Study: Broken state transportation system could hurt economy

Congested freeways, poorly maintained streets, limited road connections to airports, unmet public demand for transit and other transportation problems are threatening Oregon's economy - and could cost 16,000 jobs and $1.7 billion a year in lost productivity by 2025, according to a newly released study.

The study, commissioned by a coalition of private and government groups, found that some businesses already are losing money because of the transportation problems.

One firm, Roseburg Forest Products, recently decided to buy additional particle mills back East instead of expanding in Oregon because of road capacity issues, according to the study, which is titled 'The Cost of Highway Limitations and Traffic Delays to Oregon's Economy.'

'Portland is not the only part of the state with serious transportation problems,' says Marion Haynes, director of government relations and associate general counsel of the Portland Business Alliance, one of several business groups that sponsored the study.

Other downstate businesses cited in the report as experiencing transportation-related problems include: Anderson Hay and Grain Inc. of Aurora; Harry and David Holdings Inc. of Medford; Jeld-Wen Windows and Doors of Klamath Falls, Stayton and Bend; Monrovia Nursery of Dayton; and Smith Frozen Foods Inc. of Weston.

The business groups will present the study to the Oregon House Transportation Committee on Wednesday. They hope the Legislature will agree to increase transportation funding this session to begin addressing the problems identified in the report.

Although no financing package has been submitted yet, options include raising the state gasoline tax, increasing the weight/mile fee paid by truckers and increasing motor vehicle registration fees.

State, counties have needs

The costs are enormous on both sides of the equation. The Oregon Department of Transportation recently identified $9.3 billion in needed highway improvements, including $1 billion as state government's share of a new Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver, Wash.

The 36 counties say they need an additional $433 million a year for their roads. It would cost $325 million to repair Portland's approximately 600-mile street maintenance backlog.

The study is an expansion of one released last December that focused on the local area titled 'The Cost of Congestion to the Economy of the Portland Region.'

It found that without increased spending on transportation projects, congestion and related problems will cost the local economy $844 million a year by 2025, including lost worker productivity, higher transportation costs and lost business earnings.

The findings prompted the Oregon Business Council to include transportation as one of its priority issues to be addressed by the Legislature. The council is a nonpartisan organization representing business leaders across the state. It joined with the PBA, Associated Oregon Industries, the Port of Portland, the Westside Business Alliance and the Oregon Department of Transportation to commission the new study.

Steve Clark, president of the Portland Tribune and Community Newspapers Inc., worked on a steering committee that oversaw both studies, which were conducted by the Economic Development Research Group, a consulting firm based in Boston.

Problem extends nationwide

The study found that the state's economy is dependent on transportation. It also found that one in five jobs is reliant on, or related to, transportation.

The state's international air and sea gateways, and location along major transcontinental highways and rail routes, make Oregon a center of activity for trucking, railroads, warehousing and distribution of products,' the study reports.

But the study also found that the existing transportation system already is overburdened - and will be further overwhelmed by the millions of new people expected to move to Oregon in coming decades.

'Increasing congestion and travel time delays - even with currently planned improvements - will significantly impact the state's ability to maintain and grow business, as well as our quality of life,' the study concludes.

Oregon is not the only state facing such problems. Far from it. A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the entire country's transportation system is under stress.

'Our nation's transportation infrastructure is threatened by increasing demand for transportation services, and revenue from traditional funding mechanisms for the nation's highway system may be unable to keep pace at current tax rates,' according to the report, which also said air and rail systems need more money, too.

Some states already have begun to invest in their transportation systems. Washington voters approved a $9 billion construction measure in 2006, and the California Legislature is working on a larger package. In contrast, the 24-cents-a-gallon Oregon gas tax that funds road construction and maintenance has not been increased since 1993.

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