A person biking past Portland cityscape
Portland Bureau of Transportation

Oregon legislators are urging the state’s transportation leaders to spend an influx of one-time federal funding on walking, biking, and transportation safety infrastructure in an effort to meet Oregon’s climate goals.

“Our state has been clear on all governing levels on the need to center our policy making on equity and climate protection,” said Representative Maxine Dexter who represents part of North Portland.

President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) has bestowed the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) with $1.2 billion in transportation funding. Per the act, a bulk of that money—approximately $800 million—must be spent on predetermined areas like electric vehicle charging stations, natural disaster resiliency, and transportation safety projects. That leaves $412 million leftover to be directed anywhere transportation leaders see fit. The Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC)—five people who guide Oregon’s transportation decisions—is tasked with creating a funding plan for the federal money.

The OTC can create whatever funding plan it sees fit, but is using four scenarios proposed by ODOT as a starting point. Those four scenarios generally propose funding projects that fix highways, increase “active transportation” like walking and biking, expand highways, or combine all three. However, a fifth scenario created by environmental advocates that would fund active transportation and allocate a portion of the money to local jurisdictions to fund community-preferred projects has emerged over the past few weeks. The scenario was created in collaboration between the Oregon Environmental Council, 1000 Friends of Oregon, The Street Trust, No More Freeways, Verde, Climate Solutions, and BikeLoud PDX.

The OTC heard from dozens of lawmakers, elected officials, and members of the public Thursday on where they believe the federal money should go. During public comment, Portland representatives overwhelmingly endorsed the environmental activist-created funding scenario, called “Scenario 2B.”

“I strongly support Scenario 2B’s prioritization of funds for public and active transportation that will support our shared goals of centering climate and equity while giving significant flexible funding to local jurisdictions,” said Dexter Thursday.

Oregon is aiming to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 percent below 1990’s levels by 2050. With approximately 40 percent of the state’s emissions coming from transportation, incentivizing people to stop driving in fossil fuel-burning vehicles will play a major role in achieving Oregon’s climate goals.

Several additional Portland leaders, like Senator Akasha Lawrence Spence, Representative Khanh Pham, and Metro councilors Mary Nolan and Juan Carlos González, pointed out that highway projects already have dedicated state funding through Oregon’s Highway Trust Fund, which accumulates money through the state’s gas tax and other driving fees to exclusively fund highway projects. The representatives argued that this unique, one-time allocation of federal funding should be used on transportation projects that don’t have reliable funding, like pedestrian and public transit projects. Additionally, by giving money directly to local transportation departments, Scenario 2B supporters said that communities can better serve their own most pressing transportation needs.

“For example, in my district, this money could go towards safety enhancements on orphan highways like the deadly Powell Boulevard or 82nd Avenue that claims far too many lives,” said Pham, who represents parts of East Portland. “The dollars could go towards sidewalks and speeding interventions so that students like my daughter can safely walk to school.”

ODOT typically prioritizes transportation projects that serve the highest number of Oregonians, which is why highway and interstate projects usually receive the bulk of state transportation funding. However, local climate activists argue that prioritizing Oregon’s climate goals will ultimately benefit the most Oregonians because it will stave off some of the worst impacts of climate change.

“The heatwaves that killed over one hundred people, the wildfires that decimated entire southern Oregon towns, the floods in eastern Oregon, the droughts—we are just starting in all the ways we are experiencing the repercussions of inaction and acquiescence of fossil fuels,” said Aaron Brown, an organizer with environmental advocacy group No More Freeways. “The OTC can push for the reduction of VMT [Vehicle Miles Traveled] and invest in an abundance of irresistible transit and transportation options. You can be the heroes that say they saw what was coming and made immediate action to prepare for the storms ahead.”

While a vast majority of Oregon legislators and regional Portland officials who testified Thursday spoke in support of Scenario 2B, some representatives from outside Oregon’s most populous city urged the OTC to direct the federal funding towards large highway projects, like ODOT’s plan to widen Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter.

“Oregonians don’t care that opponents to these projects continue with their threats, they care that not a single shovel of dirt has turned over in the worst bottlenecks in the nation at the I-5 Rose Quarter,” said Representative Shelly Boshart Davis of Albany. “We need to spend these dollars where they will benefit most Oregonians, not just the loudest ones.”

However, representatives from less urban areas of the state cited their constituents’ interests in active transportation investments that would reduce their reliance on cars. Aloha Representative WInsvey Campos told the OTC that her district needs more investments to make it more walkable.

“As the youngest woman in history elected to the Oregon Legislature, it is likely that I will see in my lifetime the climate outcomes from the funding scenario you select,” said Campos, who is 26. “The era of freeway expansions must end and we must collectively work towards providing Oregonians with safer, greener, and more human-scale ways of getting to where they need to go.”

The OTC will meet again on March 10 to narrow down funding options and is expected to decide on a funding plan on March 30. Written public comment will be accepted until at least March 8.