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House bill would make bike paths (and more) eligible for highway trust fund


Rep. Jules Bailey.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

A bill in the legislature seeks to amend the Oregon Constitution in order to use gas taxes and motor vehicle fees to pay for biking, walking, transit and other types of projects. Gas tax and vehicle fee revenues — a.k.a. the highway trust fund — accounts for over one-third of ODOT’s total annual revenue; but it can only be spent in state highway right-of-way.

House Joint Resolution 9, drafted by Representative Jules Bailey (D-Portland), would do what many insiders have long thought to be impossible: open up the list project types eligible for this huge pot of funding to non-auto modes.

Specifically, the bill proposes a constitutional amendment that would, “allow revenue from taxes on motor vehicle fuel and ownership, operation or use of motor vehicles to be used for transportation projects that will prevent or reduce pollution and congestion created by use of motor vehicles.” The bill also broadens the definition of “transportation project” to include, “transit, rail and aviation capital infrastructure, bicycle and pedestrian paths, bridges and ways, and other projects that facilitate the transportation of materials, animals or people.”

Bicycle Transportation Alliance Advocacy Director Gerik Kransky learned about the bill today and said via Twitter it would be “a game changer.” “It would break open the highway trust fund for projects like N Portland Greenway and other trails!,” he wrote to a local transportation activism email list, “I think we all have a strong interest in seeing it pass, but it has an uphill battle in Salem.”

“This bill smply acknowledges that we can more effectively manage our transportation system by using transportation dollars not just for projects built for cars, but also for projects that reduce the need for cars.”
— Rep. Jules Bailey

The BTA and other bike advocacy groups have long dreamed of having access to the highway trust fund. In the 2011-2013 biennium, ODOT took in about $1.2 billion in gas taxes and assorted vehicle fees. According to ODOT, the State Highway Trust Fund accounts for 67 percent of the agency’s annual revenue. In 2009, the legislature used this money to fund a package of highway projects worth about $900 million while biking and walking projects continue to fight over budget crumbs.

Rail, aviation, and marine infrastructure projects are also ineligible for highway trust fund monies; but since 2005 they’ve benefited from the Connect Oregon program which sets aside State Lottery funds to to the tune of about $100 million per year. (Currently, bike projects aren’t eligible for Connect Oregon funding, but there’s an effort to change that as well).

While this bill excites active transportation advocates, to say making changes to the highway trust fund is an “uphill battle” is a major understatement.

In an interview in May 2012, ODOT Director Matt Garrett said any attempt at “busting the highway trust fund” would be a “very bloody and unproductive battle.”

Well it appears that Rep. Bailey is ready for that battle. In a statement today, he shared with us that the bill, “Simply acknowledges that we can more effectively manage our transportation system by using transportation dollars not just for projects built for cars, but also for projects that reduce the need for cars.”

HJR 9, says Rep. Bailey, “acknowledges the effect of automobiles on pollution, and would allow revenues to be used to reduce carbon pollution rather than building more roads. This is about giving people more transportation options.” (It’s worth noting that Rep. Bailey voted in support of the Columbia River Crossing bill last month and that’s a project that will very likely increase pollution and congestion.)

While the politics of this bill are bleak to say the least, the policy itself has merit. Even Director Garrett says he’s leading an evolution at his agency toward a less highway-centric outlook. In that May interview, I pushed Garrett to consider breaking free of existing funding constraints.

What if you could cut the strings attached to these dollars? I asked. To that he replied;

“If I could get rid of the strings, what I would suggest is, let’s focus on outcomes… If we can agree that the outcome of this investment is X, and you allow me the local flexibility to do that, I will get you to this outcome. But don’t bind me by saying, ‘With this dollar you have to spend it in this specific area’. Instead, say, ‘With this dollar, you have to meet this outcome’… I think that would be healthier for the system and it certainly would allow each state to tailor their transportation portfolio to truly represent the need of its citizens.

Just think how much money we could leverage if we put all of the money in the bank and said, ‘Let’s look at this and see what we can do.'”

Indeed.

HJR 9 is set for a public hearing in front of the House Committee on Transportation and Economic Development on April 1st. Learn more about the bill and follow its progress, here.

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