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PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO  - Gridlock is growing on regional roads. Government funding gridlock is continuing , too.Some of those who supported the failed transportation funding package in the 2015 Oregon Legislature are beginning discussions on what should be in the next one.


But former Metro President David Bragdon has a warning for the lawmakers and transportation advocates who are working on it. He says Oregonians will not support higher transportation-related fees and taxes until they believe the money will be spent wisely, something that is impossible to promise with any certainty now because so many different agencies are involved at the state, regional and local levels.

"A familiar claim is, 'Oregon has a transportation finance problem,' but it’s actually impossible to tell, because

the system is so opaque," says Bragdon, now the executive director of TransitCenter, a New York-based urban transit advocacy organization. He was in town to address the City Club of Portland on Oct. 23.

"What Oregon really has is a transportation governance and management problem," Bragdon says. "It must fix its governance and management problem before it can fix its finance problem — if it even has one."

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown agrees some reforms need to be made, but does not believe they must happen first.

"These issues have been part of the ongoing discussions but do not warrant delaying the process of approving a transportation package," says Brown spokesman Chris Pair.

David BragdonThe last transportation funding package died after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown was unable to negotiate a bipartisan compromise, in part because Oregon Department of Transportation officials admitted their greenhouse gas emission projections were faulty. The compromise had been put forward as an alternative to the Low Carbon Fuels bill the Legislature passed but which oil companies fiercely opposed. Republicans insisted the Low Carbon Fuels standard, which pushes the state to use more alternative vehicle fuels, must be scrapped if they were to support new transportation funding.

Brown has since reconvened a so-called transportation vision panel originally created by former Gov. John Kitzhaber to help draft a long-term transportation plan for the state. And a group that worked on the last package, the Oregon Transportation Forum, has announced it will begin meeting again November.

But Bragdon says ODOT's role in the demise of the last funding package is symbolic of systemic problems with the state's transportation funding system that must be addressed.

He says Oregon is too dependent on a large transportation bureaucracy in Salem that is not responsive to local needs and changing conditions. For example, Bragdon notes that state gasoline taxes are still distributed according to a longtime formula that has nothing to do with documented requirements or outcomes supported by elected officials — 50 percent to the state, 30 percent to counties and 20 percent to cities.

"This allocation bears no relationship to mileage, need, outcomes or any rational metric," says Bragdon, in town as part of a series of national appearances coinciding with the release of a new report by his organization titled, "A People's History of Recent Urban Transportation Innovation."

As Bragdon sees it, the existing system results in construction and maintenance obligations that do not align with any logical transportation goals. For example, in Portland, ODOT owns such major thoroughfares as Southeast Powell Boulevard, Multnomah County owns most of the bridges over the Willamette River, and Portland owns the streets that connect to them.

"The Ross Island Bridge was fixed up some years ago because it is owned by ODOT and the state had money, but the Sellwood Bridge was allowed to languish because it is owned by the county, which did not have any money until recently, even though it was in much worse shape. Now Multnomah County residents who never use the Sellwood Bridge are paying to replace it and Clackamas County residents who use it every day are not," Bragdon says.

Mayor Charlie Hales has raised such issues in the past, but does not believe they have to be resolved before additional transportation revenue is raised.

"Those are interesting questions to insiders, but most people just know the streets need to be repaired," says Hales.

In fact, the failed state funding package included additional revenue to bring state highways in cities up to urban standards, something cities demand before they will take them over.

According to Bragdon, states that have reformed their transportation bureaucracies have succeeded in raising more money for projects. He cited the example of Massachusetts, where Gov. Deval Patrick persuaded the legislature to increase taxes for transportation by $600 million a year in 2013. Bragdon says this was possible because of managerial reforms Patrick had begun in 2009.

Among other things, the governor had created an investment board with fiduciary expertise independent of the state transportation department to oversee capital allocation, breaking with the tradition of accepting the department's estimates, which had been repeatedly proven wrong.

Oregon leaders agree such reforms might be beneficial, but say additional money is needed to make all of them work.

"I think Bragdon is largely correct," says Metro President Tom Hughes, whose elected regional government approves much of the transportation spending in the Portland area. "We could absolutely stand to make reforms to Oregon's transportation ownership and financing structure. A lot of reforms in Oregon, however, require money," Hughes says. "No responsible government would take ownership of the Willamette bridges from Multnomah County without dedicated funding to improve and maintain them. Raising transportation revenue and making systemic reform is hard work, and requires state and local leadership. That leadership is the most important element."

Everyone agrees with the theory

Craig Campell is the lobbyist for the AAA of Oregon/Idaho and chair of the Oregon Transportation Forum, a coalition of governments and advocacy groups that support increased transportation funding. Although the OTF has not taken a stand on any of Bragdon's proposals, Campbell understands their appeal.

"I think it is safe for me to say that if we are going to ask the motoring public to pay additional taxes at the pump it is incumbent upon us to make sure that the money that is raised is used to alleviate concerns that they have such as congestion and safety, and that funds raised for that purpose are used wisely and efficiently," Campbell says.

"We entrust these dollars to government agencies at the state and local level who are charged with being good stewards of the transportation system and the tax revenues tax payers pay to maintain and improve that system. It is in all of our best interest for those agencies to spend those dollars in ways that demonstrate tangible results.

"I think public support for transportation funding is always a difficult thing to attain and there is no question that the public will feel better about supporting such funding if it is confident that the money is being well managed and spent. Looking into that makes sense.

"And it is hoped that what we would find would bolster the public's confidence. If we find problems, then it is best we know about them so we can address them."