Oregon lawmakers approve emergency transportation funding

Bonds

Oregon lawmakers were forced to approve $19 million in emergency funding last week to bolster its highway maintenance as winter approaches.

Oregon Department of Transportation officials had begun implementing significant service reductions within maintenance and operations amid shortfalls caused by a decline in gas tax revenues, record high inflation and limitations on budgeted agency funds.

Those service cuts included plans to plow some roads once a day or less, instead of four times a day, after storms hit. Agency leaders cited looming budget shortfalls caused by decreases in gas tax revenue tied to Oregonians driving more fuel-efficient vehicles or driving less. 

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek said lawmakers will need to address how to further shore up the transportation budget when they take up their interim-year budget discussions early next year.

“Oregon needs to have safe state highways,” Kotek said in a statement. “I am committed to finding long-term solutions that ensure our state roads and highways are meeting the needs of Oregon families, businesses, and visitors.”

The Interstate 5 Bridge is a pair of nearly identical steel vertical-lift, Parker through-truss bridges that carry Interstate 5 traffic over the Columbia River between Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon.

Interstate Bridge Replacement Program

ODOT reported a $56.1 million shortfall in the State Highway Fund in a report released in October.

“The balances across ODOT’s various funds total $697.4 million. However, committed funds that must be spent on specific purposes and cannot be used for general agency purposes total $753.5 million. This leaves a $56.1 million shortfall in the State Highway Fund after accounting for committed funds,” according to the report. “A significant portion of the committed funds are bond proceeds for HB 2017 projects that must be spent on specified projects.”

In the meantime, Kotek said, “I greatly appreciate Sen. President [Rob] Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, and House Speaker [Dan] Rayfield, D-Corvallis, for prioritizing this funding now so that Oregonians can have safer road conditions this winter.”

The funding will help prevent unsafe conditions for Oregonians using state roads and allow staff to better maintain their level of service during peak winter events, according to a joint statement from Kotek, Wagner and Rayfield.

“Whether it’s July or January, Oregonians need to be able to travel safely on our highways,” Wagner said. “This commitment from myself and Speaker Rayfield — in coordination with our budget co-chairs — guarantees critical funding to keep Oregonians safe throughout the year.”

Specifically, it will help restore winter maintenance services, make safety-focused improvements, and purchase trucks used for snow plowing.

The announcement came after the state experienced its first serious snowfall of the season. Major ski areas — including Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood and Mount Bachelor near Bend — opened temporarily the weekend of Dec. 2, but then closed as rain replaced snow in the mountains.

The Farmer’s Almanac had forecast blizzard conditions this winter in the Pacific Northwest, predictions backed up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The emergency $19 million is available for use now and will be officially approved by the Legislature in the 2024 session. 

Oregon has a biennium budget and approved its fiscal 2023-25 budget last summer, but makes needed adjustments on off years, as it will in 2024.

Road maintenance will compete for transportation funds with projects like the long-awaited Interstate 5 bridge replacement that connects Oregon and Washington.

Last summer, Oregon approved $1 billion to reconstruct the bridge to match $1 billion approved by Washington state lawmakers. The Pacific Northwest states needed the combined $2 billion in funding to qualify for $3 billion in federal grant funds for the $5 billion to $7.5 billion bridge replacement.

The states began discussions to replace the 106-year-old bridge several years ago. Oregon’s contribution brought heated discussions among lawmakers with Kotek initially opposed to using general fund monies.

The bridge design and the size of the project, which currently includes rebuilding seven interchanges within several miles of the bridge and widening the bridge significantly, are still contested.

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