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The Legislature's emergency board agrees to let the department apply for $120 million in funding for project to add lanes to I-205, seismically improve bridges

PMG FILE PHOTO - The Oregon Department of Transportation is applying for a $120 million federal grant to pay for I-205 improvements.

In a session Friday June 3, the Oregon state Legislature's emergency board authorized retroactive approval for the Oregon Department of Transportation to apply for $120 million in federal grant funding. This funding will pay for I-205 improvements — with the stipulation that it would match the federal allocation using $333 million from toll-backed bond proceeds upon approval.

The authorization was granted along party lines in the 20-member board — which includes elected officials from both the Oregon Senate and House of Representatives — with only Republicans voting no.

ODOT plans to add tolling to I-205 between Stafford Road and Oregon Highway 213 in 2024 as a funding source for seismic improvements on the Abernethy Bridge and other bridges, as well as the addition of a third lane going in both directions on the freeway. ODOT said it will pursue other options if the U.S. Department of Transportation does not award the grant.

As noted by Urban Mobility Office Deputy Director Della D. Mosier, ODOT will start work on seismically retrofitting the Abernethy Bridge next month. This $490 million first phase of the project is paid for via short-term borrowing and the sale of bonds. The idea is to pay for future phases, as well as debt from the first phase, via tolling.

"We anticipate being able to pay back (debt) once we're able to bond for toll revenue," Mosier added.

The federal Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program "awards competitive grants for multimodal freight and highway projects of national or regional significance to improve the safety, efficiency, and reliability of the movement of freight and people in and across rural and urban areas," according to the U.S. Department of Transportation website.

ODOT had already submitted the grant application before the emergency board meeting, as it was due prior to when the emergency board could meet, Mosier said.

Mosier also cited local support for the grant submission, including from the cities of Wilsonville, Gladstone and Happy Valley as well as Clackamas County, the Legislature's joint committee on transportation and local business groups, as a reason why it has a chance of succeeding.

However, some legislators do not like the idea of using tolling revenue to pay for this project. The state is currently in the process of studying tolling along the corridor, but Mosier noted that ODOT was moving forward with tolling as it has direction from the Legislature to do so.

Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton — the only legislator to comment at the emergency board meeting — said that voting for the authorization amounted to an endorsement of tolling.

"I don't think the people of the state of Oregon want tolling. So, we now are predicating this match on granting funds in the $300 million range for tolling. This is a very pro-tolling grant request and so I will be a no," he said prior to the vote.

Sen Bill Kennemer, R-Canby, is not on the emergency board but stated his dissatisfaction with the grant application authorization in a press release.

"It's shocking that we would have this vote in the summer, when we're not in session, and when the public and the media were generally unaware that such a huge budget expenditure would pass without a full vote of the legislature," Kennemer wrote in the release. "We should not be charging ahead to raise taxes on working-class Oregonians who drive at a time when gas prices are at record-high with no signs of coming down any time soon. To approve more bonded debt while interest rates are skyrocketing and a recession is looming — it's simply irresponsible governance."

Even though he voted "Yes" at the meeting, Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, expressed reservations about tolling and said he was exploring other state revenue sources.

"I have always had concerns about the implementation of tolling (and wasn't in the legislature the time the bill passed), and I voted in favor of the grant application to expand the federal funding for the project while I work with community leaders to explore other funding sources for Oregon's share of the project," he wrote. "It's clear that I-205 needs significant improvements, and voting against the grant application would only have delayed any solution to our problem."

Mosier said that it is yet to be determined whether the state could use a different revenue source, even though it outlined tolling as the matching mechanism in the grant application, but that the federal department typically would allow that.

"But right now, the only identified funding source we have to point to is related to toll-backed bonds," Mosier said.

In her own release representing the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners, Republican Chair Tootie Smith also endorsed the grant application.

"The award will ensure Phase II has the funding that it needs to move to construction," she wrote. "By ensuring this part of the region has the same number of lanes on I-205 as the rest of the region, the project will achieve the originally intended benefit to improve safety by significantly reducing diversion onto local roads. Additionally, Phase II of the project is necessary to establish appropriate lane and shoulder widths to accommodate consistent and predictable transit routes, where none exists today."

The Legislature's human services subcommittee recommended the approval of the grant application prior to consideration from the emergency board.

Pamplin Media Group could not reach Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, for comment. He introduced the proposal at the meeting and voted for it.

Mosier said the first phase of the Abernethy Bridge project, beginning in July, won't cause many traffic impacts as the work that is being done will be conducted underwater and involve the foundation and structure of the bridge, adding that impacts will be more likely to come in 2023.

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