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COLUMN: KEEP OREGON MOVING

Oregon Department of Transportation is looking for new ways to fund transportation.

PMG FILE PHOTO - The federal gas tax hasn't increased for 28 years, with inflation eating up a lot of that buying power. As a result, Oregon has had to pick up more of the cost of roads and transit.Maintaining a safe and efficient road system touches all of us no matter if we drive, pedal, walk or roll. It's not just about getting home from work on time. When roads slow down, the regional economy slows with them.

ODOT is committed to seeking sufficient and reliable funding for the modern transportation system Oregon needs. That's not just a good policy but a top priority in our Strategic Action Plan.

Here's a look at a few of the problems we face:

  • Transportation user fees aren't adjusted for inflation, so we continuously lose ground except when the Legislature or Congress increases fuel taxes.
  • Federal funding has been declining in inflation-adjusted terms for more than a decade. The federal gas tax hasn't increased for 28 years, with inflation eating up a lot of that buying power. This has left the state to pick up more of the cost of roads and transit.
  • The gas tax is by far the largest source of state and federal transportation funding, so electric vehicles, BROUWERhybrids and increasingly efficient internal combustion engines reduce revenues for the State Highway Fund.
  • We have never adequately funded transit services or projects that help people walk or bike safely, making it hard for people to get around without a car. This puts disproportionate burdens on low-income Oregonians and communities of color.
  • These challenges leave us well short of what we need to build a modern transportation system that keeps Oregon's economy moving, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and ensures all Oregonians can get around safely.

    With revenue basically flat, growing operational costs are creating a large budget deficit that will grow to more than $100 million by 2025. This could force us to reduce services, leaving fewer snowplows on the roads during storms and fewer people issuing licenses at the DMV.

    Faced with these challenges, we're taking steps to ensure sufficient and reliable funding.

    We're watching President Biden's proposal for a federal infrastructure package and Chairman Peter DeFazio's work to increase funding for roads and transit. We're increasingly optimistic that the federal government will reverse the trend of declining funding, but we can't expect the federal government to swoop in and solve all of our problems.

    To ensure sufficient and reliable funding for all modes of transportation, we need a more diverse revenue portfolio. That will require replacing the fading gas tax.

    We are reintroducing tolling to pay for congestion relief projects and manage traffic on Portland-area freeways. Tolling is the only way to make significant investments like widening I-205 from Stafford Road to Oregon City or replacing the I-5 bridge over the Columbia. While no one wants to pay a toll, people who pay them will get a better and more reliable trip.

    Oregon is leading the nation in creating a per-mile road use charge that ensures everyone pays for their use of the roads, even if they don't burn gasoline. This will be critical for the post-fossil fuel world we envision.

    We're also working on expanding funding for transit and active transportation. Keep Oregon Moving, the investment package approved by the Legislature in 2017, made great progress by creating new programs to pay for transit and paths for walking and biking. In addition, the Oregon Transportation Commission made a big commitment last year by providing nearly $100 million in additional funding to public and active transportation programs. But we'll need continued work to ensure everyone can get around safely.

    We also need to close ODOT's operations and maintenance funding gap to keep serving our customers effectively. We've already shaved more than half a billion dollars off our projected deficit, pushing out the date we run short of cash several years.

    We're continuing to reduce this budget gap by becoming more efficient in spending limited resources. We're looking for ways to reduce costs without impacting services — like consolidating office space and putting more DMV services online.

    Finally, we're working to become even more financially efficient and transparent. We will show the public what we're doing with their taxpayer dollars and why. We have to maintain the public's trust as we make these changes to create a more stable future.


    Travis Brouwer is ODOT's Assistant Director for Revenue, Finance and Compliance. Questions can be directed to 866-Ask-ODOT.


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