Oregon lawmakers begin work on transportation package focused on maintaining roads

Seven years ago, lawmakers poured more than $5 billion into improving roads, bridges and public transit in Oregon, touting plans to add lanes to congested urban highways, redesign intersections that served as hot spots for crashes and make safer walking routes to school for students across the state. 

Now, lawmakers are in the earliest stages of crafting the next likely multi-billion transportation package – but this time around, the focus is more on maintaining existing roads than expanding or building new ones. During a Friday meeting that served as a primer for a series of meetings around the state, lawmakers on the Joint Transportation Committee heard that Oregon’s roads and the systems in place to pay to maintain them are struggling.

Kris Strickler, director of the Oregon Department of Transportation, told lawmakers that the department needs about $2.8 billion annually just to meet current needs – nearly $1.8 billion beyond its current resources. 

“We’re at a point where asking for projects just feels like, pardon the pun, a bridge too far,” Strickler said.  

The agency is in a “deep, deep struggle,” that’s only getting worse, he said. That’s because the state transportation system relies on what Strickler calls a three-legged stool for funding – and that stool’s legs are giving out. The first leg, revenue from the state’s 40-cents-per-gallon gas tax, is faltering as more Oregonians drive fuel-efficient cars or electric vehicles. The average driver now uses almost a quarter less fuel than they did a decade ago, paying about $40 less per year in gas taxes. 

The second, fees paid to the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services division, isn’t steady because some DMV fees aren’t enough to cover the cost to administer services, let alone bring in additional revenue. That puts more weight on the third stool leg, weight-mile taxes charged to commercial truckers, who are now suing the state alleging they’re being overcharged.  

Strickler recommended lawmakers consider adding more legs, including tolls, fees on electric vehicles and road usage charges. Most importantly, he said every fee should be indexed to inflation. 

High-priority projects need finishing

Legislative leaders who addressed the transportation committee echoed those sentiments. House Speaker Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, said the state needs to finish some of the high-priority projects it promised in 2017 before committing to new spending. 

“Our expectation is that this work will be focused on addressing the structural funding issues in our transportation system so that we can meet our existing maintenance and operational needs,” she said. “This is the most critical piece of the work we need to do in the next year.”

Lawmakers will face pressure from cities and counties to help pay for roads, sidewalks and transit throughout the state. Mallorie Roberts, legislative director for the Association of Oregon Counties, noted that the state’s 36 counties are responsible for nearly 32,000 miles of roads and 4,000 bridges, the largest share of public roads. The state highway fund pays for about half of county road budgets, she said.

Cities, meanwhile, plan to come up with a list of needs this summer. Jim McCauley, legislative director for the League of Oregon Cities, said cities had a list of about $3.7 billion in construction needs in 2017 and are now looking at more than $5 billion in needs. 

“It’s going to look different (than 2017),” he said. “There may not be sufficient room to fund a lot of shiny new projects.”

But cities and counties will find skeptics in the Legislature, including in Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth. He said the state should focus on state priorities, including bridges, airports and seaports, but not necessarily paying for local roads. 

“We are at the point where we have been backfilling property tax for 40 years, and the state can’t do the things that states need to do,” he said. 

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.