Tensions run high as Legislature reaches transportation plan
SALEM — The upside: Street parking in Salem was free and someone left a gallon jar of Red Vines outside the House Chambers. The downside: Dozens of lawmakers, lobbyists and staff crammed into a Capitol hearing room for four-plus hours on Saturday to hammer together the most significant investment in Oregon transportation in years.
Temperatures ran hot, especially between lawmakers in the Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation and Modernization. The 2017 legislative session had just crossed a glum milestone, dragging listlessly into July, past the anticipated date of adjournment. And the so-called Dash-10 amendments — 10th round of complicated, technically dense changes — had arrived in lawmakers hands just the night before.
"I'm troubled by this process," said Sen. Betsy Johnson, a Democrat of Scappoose whose district includes much of northern Washington County. "We were given a 295-page bill last night…. we're moving at a breakneck pace today."
Others wanted to know how badly the landmark bill got whittled down and compromised — transportation and revenue reform were thought to be the two big goals of the 2017 session, with revenue reform already dead and buried, earlier in June.
Much of the discussion ranged around dropping more than $2 billion from the bill by shortening the timeline from an estimated 10 to 12 years, to something like six to seven years.
"We made a decision that we were going to shorten it," Rep. Susan McLain, Democrat of Hillsboro, told her colleagues on the committee. "But it has all of the components you care about."
Rep. Caddy McKeown, Committee Co-Chair and a Democrat from Coos Bay, put it a little more poetically. "We aimed for the sun and landed on the moon."
Johnson, the most vocal critic in the room on Saturday, had another perspective. "We've managed to annoy huge sections of Oregon here."
Details in the small print
The bill passed out of the special committee on a 12-2 vote, with opposition from Johnson and Sen. Fred Girod, a Stayton Republican. It heads next to the floor of the House, then on to the Senate, where it is expected to pass and move on to the governor for her signature.
Talk emerged late Saturday of more political maneuvering — Democrats allegedly threatening to throw a monkey wrench into the works if Republicans wouldn't support last-minute revenue reform — but those on the committee said they are confident of the bill's forward momentum.
The bill raises $5.3 billion over a 10-year period through increases in the gas tax, registration fees and new taxes on payroll, new vehicle purchases and bicycles priced more than $200.
However, the plan now excludes several congestion-busting projects in the Portland area that would have been funded through a state-local match, including projects to widen Interstate 205 from Stafford Road to Oregon City and to replace the Abernathy Bridge on I-205 between Oregon City and West Linn.
The original bill also would have raised the gas tax even more in the Portland area to raise funds for the metro congestion projects.
Instead, the proposal directs the Oregon Transportation Commission to establish a tolling program on I-205 and I-5. The program would be used to fund projects on Interstate 205 and Interstate 5 from the Washington state line to where the two interstates cross south of Portland.
Legislative leaders and Gov. Kate Brown negotiated an agreement between Democrats and Republicans to trim the size of the package and to place a cost cap on the state's low carbon fuels standard. Republican opposition to the fuels standard is what scotched another transportation deal in 2016.
This year's deal was intended to win enough GOP votes to reach the constitutionally required three-fifths majority in each chamber for raising taxes.
The deal includes:
• Reducing the gas tax increase and an excise tax on the sale of new vehicles, from 1 percent to 0.5 percent. About $12 million of the revenue from the proceeds of the vehicle excise tax would be used for rebates on the purchase of electric vehicles.
• A $15 flat fee would be charged on the purchase of new adult bicycles with a price tag of more than $200. The proceeds would go toward paying for commuter bicycle and pedestrian paths.
• A 4-cent gas tax increase that would be triggered in 2018, with subsequent 2-cent hikes every other year.
• A payroll tax of less than 0.1 percent, to raise money to fund public transit.
Move quickly, fix it later
One of the refrains on Saturday revolved around this mantra: this isn't perfect; the legislative session ends soon; we can come back in February 2018 and fix it.
That notion came up time and time again as legislators struggled to understand the details in the nearly 300-page version, called the "Dash-10" in legislative jargon.
Rep. Cliff Bentz, an Ontario Republican, praised the process that got the lawmakers this far. "This is a once-every-10-year exercise," he said. "It will take another decade to do another package this aggressive."
Most of Saturday's heated exchanges involved Johnson, who twice took sidebar conversations into the corridor. She also moved to the back of the chamber, halfway through, to confront Matthew Garrett, director of the Oregon Department of Transportation, over the bill.
Rep. Richard Vial of Scholls — not a member of the committee but an advocate for transportation funding on the regional level — praised the bill. "As painful as it is, the process works," he said Saturday. "I was hoping for this much but couldn't imagine it."
He said, when the package of changes is fully analyzed, Washington and Clackamas counties may end up receiving far more than its fair share of the benefit.
Vial's House District 26 includes Scholls, Sherwood, and parts of Wilsonville, King City, Tigard, Beaverton, Aloha and Hillsboro.
The bill also will see improvements of outer Powell Boulevard – roughly from Interstate 205 east. The street, now owned and maintained by the Oregon Department of Transportation, will be handed over to Portland for subsequent maintenance and improvements, for which the City of Portland has advocated.
Conversely, Cornelius Pass Road will revert to ODOT control under this bill.
Reporter Paris Achen contributed to this article.