Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on May 28th, 2009 at 8:09 am
form, highways in Oregon would
get a major boost.
(Photo © J. Maus)
House Bill 2001 (text) passed through the Oregon House of Representatives today by a vote of 38-22 — just two votes more than it needed in order to get the required three-fifths majority.
In floor testimony prior to the vote, most lawmakers sang the bill’s praises, touting its green features while calling its $840 million in earmarked highway projects a boon for Oregon’s ailing economy. Meanwhile, environmental advocacy group 1000 Friends of Oregon strengthened their opposition to the bill. In a letter distributed to the House floor prior to the vote, they called HB 2001 an “embarrassment” and said it, “Substitutes pork barrel politics for the public interest.”
The bill began as Governor Kulongoski’s Jobs and Transportation Act of 2009 and it was introduced today by Chair of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Terry Beyer (D-Springfield).
HB 2001 a “defining moment” for
(Photo: State of Oregon)
During her opening remarks, Rep. Beyer told her colleagues that, “This is a bill about the economy and about jobs.” Beyer claimed the bill would create over 40,000 jobs over the next 10 years.
The bill raises $300 million a year for new highway projects through a variety of increased fees, including higher vehicle registration and title fees and a six-cent increase to the gas tax (to be phased in by 2011). The bill also includes a hand-picked list of $840 million in highway projects.
Despite this massive amount of spending for new highways, legislators touted the bill as a beacon of Oregon’s green transportation commitment. House Speaker Dave Hunt called the bill, “the greenest transportation package that Oregon has ever passed.”
Rep. Vicki Berger (R-Salem) — who carried the bill onto the floor today with Rep. Beyer — said “There’s plenty of green in 2001.” She cited the bill’s green-light for a congestion pricing pilot program in Portland, a greenhouse gas reduction pilot program to be overseen by Metro, the development of a “least cost” planning model by ODOT, and others.
“But perhaps the least mentioned green part of this package,” Berger added, “is simply to lessen the gridlock that paralyzes the transportation system in this valley at least two times a day. Sitting in a car or truck, idling or slowly moving is the single most polluting thing we can do.”
Rep. Jules Bailey (D-Portland), who represents inner Southeast Portland, also strongly supported the bill. Despite what bike and environmental groups have called a “highway-heavy” bill, Bailey said HB 2001’s small steps toward new planning and transportation funding paradigms are a “roadmap” that steers Oregon in the “right direction”.
not be everything any of us
wants, but it is a good bill.”
(Photo © J. Maus)
In his testimony, it was clear that Bailey understands the perils of building too many highways. However, despite saying “We can’t simply build our way out of our transportation problems,” he threw whole-hearted support behind a bill that funds nearly $1 billion in new highway projects and gives relatively meager consideration to everything else.
How did all this happen? (I’m still trying to figure it out).
There are rumors swirling that Democrats like Bailey got behind the bill and made sure it had big earmarks for rural highway projects (like $192 million for the Newberg-Dundee Bypass) just to placate Republican lawmakers who might otherwise not support the gas tax and vehicle fee increases, or even worse, might work to get the bill referred to voters.
“Leadership needed to keep all the Democrats on board while attracting enough Republicans to dissuade anti-tax activists … from referring the bill to voters.
The result is a bill George Will would certainly love, celebrating asphalt while providing no increase in the percentage of bicycle and pedestrian funding. And it earmarks $192 million for “phase 1” of the Newberg-Dundee bypass, clearly establishing that detour, Novick said, as “the single most important transportation priority in Oregon.””
Far from the green bill held up by lawmakers, 1000 Friends of Oregon said, “The big highway expansion projects in this bill will increase long-distance automobile commuting, leading to sprawling car-dependent development and more global warming pollution.”
“The big highway expansion projects in this bill will increase long-distance automobile commuting, leading to sprawling car-dependent development and more global warming pollution.”
— 1000 Friends of Oregon
In addition to more balanced spending on non-motorized modes, 1000 Friends of Oregon said they’d like to see more money spent on urgent road and bridge maintenance, instead of new (and what some call unneeded) highway projects like the Dundee bypass.
And now, 1000 Friends finds themselves with few friends in this battle. Stacey and other sources say lawmakers held a meeting to tell other environmental groups who had previously been signed on to oppose HB 2001 (like Environment Oregon and the Oregon Environmental Council), that their other legislative priorities would be in jeapordy if they didn’t back off. So they did.
The Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) doesn’t have any other bills in play this session, but even with nothing to lose they’re being careful about their position on this bill. Last week, after seeing some of the bill’s initial amendments, they expressed clear “disappointment” in it. Subsequent versions improved slightly (especially some key language in the new Urban Trail Fund) and according to BTA legislative committee Chair Doug Parrow they are now, “evaluating the extent to which we will oppose it [HB 2001] or just be neutral.”
“At best, we’d be neutral… we’re not satisfied with the outcome of the bill.”
— Doug Parrow, BTA
The BTA is in a tough position. Do they join 1000 Friends (who some sources say might push to get the bill referred to voters) and risk losing political capitol by opposing a bill that’s popular with lawmakers? Or, do they stay in the background, express disappointment, but stay neutral and look toward building momentum (and goodwill) with lawmakers for next session.
Given how poorly bicycles have fared this session, the BTA has a lot of work to do between now and 2011, and getting into a messy fight against HB 2001 is fraught with political risk.
Parrow told me yesterday they’ll decide an official position in the coming days, but at this point, given what he called the “orientation of the bill being primarily about highway construction,” it leaves them little choice. “At best,” he said, “We’d be neutral… we’re not satisfied with the outcome of the bill,” said Parrow.
Parrow could point to only a few bright spots for bikes in the bill. The new Urban Trail Fund has a verbal commitment of $1 million in seed money, and while the bike/ped funding requirement (a.k.a. the “Bicycle Bill”) will not be increased from 1.0% to 1.5% like they hoped, Parrow said that the the existing 1.0% will be much larger thanks to the vast increase in highway spending.
Like others, Parrow acknowledged that there are a number of pieces of the bill that move the State in a more green transportation direction, “But the fundamental question is,” he said, “Does the earmarking of $840 million in highway expansions negate the gains made by the environmental components to the bill?”
That question seems to be at the crux of HB 2001.
Now the bill moves to the Senate.
Stay tuned for more updates.