Oregon is slated to get millions of dollars from President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Nearly two-dozen people on Thursday used the Oregon Transportation Commission’s public hearing to outline how they think the state should spend those funds.
They included state lawmakers, county commissioners, mayors, community advocates and residents concerned about transportation issues.
A majority said they want the state to expand options for public transportation, bikes and pedestrians.
Support for using these dollars to bolster public and active transportation options comes as the Oregon Department of Transportation faces a shortfall in revenue provided by gas taxes for state highways. Recent forecasts show funds from fuel taxes plateauing over the next several years as Oregonians switch to electric vehicles and other more fuel-efficient options.
Oregon expects to receive approximately $1.2 billion in federal infrastructure money, most of which is earmarked for specific goals outlined in Biden’s bill. They include $268 million to fix bridges, $52 million to expand electric vehicle charging, $82 million for carbon reduction, and $94 million for natural disaster resiliency.
That leaves the state with about $412 million in discretionary funding.
Agency staff proposed four ways the state could invest the extra funds. The first would make fixing roads across the state the top priority. The second — which most testifiers seemed to prefer — prioritized bikes, pedestrians and public transit.
The third option put highway enhancements at the top of the list, while the fourth struck a balance between all the different ways the state might spend the funds.
Sen. Akasha Lawrence Spence, D-SW Portland/Tigard, voiced her preference for improving bike, pedestrian and public transit systems.
She told transportation commissioners these federal dollars represent an opportunity to invest in both equity and sustainability by funding projects like building sidewalks and protected bike lanes, thereby improving accessibility for Oregonians of all ages and abilities.
Lawrence-Spence said “orphan highways” — large arterial roads lacking modern safety updates such as crosswalks, bike lanes and sometimes sidewalks — pose significant safety and accessibility problems.
“We all recognize the rarity of the size and nature of this investment, and the need to ensure that every dollar of these unrestricted funds is spent on investments we don’t already have dedicated funding sources for,” she said.
Rep. Khanh Pham, D-NE/SE Portland, echoed Lawrence-Spence’s comments about orphan highways, citing both Powell Boulevard and 82nd Avenue in Portland as examples in her district.
“The dollars could go towards installing sidewalks and speeding intervention so that students like my daughter can safely walk to school,” Pham said.
Rep. Maxine Dexter, D-NW Portland, doubled down on the notion that these funds could help the state make meaningful progress toward goals laid out by Gov. Kate Brown to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to at least 45% of 1990 levels by 2035, and 80% by 2050.
“Without investing in greener infrastructure, the transportation commission will only inhibit the likelihood of Oregon reaching these targets,” she said. “Any projects approved should focus on these values and elevate the role of local leadership empowering the people most impacted by the investments.”
But not all lawmakers present agreed on the approach to prioritizing public and active transportation.
Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, said the state is falling short on promises outlined in House Bill 2017, a transportation modernization bill that outlined the state’s top road priorities.
Boshart Davis said removing bottlenecks, such as the Interstate 5 Rose Quarter in Portland, is most important.
“Oregonians don’t care if the opponents to these projects continue with their threats, they care that not a single shovel of dirt has turned over,” she said. “We need to spend these dollars where they will benefit the most Oregonians, not just the loudest ones.”
Several local elected officials also appeared virtually to give testimony on how the funds should be spent.
Bend Mayor Sally Russell requested $15 million to complete a bike and pedestrian crossing of Highway 97 in Bend.
Julie Fitzgerald, mayor of Wilsonville, recommended the commission use some of the funds to advance the seismic upgrade of the I-5 Boone Bridge in her city and the I-205 Abernethy Bridge between West Linn and Oregon City.
Clackamas County Board Chair Tootie Smith’s testimony impugned ODOT’s plan to place tolls on I-205 before implementing a regional plan tolling I-5 at the same time. She called the agency out for moving forward without approval from the federal government to variably toll the whole region based on levels of traffic, a tool known as congestion pricing.
“There is no evidence of a plan to integrate the I-205 toll project into the broader regional mobility pricing program,” she said. “There are very low odds that the [toll program] will get federal approval without regional support.”
Smith said she wants ODOT staff to work with Clackamas County and its partners — such as Metro and neighboring counties — to find the right solution that works for the entire region.
Transportation commissioners will reconvene on March 10 when they will continue to review public feedback, which includes responses to a virtual open house. That data will be folded into the live testimony commissioners heard Thursday.
The commission will make a decision on what to do with the funding at the end of March.