A big transportation bill aimed at improving roads, bridges and public transit in Oregon cleared a critical hurdle Wednesday when it passed the state House on a 39-20 vote.
After months of uncertainty over its fate, supporters of the bill were able to easily clear the three-fifths vote needed to pass tax hikes.
The ambitious package could bring major freeway projects and rush-hour congestion pricing to the Portland area. It also includes more than $100 million a year to expand transit statewide, particularly in the outer suburbs and in rural areas.
Rep. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay, who co-chaired the transportation committee that drafted the bill, called it a “well-balanced package” that would help all parts of the transportation system.
She said it would tackle congestion in the Portland area while helping providing transit alternatives to many people who don’t now have them. And McKeown said the package would give the state a crucial lift in upgrading thousands of bridges at risk in a big earthquake.
The size and scope of the tax hikes drew opposition from some legislators. Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, said that Oregonians “aren’t interested in toll roads. Maybe it’s something deep in our DNA.”
That’s a reference to the bill’s directive to develop plans for tolling to help manage congestion. Sponsors said tolling could take the form of special lanes that are electronically charged during busy hours of the day.
In fact, tolls could be an important part of helping to pay for the Portland freeway work, particularly the project to add a lane in each direction on I-205 from the Abernethy Bridge in Oregon City to Stafford Road.
McKeown said the bill directs state transportation officials to return to the Legislature next year with a funding plan that includes the use of congestion. She said part of the gas tax increase will be used to pay for freeway improvements in the Rose Quarter area of I-5, although it could be several years before construction begins there. The other project, widening of some stretches of Highway 217 in Washington County, is the least expensive of the three projects.
The measure, House Bill 2017, would raise the gas tax by 4 cents in 2018 and then gradually add another 6 cents. Vehicle fees would also increase and there would be another new tax of 0.5 percent on new vehicle sales.
The transit improvements would be funded by a 0.1 percent payroll tax on workers. There would also be additional funding for bicycle and pedestrian paths — and the bill would impose a $15 fee on the sale of adult bicycles that cost at least $200.
The bill has been a major priority for Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, who failed in her attempts to cut a deal with Republicans to pass a transportation package in the 2015 session.
There had been months of uncertainty about the bill’s prospects, but sponsors won over many of the critics by cutting out nearly $3 billion of the tax hikes they had originally proposed. In part, sponsors wanted to ensure that no interest group so strongly opposed the bill it would help fund a referendum to put the measure before voters.
One key element in putting the bill together came when Republicans and Democrats reached agreement on how to deal with the state’s low-carbon fuel standard. The GOP lawmakers won provisions aimed at ensuring this law would not have a major adverse impact on gas prices. The intent of the law is to encourage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.
The transportation bill also includes rebates for electric vehicles, which Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, derided as an unneeded break for well-to-do purchasers of luxury cars like Teslas.
Buehler, widely expected to be a candidate for governor, said the payroll tax to “fund transit in a few communities” is an unfair hit on workers.
In the end, 11 Republicans voted for the bill and 14 were opposed. Six Democrats opposed it. Five had signed a letter last week that questioned why the Legislature was passing a transportation bill but not coming up with more revenue for schools.
The measure now goes to the Senate.
McKeown expressed confidence it would pass that chamber and go to the governor to be signed into law.