Think Out Loud

Oregon lawmakers address transportation policy and hit the road

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
June 9, 2024 2:32 p.m. Updated: June 10, 2024 9:20 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, June 10

Oregon lawmakers are traveling across the state to gather information on transportation.

Oregon lawmakers are traveling across the state to gather information on transportation.

Courtesy of ODOT


State lawmakers are traveling across Oregon to host meetings about transportation issues. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation has kicked off a 12-stop tour to hear perspectives on the state’s transportation system and the challenges it faces. Lawmakers will use information from the tour to craft Oregon’s next transportation package in the 2025 legislative session. Julia Shumway recently reported on this issue for the Oregon Capital Chronicle and joins us with details.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Lawmakers have begun a 12-stop tour around the state to hear from Oregonians about their transportation needs and wants. Lawmakers will use the information they get to craft a transportation package for the 2025 legislative session. But looming in the background is the Oregon Department of Transportation’s dire forecast: A budget gap that is reaching $2 billion. Julia Shumway has been writing about this for the Oregon Capital Chronicle and joins us with the details. Julia, welcome back.

Julia Shumway: Thank you.

Miller: I mentioned lawmakers are going to go around the state for this series of listening sessions. Seven years ago, they did something very similar. They had a bipartisan committee that went around the state to drum up support and ask questions about a transportation bill, and they were very successful. Can you remind us what they came up with in 2017?

Shumway: In 2017, near the end of that legislative session, lawmakers had approved a $5.3 billion package for transportation. Some of those projects, people can still see work being done. Chances are if you look around and you see construction barrels out on a state highway somewhere, it may have some ties to that transportation package.

It had a lot of money for new projects, for safe routes for kids to get to school. It also raised money through a higher gas tax and a payroll tax. We’ve all been paying for public transit – it takes about a dollar per every $1,000 in gross pay.

Miller: How is 2025 likely to be different from 2017?

Shumway: The big sense we’re getting so far is that 2025 will be much more focused on maintaining current roads rather than looking at new projects. Things like, we probably won’t see big roundabouts being put in on these highways near the city of Bend, for instance, or some of these efforts to redo interchanges throughout the state. Instead it will be about snow removal, potholes, repaving existing roads, not expanding current ones.

Miller: What are the structural reasons that ODOT is facing a really serious budget challenge going forward?

Shumway: It’s important to understand the funding structure of ODOT. This is something that the Transportation Department’s director, Kris Strickler, describes as a three-legged stool.

The first leg, that’s money from the 40-cents-per-gallon gas tax that we all pay when we fill up our tanks. But with more people driving fuel efficient vehicles, electric vehicles, or driving fewer miles, even though the gas tax has gone up over the past few years, we’re paying less. As individual Oregonians, we’re paying about $40 less than we did 10 years ago, in gas taxes.

The second leg is the fees paid to the DMV. These fees aren’t fully covering the services that they’re providing, let alone setting aside extra money for roads. And the third leg is weight/mile taxes that are paid by commercial truckers. Right now, commercial truckers have a lawsuit against the state, arguing that they’re being overcharged for their use of roads.

Miller: What does the budget challenge actually look like in real dollars?

Shumway: It’s very hard to picture. These are huge, huge dollar amounts. ODOT is saying it’s going to need about $2.8 billion total each year. That’s about $1.8 billion more than they have money for now. And that’s just to maintain current roads. That’s not any new projects.

Miller: Wait. This is an important point here. They say they need almost $2 billion more a year, but that’s separate from, say, money for a new bridge over the Columbia [River]?


Shumway: Absolutely. That bridge alone is supposed to cost about $5 [billion] to $8 billion, with money coming from Oregon, Washington and the federal government. There’s also some other projects that aren’t included in that $2 billion that are left over from 2017, including some money to improve I-5 in the Rose Quarter [and] make some more improvements along I-205 near Portland. And those are supposed to cost about $3 billion total, those two outstanding projects.

Miller: As you noted, increasing fuel efficiency statewide is a big thing that’s cutting into revenue from gas taxes and upending the long-standing model of transportation funding, I should say, in Oregon and all around the country. What other options are on the table in Oregon?

Shumway: The one incredibly unpopular option is tolling. This is something that we don’t have in Oregon. There are a couple of bridges you can drive to get into Washington, including the Bridge of the Gods, where you have to pay tolls, but we don’t have this on any roads here in Oregon. There’s a moratorium on tolling until 2026. But at some point after that, it’s likely that that conversation is going to come back.

Another idea, especially reflecting that more people are driving electric vehicles, is something called a “road usage charge,” or a “vehicle miles traveled” charge. Essentially something that charges people not for the amount of gas they consume, but for the number of miles you’re driving on Oregon roads.

Miller: I’m curious about the ask here, whatever the funding mechanism that lawmakers come up with, because it seems like it’s one thing to say, give us more money so we can give you more services or better services. Is it a harder sell, politically, to say give us more money so we can prevent what you already have from crumbling?

Shumway: Absolutely. And that’s going to be a huge challenge facing lawmakers when they come back to the capital in January and try to make this case that the Transportation Department needs more money, especially when they’re looking around at a pretty complicated budget environment already, and people feeling stressed with inflation, not wanting to give the government much more money.

Miller: What have lawmakers said that they want to get out of this series of listening sessions around the state?

Shumway: They really want to get a sense from Oregonians about whether there are priorities around transportation that people agree on. And that may be, if there’s a lot of push toward small but meaningful investments in things like making streets a little safer for pedestrians, or specific needs that may not be these huge projects, but that are something that could be accomplished in these communities, that could maybe build some of the political willpower to to pass this package.

Miller: So, is the big question more what Oregonians want transportation money to be spent on, or how transportation money should be raised?

Shumway: I think it’s kind of both. First, trying to figure out how do we get that money, and then also balancing a lot of competing priorities about how any money should be spent. Whether there should be, as there has been in recent years, more of a focus on active transportation: things like bicycling, walking, transit, or if there’s more of a focus on making sure that cars can get through cities without much congestion. It depends on the direction that lawmakers hear.

Miller: What have cities or counties been asking for, in general, when it comes to transportation? How do they figure into this conversation?

Shumway: They really want money. Cities and counties are responsible for a lot of public roads, too, and, like the state, they’ve been suffering from a decades-long decrease in funding from the federal government for some of this local infrastructure. So they’ve essentially got their hands out, saying, “give us money to fix our roads.” And they’re one of one of many, many groups who will be asking for money from lawmakers.

Miller: Going back to that 2017 transportation package, because I imagine this might be something that Oregonians will ask lawmakers, or ask ODOT. Have all those projects from that bill been completed?

Shumway: They haven’t. Some of those are still in progress. You can see, I believe, on I-5 between Portland and Salem, there’s some work still going on on interchanges there for Aurora and Donald. Some of these are still being worked on. Some just got money to complete planning, but didn’t actually get to the construction phase. And the two big outstanding ones are the work in the Rose Quarter and along Interstate 205 that will require more money and a lot more years of work to get done.

Miller: The 2025 legislative session, the long one, starts in January. When might lawmakers actually put a transportation package together?

Shumway: I’d say it’s probably safe to assume that this is going to be one of those projects that comes down to the wire. Occasionally you see something get done early in session, but I think we’re looking more at something being finalized around June, along with the 2025 budget. But all of this, of course, depends on what lawmakers want to do, and what they want to prioritize next session.

Miller: Julia, thanks very much.

Shumway: Thank you.

Miller: Julia Shumway is deputy editor and politics reporter for the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

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