of the nation's largest planning, engineering and construction firms once known as WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff — Porcari is also the interim executive director of the corporation overseeing a proposed second rail tunnel to link New York City and New Jersey, known as the Gateway Project.
The existing two-track tunnel was built in 1906, and suffered major damage from seawater during superstorm Sandy in 2012.
"Are we planning, designing and building the kind of investments our grandchildren will benefit from? If you are honest with yourself, I think we know the answer — we are not," Porcari said.