The $1 trillion infrastructure plan that was passed by Congress Friday will likely mean big changes for Oregonians: safer, less congested roads; broadband access for rural communities; and fortification of the state’s power grid against wildfire and other future disasters. The plan is one of two bills that made up a $2.75 trillion spending Democrat-backed package aimed at bolstering the nation’s economy and fixing crumbling infrastructure while creating jobs and new social programs in the process.
While the plan is still awaiting Pres. Biden’s signature as of Saturday morning, Oregon agencies are looking ahead to how they would spend billions in new funding.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats pushed to hold votes on the two bills as Senate leadership grows restless to take their turn on debating Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan — the social side of the package.
Pelosi and House progressives signaled they were ready to move infrastructure out of waiting as early as Friday, which passed largely along party lines, with 13 Republicans joining 215 Democrats in support of the legislation.
The vote followed months of delays spurred by centrist Democrats — including Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, whose district includes Portland’s southern suburbs, plus Salem and parts of the north coast — who voiced concern over the price tag. Schrader did vote in favor of the package Friday.
Agencies, such as the Oregon Department of Transportation, have laundry lists of major projects facing the state over the next decade. For ODOT, plans with the coming federal dollar include building a new interstate crossing over the Columbia River and renovating the Rose Quarter stretch of Interstate 5 to widen the freeway and reconnect the former Albina district’s streetscape.
The state is expecting to see a total of $3.4 billion for federal and state road projects, and another $268 million for bridge improvements over the next five years.
“We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to most effectively spend this money coming from the federal government,” said Travis Brouwer, ODOT assistant director for revenue, finance and compliance. “We want to show Oregonians the benefits they’ll see from this legislation very quickly.”
Transportation projects pending
Brouwer said that ODOT leaders were optimistic about the bill’s passage, because Democrats in Congress were highly motivated to fulfill last election cycle’s promises to help states and communities rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.
But ODOT also prepared in case Biden’s spending package faced more delays or was derailed entirely.
If the plan was derailed, it would have forced ODOT and dozens of other state agencies to seek other strategies to pay for big projects and respond to long-term challenges facing the state, such as destructive wildfires. State agency leaders operated under the assumption that Congress would approve the funds.
According to Brouwer, money would come quickly during the first year after the infrastructure plan’s passage. That means ODOT would need to work faster than normal to achieve the high expectations set by the Biden administration and get projects ready for public bid.
Not only would about $1.2 billion be allocated for Oregon highways, transit and other modes as part of the federal funding formula, but there would also be opportunities for the state to receive a portion of $100 billion in discretionary funds set aside for Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to dole out.
Brouwer said the U.S. Department of Transportation will be looking to use those funds in projects that help advance areas specifically targeting climate change and promoting both racial and economic equity.
That could set up Oregon to potentially be a national leader in how it funds projects that solve congestion and safety concerns, and also repair some of the harm done when freeways were originally constructed back in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
This is particularly important considering the lengthy and, oftentimes, impassioned debate over the future of Portland’s I-5 Rose Quarter stretch in which ODOT plans to add auxiliary lanes and reconfigure entrances. Local stakeholders, including members of the historically Black Albina district, Portland leaders and Multnomah County officials, have battled with ODOT over what shape the project will take.
There’s also an ongoing — and vociferous — debate over concerns put forth by climate activists who argue that widening the freeway goes against the state’s environmental goals. That argument could be soothed slightly by the $747 million included in the infrastructure plan for Oregon to improve its public transportation systems over the next five years, as well as $52 million to expand the state’s network of electric vehicle charging stations.
At the direction of the Oregon Transportation Commission — which oversees the general direction of ODOT’s projects — state transportation officials are putting together a conceptual finance plan looking at how to make up the gap between the Rose Quarter project’s initial cost estimate of around $500 million to the eye popping number reported at the commissions September meeting of more than $1 billion.
The growth in cost has to do with Gov. Kate Brown’s recommendation to the transportation commission earlier this year that the project cap the freeway — effectively tunneling it through the area — to allow for development of the former Albina District, which was split and in some cases razed when I-5 was built in the 60s.
Brown’s recommendation was seen as a win for advocates of revitalizing the area, but transportation commissioners remain wary of the project’s cost.
ODOT officials plan to complete that cost analysis and financing plan by December, and it could include using a portion of the $100 billion in Buttigieg’s discretionary funding the federal government will seek to dole out should this infrastructure bill pass. That includes $1 billion for a program called “Reconnecting Communities,” which focuses on the exact type of work the Rose Quarter project will undertake.
“We’ve had some preliminary conversations with folks at the US Department of Transportation, and they see Rose Quarter as a great candidate for that funding,” Brouwer said. “We’re very hopeful that (Reconnecting Communities) will be preserved in the final bill.”
Protecting natural resources and communities from wildfires and drought
Oregon could also benefit greatly from parts of Biden’s infrastructure plan aimed at protecting the state’s natural resources following multiple straight years of drought and catastrophic wildfires.
The plan includes $5 billion in nationwide spending to help states such as Oregon protect power grids from extreme weather and natural disasters, as well as to help with wildfire prevention. On top of that, the state would receive $39 million for wildfire protection.
Another $5 billion in national spending will go toward helping farmers, ranchers and communities respond to drought, such as those in the Klamath Basin who are reeling from a lack of rainfall.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could also see significant investment, which would result in a $162 million effort to restore wildlife habitat in the Klamath Basin.
The state’s Native American tribes could benefit from $250 million national investment to address water quality issues on reservation lands such as those of the Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs.
Broadband connectivity would also receive a boost statewide with a minimum allocation of $100 million to expand coverage throughout Oregon.
That could let the state move forward with long-expected plans to get broadband internet coverage to the more than 130,000 Oregonians who currently don’t have access. The allocation for broadband includes a benefit program to help low-income families pay for service.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden — a Democrat, chair of the Senate Finance Committee and one of the chief architects of many of the programs and funding allocations that could benefit the state should Congress pass the bill — said this week that he’s hopeful the plan will pass and provide a much needed boost following two years of languish caused in part by the pandemic.
“I’ve said for a long time, you can’t have a big league economy with little league infrastructure,” Wyden said in an email. “This bill includes many significant funding wins for Oregon that build an even stronger state, modernizing our infrastructure and boosting our economic recovery by creating good-paying jobs.”