Advocates still very concerned about Kulongoski’s transportation bill

It’s the morning after for Governor Kulongoski’s big transportation bill and a coalition of concerned advocates are trying to rally opposition. Last Friday, a special joint committee polished off final amendments and sent House Bill 2001 to the House and Senate Floors for a vote that will likely happen this week.

After seeing those amendments, leaders from statewide advocacy groups including Environment Oregon, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, 1000 Friends of Oregon, the Oregon Environmental Council and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, re-stated their strong opposition to the bill.

The BTA has focused their lobbying efforts on a new Urban Trail Fund. They made some headway in making that fund perform better for bike projects, but that fight pales in importance to the broader implications of the bill.

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With over $900 million in earmarks for new highway projects and $300 million dedicated annually to building new highways, Oregon is on the verge of a passing a transportation bill that makes paltry consideration of anything but new roads for cars. (The new money flowing into the Highway Trust Fund to pay for these projects will come from increases on vehicle registration fees and a six-cent increase to the gas tax.)

Highway spending in the bill heavily favors rural Oregon towns. A county-by-county analysis of the bill by economist Joe Cortright found that it spends over $2,000 per Yamhill County resident, while it spends just $75 per person in Multnomah County (where Portland is located).

It’s unclear at this point whether opposition to this massive investment in new highways will have enough impact to significantly change the bill. 1000 Friends of Oregon and their leader Bob Stacey, with special guest Steve Novick, has scheduled a press conference on the steps of the Capitol this morning, but it might be too little too late.

On Saturday, The Oregonian dedicated prime editorial space to support HB 2001. They called it “crucial” and “overdue”, citing a four-year old study by the Portland Business Alliance that congestion in our region was costing our economy precious time. The Oregonian goes on to reference opposition to the bill:

“Not everyone sees it that way. Environmentalists and the bicycle lobby are lining up against the bill because it tilts so heavily — we would use the word “necessarily” — toward motor vehicles.”

Actually, the reasons for opposition to the bill are much more nuanced than that editorial might lead some to believe. The coalition wants statewide greenhouse gas emission provisions (currently only Portland can set them), they want to increase to the minimum bike/pedestrian spending level from its current rate of 1% to 1.5%., and they also want the Oregon Transportation Commission to vet the highway project list through a more rigorous and transparent selection process (instead of hammering it out behind-the-scenes among a small group of legislators).

At the hearing on Friday, only one non-lobbyist showed up. It was Portlander Jeff Mandel (we’ve profiled his handmade shoes and saddles in the past). Mandel was shocked that he was the only citizen in the room. “There wasn’t even anyone from Salem there.”

Mandel told lawmakers that he could barely make it down to Salem because there was no other option than a car.

According to an article on the hearing in the Daily Journal of Commerce, here’s how Rep. Deborah Boone (D-Cannon Beach) responded to Mandel’s calls for better land-use planning and more spending on transit and bikeways:

Rep. Deborah Boone… said most of the people pushing for bike paths and public transit seem to be coming from Portland. And Portland, she pointed out, is not the entire state. Once outside the Portland metro area, said Boone, Oregon is very rural.

“There’s a much bigger area to think about when you’re asking us to make these changes,” Boone said

So goes the discussion so far: The new highways and the bill itself are being lauded by the state’s lawmakers and major power brokers (business/political groups and construction companies) as a jobs creation tool that will somehow magically solve congestion problems and create thriving rural communities that will be served by new highways. Meanwhile, rational opposition to the bill is marginalized as nothing more than whining by anti-car “environmentalists” the “bicycle lobby”, and righteous Portlanders.

And to think, this highway-centric bill is coming out of a Democrat controlled legislature, a fact that led many bike and environmental advocates to be hopeful at the start of the session.

If you’re looking for bright spots in HB 2001, you’ll have to look very hard:

— The Urban Trail Fund is a nice gesture and could have some potential, but it currently lacks a clear (and significant) revenue source.

— The OTC recently ruled to dedicate $24 million of federal flexible funds per year to non-highway projects (out of a $38 million pot, all of which was originally intended for non-highway). That $24 million pot will be spread three ways — between bike, ped, and transit projects.

— There’s also the existing “Bicycle Bill” mandate that requires a minimum of 1% of all new highway projects be spent on bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

— Connect Oregon, a $100 million pot ot State Lottery money that is spend on transportation could have been a nice source for non-motorized projects. However, current language in HB 2001 lists every conceivable transportation mode except non-motorized as being eligible for the funds. Bike advocates had testified in support of adding “non-motorized” into the language but the BTA decided to not pursue this in favor of going for a dedicated fund (the Urban Trail Fund being the result) instead.

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