Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said Wednesday that negotiators have largely reached agreement on a major transportation bill that would include several vehicle-related tax hikes.
The size of the package – once estimated to reach $8.2 billion in tax increases over 10 years – has been slimmed to satisfy objections from key interest groups.
As a result, the bill may not include money for two major highway projects in the Portland area. One would widen part of Interstate 205 near Oregon City and another is aimed at improving traffic flows near the Rose Quarter on Interstate 5 in Portland.
“They’ve been removed,” Clackamas County Chairman Jim Bernard said of the I-5 and 1-205 projects, which together would cost about $1 billion. He said that the bill would include funding for a smaller freeway project to add lanes on Highway 217 in Washington County.
Brown provided few details on the agreement reached by legislative negotiators. She told reporters that they reached agreement on the “sticking points” that have held up passage of the bill, including the "size of the package,"what it covers and the low carbon fuel standard."
The latter is a reference to a state law aimed at reducing the use of fuels blamed for climate change. Republicans have said they wouldn’t support higher gas taxes for roads without receiving assurances that the low-carbon standard would not also raise the price of gasoline.
Brown lauded provisions in the bill that would provide an additional $100 million a year in spending on transit.
"Every community across the state requested investment in transit,” she said. “I think this is the first time ever that we've had this level of statewide public commitment in transit."
As of late Wednesday afternoon, no new draft of the bill had been released and some sources said negotiations still were in progress.
But officials briefed on the back-room talks said that legislators had agreed to reduce the size of the proposed increases in the gas tax and in vehicle registration fees.
The new legislation also reportedly removes a special set of even higher taxes and fees in the Portland area. As a result, officials said legislators could no longer afford to ensure funding for the I-5 and I-205 projects.
Supporters have said the projects would relieve key bottlenecks in the Portland area, and the legislation sought to tie them to tolling that would also help manage congestion. Not everyone favored the projects. Some critics have said the region should look at other transportation alternatives instead of spending so much on freeways.
But Bernard said he was disappointed the bill was being slimmed down.
“This was the best chance in decades we’ve had to move something forward and, you know, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard [transportation committee members say] ‘Go big or go home.’ And now they’re going small.”
The legislation reportedly still includes provisions allowing planning to go forward on the two freeway projects. And it calls for the state Department of Transportation to study whether it can soon move forward with the I-205 project by relying more on tolls.
Legislative negotiators have reportedly kept a new payroll tax of one-tenth of 1 percent on Oregon workers to provide additional funding for transit. At the same time, they reportedly slimmed down an excise tax on vehicle sales, which drew the ire of auto dealers.
The initial draft of the bill also drew complaints from trucking groups and the AAA auto club, both of which said that the fee increases were too high. Fuel dealers and distributors criticized the proposal to have larger increases in the Portland area.