Oregon on tap to receive billions of federal dollars for housing, education and more

Two landmark spending packages from Congress and the Biden administration are set to deliver billions of dollars for roads, public transportation, disaster preparedness and more to Oregon.

That funding will pay for a long list of infrastructure and clean energy goals, from shoring up aging highway bridges to building new solar and wind power plants and training workers for jobs in green technology. It will also help protect clean water and prepare vulnerable communities for disasters like a Cascadia earthquake. 

Those projects and more were discussed at an online forum last Friday, attended by officials from the state departments of Transportation, Environmental Quality and Energy, along with federal representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Agriculture. The forum was hosted by the University of Oregon.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, passed in November 2021 and included $1.2 trillion in spending. It was followed by the Inflation Reduction Act, known as the Biden climate bill, in August 2022, with an additional $370 billion for projects to combat climate change. An analysis by the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that Oregon will receive at least $8 billion of that money, leading to 16,000 new jobs.

There are important differences between the two bills that affect how the money affects Oregonians. 

The infrastructure bill is made up mostly of direct funding to state and local governments. The federal government has already approved $1 billion for roads in Oregon over five years, a 38% increase over current funding, and $268 million to improve and replace aging bridges. The climate bill is made up mostly of tax benefits, both to consumers for purchasing things like home energy improvements and electric cars and through loans and grants.

Travis Brouwer from the Oregon Department of Transportation said the money will be needed to complete at least some of the pending bridge renewal projects across the state. There are 2,700 bridges in Oregon’s highway system, and most are over 50 years old. Before the infrastructure funding came through, work on the bridges was progressing so slowly that it would have taken 900 years to replace them all. 

“We did not build our bridges strong enough to last for 900 years,” said Brouwer.

The early stages of the infrastructure and climate bill funding are already making their way to Oregon. Last week, the USDA announced $714 million in grants for rural broadband internet, with over $55 million going to three projects in Clackamas, Grant and Wasco counties. Together, these grants will connect over 16,000 rural Oregonians to high-speed internet. According to data from the Federal Communications Commission, 99% of Multnomah County residents have broadband access, while in five Oregon counties, that number is less than 50%.

Although the infrastructure bill includes about four times as much funding on paper, the climate bill may actually provide more money in the long run because it includes so-called uncapped tax benefits. Rather than a set amount of money put aside to fix a bridge or lay internet cable, these uncapped benefits scale up with demand. One example is the $7,500 tax credit for electric car purchases. There is no budget cap for this credit, so more electric car sales mean more funding.

Much of the funding in the infrastructure bill is also devoted to competitive grants, which states, cities, tribes and other organizations will need to apply and compete for over the next few years. One major competitive grant for Oregon is the $8 billion Northwest Hydrogen Hub project, which seeks to establish the Northwest as one of the major hubs of a national green hydrogen power system. Oregon’s total share of the federal spending will depend somewhat on how Oregon agencies and companies fare with these competitive bids.

“These investments could not come at a better time,” said Kat Compton, climate change coordinator for the Northwest and Alaska at the Environmental Protection Agency. “This is really a huge opportunity for all of us.”

New competitive grants through the climate bill are still being announced. On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opened $575 million in competitive funding for governments, nonprofits and tribes in coastal states like Oregon.

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By Ian Rose - Oregon Capital Chronicle