A crew paving a highway at night
Oregon Department of Transportation

Oregon will spend $412 million in federal transportation funds on repaving highways, increasing safety on main roads, and bolstering highway projects that are currently under construction, the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) decided Wednesday. Environmental activists, who have been urging the commission to spend the money on carbon-reducing projects, argue the investments don't go far enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The OTC, a group of five people who oversee the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), has spent the last four months deliberating how to spend an influx of funding from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)—President Joe Biden's historic $1 trillion bill signed into law in November 2021.

Oregon received $1.2 billion from the legislation, a majority of which was required to be spent on particular types of projects, like electric vehicle charging, resilience against natural disasters, and public transportation. However, $412 million of the funding was considered flexible, meaning the OTC could direct ODOT to spend it as they see fit.

ODOT proposed four funding scenarios that represented the agency’s main priorities of improving the pavement conditions of existing roads, building major highway projects, and investing in “active transportation,” like safety upgrades that would improve walking and biking conditions. Environment and transportation activists also proposed a funding scenario that would heavily invest in public transit, walking, and biking infrastructure and direct the remaining funds to local transportation agencies who could determine how the money should be best used in their community. The activist-created scenario received strong support from several Portland politicians and the public.

Ultimately, the OTC approved a hybrid version of two ODOT-proposed funding plans that received the most support through public comment and surveys, investing dominantly in active transportation and road maintenance and repaving. Highway construction received one of the largest pots of money in the funding plan.

“We see all of the arguments,” OTC Chair Robert Van Brocklin said during the Wednesday meeting where the group chose a funding plan. “We have to make hard decisions and we’re trying to balance a lot of important interests.”

Environmental and transportation safety advocates characterized the OTC’s funding plan as “prioritizing highways over community safety.”

“In this moment when communities are suffering from high gas prices, climate change, and lack access to transportation, we need to be doubling down on safety, orphan highways, public transit, bike-ped, and local transportation projects, not more of the same business as usual,” said State Representative Khanh Pham, who supported the activist-created scenario, in a press statement.

Several youth organizers with Sunrise Movement PDX, an environmental advocacy organization, said the OTC’s vote did not prioritize efforts to mitigate climate change, jeopardizing the health and safety of younger generations.

“With today’s vote, the OTC has failed us once again,” said Robin Sack, a 16-year-old member of Sunrise PDX. “We are running out of time. We need more frequent public transit, and safe infrastructure for active transportation, not freeway expansions. We need bold climate action and we need our leaders to protect our futures.”

During the meeting, Van Brocklin emphasized the investments Oregon will be making in electric vehicle charging due to the predetermined federal funding, arguing that Oregonians are switching to electric cars faster than public transportation agencies like TriMet are expanding their services.

Here’s how the funds will be invested:

• $50 million for gap funding on existing highway projects
• $75 million to repave state-owned roads throughout Oregon
• $50 million to improve the safety conditions of state-owned highways that function like urban arterial streets
• $30 million for improving the safety conditions of common school commutes
• $10 million for a pilot project that aims to work with community organizations to fund small transportation projects
• $15 million to help local governments plan projects that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions
• $40 million to fund general ODOT maintenance and operations
• $95 million to build ADA-compliant curb ramps throughout the state, as required by a state settlement
• $40 million to use as a match for additional federal grants that could bring in more funding for the state
• $7 million for business and workforce development to help grow small contracting firms