Oregon gets $1.2 billion boost in federal transportation aid
Oregon will get at least $1.2 billion in new federal money for highway and transit improvements over the next five years, but state transportation officials hope to compete for even more for big projects such as the Rose Quarter widening of Interstate 5 and a new bridge across the Columbia River.
The new $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act sets aside $100 billion nationally for competitive federal grants, including $9 billion for bridge work beyond routine maintenance and $1 billion for projects reconnecting communities split by previous federal highway projects. The U.S. Department of Transportation will decide which projects qualify.
"We are going to be getting our grant-writing pens out," Travis Brouwer, assistant director of the Oregon Department of Transportation, told reporters during a conference call Friday, Nov. 12. "With that much money on the table, we know there are going to be opportunities.
"We don't know how much money Oregon will bring home. But we believe we are well positioned … because we will have significant matching funds available."
A revised version of the Rose Quarter project was endorsed Sept. 9 by the Oregon Transportation Commission, which asked the agency to come up with cost estimates by December. A January 2020 report pegged it at between $715 million and $795 million. But that was before advocates weighed in with a plan to put caps over part of I-5 and enable some development to reconnect the Albina neighborhood, which was split by I-5 in the early 1960s. Estimates run from $400 million to $600 million, depending on the intensity of development.
ODOT has between $500 million and $700 million available from bond sales and other actions for large Portland metro area projects as a result of 2017 state legislation.
The commission will review the status of a new bridge linking Portland with Vancouver, Washington, at its next meeting Nov. 18. Oregon shelved its plans for the bridge in 2013 after the Washington Senate declined funding, but the two states have since revived talks for a bridge estimated at $3 billion.
Brouwer said Oregon's new money of $1.2 billion is not enough by itself to build either of those projects — some of the money is reserved for specific programs — or to forgo proposed tolls. But he said the commission could use some of it to enhance Oregon's bid for federal money from the larger pots.
"The federal government loves people who bring most of the money to the table, and all it has to do is provide the last dollars to finish the finance plan for a major project," Brouwer said.
The $1.2 billion is Oregon's guaranteed share of new federal money under the legislation, which has passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President Joe Biden. It is in addition to Oregon's allocation, currently $3.3 billion this year, under the regular federal highway program that Congress renewed for five years.
However, much of the new money is allocated to specific programs such as bridge repairs, preparedness against disasters, reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, electric vehicle charging stations, safety measures and the like.
Oregon's largest transit agencies, including TriMet, will get most of the new $200 million for public transportation — and cities, counties and metropolitan planning organizations such as Metro also will share money.
Brouwer said the five-member Transportation Commission will have to decide how to spend about $400 million over five years in "flexible funds," and up to $155 million that Oregon will have to spend or lose by the end of the current federal budget year on Sept. 30, 2022.
"If we do not obligate it to projects this fiscal year, we lose the money," he said. "But we have no intention of doing so."
ODOT will get about $250 million over five years for bridge repairs. It has budgeted between $100 million and $150 million annually, but Brouwer said ODOT should be spending closer to $435 million annually.
"Given the need for investment in bridges, it will not solve all of our problems," he said.
Many of the 2,800 bridges on the state highway system are past the 50-year mark, after the interstate highways were completed, although 78.4% were not in distressed condition according to a 2020 ODOT report. After a critical ODOT report in 2003, the Legislature passed the first of three major plans to fix highways and bridges; the 2003 plan set aside $1.6 billion specifically to fix bridges on key freight routes.
Link to a simplified version of how new federal transportation money affects Oregon:
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