Transportation | News | Local

The Statesman Journal: Oregon's Driving Challenge

Statesman Journal | June 17, 2014 1 p.m. | Updated: June 18, 2014 10:46 a.m. | Salem, Oregon

Contributed By:

Hannah Hoffman Statesman Journal

That darn Prius.

The trend toward fuel-efficient cars is reducing the gas tax revenue traditionally used to pay for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s highway projects, forcing the department to rely on short-term bonds and hurting its ability to plan, according to an audit released Tuesday by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office.

The problem is that revenue has dropped just as Oregon is on the cusp of needing to repair and replace most of its bridges and highways.

At the same time, the department is in the midst of cutting staff by 5 percent over the next five years in response to the decline in revenue, and it is relying more heavily on temporary employees, whose positions are easier to pay for with limited-duration bond funds.

The result is a possible loss of the skills and labor needed to complete all the bridge and highway projects the state needs to do over the coming decades, according to the audit.

“Oregon, like much of the country, faces a significant transportation infrastructure challenge,” the audit said. “During the 1950s and 1960s, the country made a huge investment in highways and bridges, including Interstate 5 through Oregon. As these investments age, repair and replacement needs increase.”

By 2030, the state will need to put nearly $6 billion into replacing infrastructure, the audit found. By 2040, repairs and replacements will together cost nearly $7 billion.

Oregon does not have that kind of money for infrastructure projects.

The federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993, and average fuel economy has increased by 22 percent over the past decade. Congress has passed legislation to temporarily supplement that lost revenue, and Oregon has passed three bonding packages in 2001, 2003 and 2009. (The most recent package included an increase to Oregon’s gas tax.)

Today, bonds make up 40 percent of ODOT’s $1.9 billion budget and pay for dozens of projects, which has increased the department’s workload at the same time it has had to cut staff.

In short: Fewer people are doing more work. For example, work in the Salem-Metro Region is expected to exceed staff capacity in each of the next five years.

Auditors recommended ODOT pay particularly close attention to staff skills. Thirty-five percent of department employees are eligible to retire over the next five years, and with them, experience and skills will leave.

Design and inspection are two crucial places those skills need to be replaced, the audit said.

“One bridge engineer told us that when (some bonded) projects were outsourced, experienced engineers left because they thought they would just be reviewing work. These employees left for the private sector so they could continue to engineer bridges,” the audit said. “He noted that this left Highways with fewer and less experienced staff.”

The bottom line for auditors was that ODOT needs to change its workforce planning. It has several problems, including a lack of training and too much emphasis on managers rather than skilled workers.

ODOT Director Matt Garrett challenged some of those assertions in a response to the audit.

“We were also disappointed that the audit methodology did not include data analysis to support some key assertion,” he wrote. “For example, the audit concluded that we are losing expertise, but did not provide an analysis of which areas or skill sets are being lost. … We would have liked to have had the benefit of the auditor’s independent analysis of corroborating data, which we made available, and feel it was a missed opportunity to inform our direction on this issue.”

Garrett also said auditors underestimated some of the challenges presented by volatile federal highway funding.

“…We can’t predict the amount of federal funding we will receive six months from now,” he wrote, “much less how much funding we will receive six years from now as we plan our long-term capital program and the workforce needed to deliver these projects.”

 

Click here to see the entire Secretary of State’s audit of the Oregon Department of Transportation.

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