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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Transportation Package: $840 Million for Roads

Posted by Sarah Mirk on Wed, May 27, 2009 at 1:27 PM

The state's giant transportation package is rolling to a House vote today. But not before environmental and bike advocates had a chance to slam the landmark deal when it got one last hearing before the Transportation Committee last week.

The transportation package sets the state transportation budget for coming years and with strong lobbies on both sides of the aisle and thousands of jobs at stake, the debate over this year's bill (now called House Bill 2001) has been fierce. The Governor's original version has been ripped apart and sewn back together several times during this legislative session (or, as legislators call the political reworking - "gutted and stuffed"). We reported last week that the resulting bill has some big red flags for progressive transportation advocates, including $840 million for new road projects (like $30 million for the Columbia River Crossing) while excluding any increase in bike or pedestrian funding. The bill also includes an important provision making cities include greenhouse gas emission goals in their city planning language - but only binds Portland and Eugene to make goals, leaving out the rest of the state.

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"I’ve struggled a lot with the bill," says Jules Kopel Bailey, the dreamy SE Portland rep who sits on the transportation committee and lists the environment high on his priorities. The underlying problem, he says, is that with the way transportation funded is in Oregon - they money from any tax or fee relating to transportation (like vehicle license fees or gas taxes) is funneled into the Highway Trust Fund, which is almost exclusively spent on roadbuilding projects. TriMet and other transportation groups have to raise their money elsewhere - TriMet, for example, from payroll taxes. "We CANNOT achieve our climate future or our transportation future with the highway trust fund in place," says Bailey. "What we really need is a situation where we can raise costs on the transportation sector and then use that money in the most cost effective way." Bailey introduced a small resolution changing the rules so that future carbon taxes could go to a different transportation fund - while the resolution is unlikely to pass, it's a good way to start some sort of conversation about changing Oregon's archaic transportation funding system.

East Portland rep and transportation committee co-chair Nick Kahl had a similar mixed opinion on the bill. "If I could sit down myself and write a bill and pass it into law myself, is it what I would create? No. And I think people on the opposite end of the spectrum from me would say the same thing." For good points of the bill, Kahl points to money for the Sellwood Bridge repair and how the sky will part and rain jobs when the bill is passed — right now, the bill is slated to create 4,600 jobs a year over the next 10 years. Hoo boy.

Keep reading to hear the environmentalists and bike/ped advocates' concerns about the bill.

"Our organization was honored to participate in the original transportation package. We feel that this bill has taken a turn in the wrong direction," opined Chris Hager Baumer of the Oregon Environmental Council at the hearing last week, saying the failure of the city planning language be state-wide will lead to sprawl.

"Once you’ve laid those roads, you’re creating lifestyle and consumer choices that will be there for maybe over 100 years. Although we want the jobs, we badly want the jobs, we want to see a little more time put in for planning," echoed Lisa Adatto of Climate Solutions. Scott Bricker of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance also turned up to argue that increased bike funding should be slipped back into the bill before it goes to a vote today (it wasn't). "Bike transportation projects create more jobs per dollar than highway projects," said Bricker, "for every mile bicycled, a dollar is saved in the healthcare system." One of the BTA's goals in the legislature this year was to create a bike-specific transportation fund, so money for non-car and roadbuilding projects could be unshackled from the Highway Trust Fund. But the idea did not get any traction in this year's legislature so, for now, we're stuck with $840 million for new roads.

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