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My View: Build bridges, but fix rest of infrastructure, too

There’s been a lot of talk lately about building bridges in the Portland area. Clearly the need to solve the safety and congestion problems crossing the Columbia River hasn’t gone away.

Yet, the larger conversation we also should be focused on is funding our infrastructure statewide, of which bridges are just a part. Infrastructure also includes less visible but equally important things such as sewer pipes, dams, the electrical grid and IT systems. Together, our infrastructure is vital to our quality of life as Oregonians.

Building and maintaining our infrastructure is a huge financial challenge. On the West Coast, we’re facing a $1 trillion infrastructure investment gap during the next 30 years, and, in the Portland area alone, there’s $20 billion in infrastructure investments needed by the year 2035.

The federal government used to foot a big portion of this bill, but while they financed the creation of our federal highway system, their help in maintaining this vital piece of infrastructure is dwindling. It’s becoming clear that the methods we’ve used the past 50 years to finance our infrastructure needs aren’t sufficient.

Thankfully, we have some impressive leaders and innovative models to follow. While our current way of doing things won’t be enough to meet our needs, there are new, promising ways of approaching infrastructure financing that may help us get there.

In Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber and state Treasurer Ted Wheeler have led the state’s efforts to address the infrastructure gap. They’re working to improve our ability to take advantage of private capital and invite the best of innovation from the private sector.

Oregon is a leader in the West Coast Infrastructure Exchange, a center of expertise for financing infrastructure projects in Oregon, Washington, California and British Columbia. The exchange looks at projects, coordinates resources and upholds best practices in designing, building, maintaining and operating infrastructure projects.

This kind of cooperation across state and national boundaries is a model for solving the most difficult challenges we face, and I hope other governments and organizations are taking notice.

The Oregon Legislature is doing its part to make sure we have the right skills to take advantage of innovative models to address our infrastructure needs. We’re working to create Oregon’s own center of expertise for innovative infrastructure models and a pilot program for projects that could benefit from performance-based contracting and innovative financing.

This alternative model opens up all phases of the project (design, build, finance, operate and maintain) for private investment and expertise. Projects remain publicly owned and are subject to the same labor standards, but risk can be better shared between the public and private sectors, and the approach allows for much more creativity and attention to the asset throughout its useful life.

It’s an exciting new model for pairing the best of both the private and public sectors toward a goal that benefits us all — safer, smarter, more cost-efficient infrastructure.

There already are innovative models with proven track records of infrastructure projects that we can follow. British Columbia created Partnerships BC, their center of expertise for infrastructure. Since 2002, they have managed more than 40 projects, totaling $17 billion in total procurement and $7.6 billion in private capital at risk. Their model, based on public accountability with private-sector expertise and agility, has led to significant public savings, on-time or early project completion, and is now self-sustaining.

Learning from our neighbors to the north, I’m excited about the opportunities we have to address Oregon’s infrastructure needs. Cooperation between the public and private sectors can help us address some of our most pressing problems in innovative ways.

And addressing our infrastructure needs is vital to our prosperity as a nation and as a state. In 2010, exports accounted for $17.6 billion in Oregon — about 10 percent of the state’s gross domestic product that year. Without ports to ship our products, rail to get the goods to port, roads and bridges to get the goods to the train station, sewer pipes for the buildings where these goods are manufactured, or water for the fields where the goods are grown, Oregon’s economy would be in a world of hurt.

Tomorrow, when you turn on the water to brush your teeth, think of the water infrastructure needed to allow that. And while you’re commuting to work or school, be thankful that the roads and bridges exist to get you there.

Whatever you think about a given bridge proposal, it’s clear that we have bridges, buildings, pipes and roads that need attention. And our existing ways of doing things aren’t working.

Tobias Read is state representative for House District 27, serving parts of Beaverton, Portland, and unincorporated Washington and Multnomah counties. He has served in the Legislature since 2007 and is the majority whip and chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Economic Development. He can be reached at rep.tobiasreaThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..