06 Jul

In 21st century, Oregon can achieve multilevel transportation funding failure

This spring, after months of false starts, hairpin turns and sudden teeth-jarring stops, Portland’s leaders announced they would suspend their transportation finance efforts to see what the legislature would do.

So much for that plan.

With the Legislature’s giving up on any investment effort, Portland has now seen transportation failure at two levels of government. And when Congress comes back in session Tuesday, it’s likely to extend its own inability to produce what used to be regular multi-year transportation packages.

Local, state, federal – for transportation projects, there is now no on-ra
mp.
Instead, we now have a triple-decker club sandwich of congestion. We could put up signs proclaiming, “Combined city, state and federal efforts have built this pothole.”

It’s not that we don’t know we need to do something. “To get our streets into the condition we want them to be in,” Portland transportation commissioner Steve Novick said this spring, “we would need to spend $118 million every year for 10 years.”

Not that anyone imagines anything like that, of course. Basically, we’d just hope to avoid losing ground, or at least not losing pavement. Novick calculates that the various city tax proposals floating around would manage to keep the city’s level of unsafe streets at 12 percent, instead of rising to 19 percent.

Still, none of the transportation tax ideas could find a third City Council vote, nor clear business support. Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales rushed down the exit route of announcing they would wait on the legislature – with, says Novick, some legislative encouragement.

The legislature, unfortunately, steered itself immediately into gridlock. Democrats passed an extension of the low-carbon fuel sunset, and Republicans then said the extension made any new transportation revenues impossible.

Gov. Kate Brown declared a transportation package to be her legislative bottom line, and people starting talking about repealing or adjusting the extension, and the possibility of a deal. But neither side moved very quickly, and then 19 House Democrats – a majority of the majority – came out against any change.

The state legislature is going home without any action on transportation – although, given the condition of Oregon’s roads, it could be a bumpy trip.

That leaves the federal government, where funding for the highway transportation trust fund runs out of money at the end of this month. As Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, pointed out last week, that could end federal compensation to the states and any new projects.

Typically, the feds spend $50 billion a year on transportation, arranged in six-year packages. But the federal gas tax, which has not been raised since 1993, now brings in only about $34 billion a year, and there’s no strategy to cover the difference – and no strategy for a new six-year package.

Last week, President Obama said hopefully that transportation would be a priority for the rest of his term. But House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has said there will be no tax increases – although he is working out a proposal.

“It’s the same with (Senate Finance Committee chairman) Orrin Hatch (R-Utah),” said DeFazio. “They both have secret plans.”
One plan, DeFazio suggests, might be to connect a transportation package to a major tax reform bill, which with “dynamic scoring” would cut taxes and calculate it would cause revenues to increase.

That would be fine with DeFazio: “I said to Ryan, ‘It’s OK with me if you want to pretend the money will come in, because I’m willing to borrow to do this.’”

On the other hand, any legislative plans based on passage of a major tax reform could be considered highly hypothetical.
Various rank-and-file House Republicans, DeFazio points out, are trying to work something out. And numerous states, including bright-red ones like Utah, are raising their own gas taxes; last Thursday, Michigan’s Republican state Senate voted to raise its gas tax by 15 cents over three years.

This leaves Oregon, motionless in the roadside ditch at all government levels.

“I have unquestioning sympathy for the legislature,” says Novick, who still hopes that legislators might come back in a special session this fall to deal with transportation. He points out that the city has assigned a large amount of this year’s general fund surplus to road maintenance and safety, and he hopes that will stir other support

Of course, Portland has a one-year surplus, and a multiple-year transportation problem.

And at least for now, Oregon has no reason to look for help from Salem or Washington.

It could be hard to build any more Oregon trails.

Note: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 7/5/15.