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Lawmakers stop in Hillsboro for ninth hearing on statewide tour.

Lawmakers were told the timing is right to raise more money to maintain Oregon’s roads and ease the movement of people and goods on increasingly congested routes in the Portland area.

But during a two-hour hearing Monday night (Sept. 19) at the Hillsboro Civic Center, many of the three dozen people who testified also said that new funding should improve other modes of transportation and promote safety.

Whatever emerges from the joint House-Senate committee and the 2017 session, they said, should be as significant as what lawmakers did in their most recent funding efforts in 2003 and 2009.

“The message we are trying to deliver is very simple: We’d like to see a significant, game-changing investment in Oregon transportation,” Andy Duyck, Washington County board chairman, said at the hearing. “We know the investments must include all modes of transit, focus on the community’s economic stability and growth, and on our future livability.”

Two-thirds of the $2.5 billion raised in 2003 went toward fixing cracking bridges and crumbling highways on major freight routes. The 2009 plan raised $1 billion for specified state highway projects and $300 million annually — the first new money in almost two decades — for state, county and city maintenance needs.

“I realize that even a package that large (as $1 billion) will not come close to taking care of the statewide need,” Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle said. “But it will allow us to make some of the investments that can keep our families safe, our communities livable and our businesses strong.”

Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen, a former Tigard mayor, said that regional officials have identified three traffic congestion points — Highway 217 in Washington County, Interstate 205 between Stafford Road and the George Abernethy Bridge, and the Rose Quarter interchange of Interstates 5 and 84, all maintained by the Oregon Department of Transportation — and transit projects such as the proposed Southwest Corridor light rail line from Portland to Tualatin.

“We are doing our part to address our own transportation needs,” Dirksen said. “We plan to do more. But the tools we have are not enough. No matter how successful we are at the regional level, we need your help.”

Among other officials testifying were Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey, Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax, Cornelius City Manager Rob Drake, and Sandra Fowler-Hill, president of Portland Community College/Rock Creek.

Timing is critical

Brian Meader, senior materials manager at Genentech in Hillsboro, said increased congestion on U.S. 26 puts at risk many of the 4,000 to 6,000 monthly shipments by the biotech firm to Portland International Airport.

A panel originally appointed by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2015, and whose report was released in May, urges that a specific focus should be on relieving congestion in the Portland area.

Congress renewed federal transportation spending authority for five years back in December. Although overall aid increases are modest, the new law does provide money specifically to improve the movement of goods, some of it directly to states and some from competitive grants.

“Without passage of a comprehensive (state) transportation package, we will undoubtedly miss opportunities to provide matching revenue,” said Keith Peal, an executive with Baker Rock Resources and a former Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce chairman.

“The timing is right for effective multimodal expansion for relief of some of our most critically congested freight corridors.”

Jason Tell, manager of the Portland office of the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, said legislative action is timely for another reason.

“The cost of construction is low, the cost of borrowing is extremely low,” said Tell, a former ODOT Portland regional manager. “No one knows how long they will last.”

Safety and sources

But other concerns were raised during the hearing.

Kristi Finney-Dunn of Vancouver, who represented the Oregon/Southwest Washington chapter of Families for Safe Streets, urged lawmakers not to neglect safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.

“I didn’t think anything would happen to our family — until it did,” said Finney-Dunn, whose son Dustin Finney died in 2011 when a drunken driver struck him while he was bicycling on SE Division Street in Portland.

Others called attention to how Oregon pays for transportation, largely through fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees earmarked for road and bridge work.

Quoting a two-decade-old state report, Dan McFarling of Forest Grove said: “There is no way our state can achieve an effective transportation system as long as our only source of dedicated transportation funds is dedicated to more pavement. Oregon needs a carbon tax.”

Oregon has conducted a study but lawmakers have not advanced such a tax, which is in effect in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also incorporated the idea in his transportation funding plan, but lawmakers instead relied on a fuel tax increase.

Oregon has a fuel tax of 30 cents per gallon, which took effect in 2011, and a vehicle registration fee of $43 annually that is collected every other year.

Lawmakers got a tour of the area before the hearing and met with the Northwest Area Commission on Transportation, which covers western Washington County and Clatsop, Columbia and Tillamook counties.

The Hillsboro hearing was the committee’s ninth around the state since May. A similar hearing was conducted June 13 at Portland Community College’s Southeast campus.

Lawmakers mostly listened and gave no hints about what they might recommend.

By Peter Wong
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