The speculations are over and now the debates can begin.
On Wednesday night a bipartisan committee of state legislators released the first draft of the transportation funding package. The 298-page House Bill 2017 aims to raise $8.2 billion over the next 10 years from a combination of increases to existing taxes and fees, and a few new ones.
The bill tilts heavily toward major new investments in roads and highways that will make driving more convenient. Local bus services get a boost, while investment in light rail is explicitly prohibited. Biking and walking see an amount of dedicated investment that’s unprecedented compared to past packages; but is still embarrassingly small relative to other priorities.
The broad outlines of the bill are similar to what has been discussed during recent meetings of the 14-member Joint Transportation Preservation and Modernization Committee. But there are several noteworthy new details to discuss.
Here are my takeaways so far, in no particular order…
Powell Blvd could become a city-managed road
HB 2017 would set into motion the transfer of Powell Boulevard (Highway 26) from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). This change in management (known as jurisdictional transfer) is something both agencies have wanted for a long time (this is just one of several urban highways they’ve discussed). The reason is simple: ODOT manages roads in a way that makes motor vehicle speeds and traffic volume the top priority — an approach PBOT is moving away from. While PBOT wants to tame auto traffic to improve human safety and livability outcomes, ODOT continues to act as a de-facto automobile advocacy group even though local plans aim to significantly decrease the appeal of driving in the next decade.
The barrier to these transfers has always been money. PBOT doesn’t want an ODOT road that has major maintenance needs. To remedy this, this bill (on page 167) sets aside $16.5 million for Region 1, with a portion of that (unknown) going to the City of Portland to make “Powell Boulevard improvements.” Then, to cement the deal, page 279 of the bill says ODOT and PBOT “shall enter into a memorandum of understanding to transfer jurisdiction of Southeast Powell Boulevard beginning where the highway intersects with Southeast 9th Avenue and ending where the highway intersects with Southeast 174th Avenue.”
Under PBOT’s control, the future of Powell — and the people who live and work on and around it — is much brighter.
Accountability at ODOT and the rise of the OTC
Several provisions in HB 2017 aim to increase transparency and create stronger oversight of ODOT. The bill gives more power (and an increased workload) to the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC), a governor-appointed body charged with implementing the state’s transportation policies.
Language in the bill calls for the OTC to create a new website that lists major transportation projects along with details like its estimated cost and completion date, expected benefits and so on. Another section calls for ODOT to create written project proposals for the OTC that include expansive cost details including any environmental impacts and vehicle emissions. “The analysis required by this section,” reads the bill, “May include a discussion of… The value of any other social, economic or environmental benefits or costs of the project.”
The OTC will also have to figure out how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by transportation. The bill mandates the adoption of an OTC-led strategy that will help Oregon reach its greenhouse gas emissions goals.
Further expanding the OTC’s authority, the bill would grant it the power to appoint the ODOT director (“after consultation with the governor”) and relieve that person of their duties if necessary.
Driving will get even more expensive
To help pay for new and improved roads and bridges, Oregonians will spend even more of their money for the privilege of owning and operating a motor vehicle if this bill passes. Here’s the breakdown:
- A surcharge of $100 for electric vehicles and $15 for gas-guzzlers.
- An three-cent increase to the gas tax (to 36 cents) starting in 2018. The tax will rise another six cents (to 42 cents) by 2025. (*This sentence was edited for clarity after publication.)
- A tiered increase in title fees based on a vehicle’s miles-per-gallon rating. The amount will go up each biennium and vehicles with a lower mpg rating pay less than those that are more fuel efficien. Electric vehicles pay the most — over three times the amount of the most efficienct gas-guzzlers.Tolls and congestion pricing aren’t finalized in the bill, but lawmakers have created a framework where we could see them in the near future.
- A “dealer privilege tax” of 0.75 percent (not to exceed $3,750) on new and used car purchases. 10 percent will go into the Connect Oregon Fund and 90 percent will go into a new Congestion Relief Fund with the stipulation that it can be spent only on highway construction and maintenance projects.
How transit fares
To improve and expand bus service, HB 2017 would raise new revenue from an employee payroll tax of one-tenth of one percent. A minimum wage worker would pay about $20 a year and the tax is estimated to raise about $100 million a year. The money cannot be used for light rail and must be spent on increasing bus frequency, purchasing new buses, subsidizing fares for low-income people, and expanding routes into rural areas.
Advocacy groups are hailing this part of the bill, calling it a “major investment in public transit.”
Keep in mind that while we often parse the package into tidy modal silos, the truth is that “road and highway” projects often include elements that improve cycling conditions. That being said, the amount of money dedicated specifically to cycling infrastructure is important as a political barometer and because it provides planners with a target which encourages them to think big.
The package includes about $8 million per year specifically for multi-use paths and $10 million per year for the Safe Routes to School program. Here are the specifics:
- The lottery-backed Connect Oregon program (that funds non-highway projects like air, marine, rail, port, and bike paths) will have a 7 percent set-aside for bicycling and walking projects. This is likely to equate to about $5 million. (Note: These projects used to compete for a much larger portion of the fund, so this isn’t new money.)
- ODOT will administer a grant program for biking and walking projects using State Parks and Recreation Department funds to the tune of $4 million every two years.
- About $1.2 million per year from a 3 percent tax on new bicycles (more on that below).
- A $10 million matching grant program for Safe Routes to School projects. Projects must provide a local match of 40 percent and be within a quarter-mile of a school. Specific project-types can include those that, “Improve sidewalks; reduce vehicle speeds; improve pedestrian and bicycle crossings; create or improve bicycle lanes; or improve traffic diversion.”
The bike tax lives; but it should die
In a classic case of bad policy that makes good politics, lawmakers have proposed a 3 percent bike tax. The only good news here is that earlier proposals called for a tax of 5 percent. ODOT estimates this will raise about $1.2 million a year. It will be levied only on new bikes that cost $500 or more
and or that have wheels of at least 26-inches in diameter. (Please note this correction: It’s an “or”, not an “and” in the bill. This means that the tax applies to all large-wheeled bikes, including department store bikes. And it applies to small-wheeled bikes (like folding bikes) over $500. Thank you Evan Manvel for pointing this out!)
The minimum price was done to soften the impact of the tax on lower-income people; but it will just push business toward large multi-national corporations and away from the mom-and-pop bike shops that fuel our local economies. The wheel size provision was done to exempt kids bikes from the tax; but it ignores the reality that many “kids bikes” have adult-sized tires.
This first draft of HB 2017 includes new details on how the bike tax will be implemented.
Bike sellers (legislatively defined as “a person engaged in whole or in part in the business of selling bicycles”) already hate this idea and now they will have even less reason to support it. Shops will be required to state the amount of the tax as a line-item on the customer’s receipt. Receipts and invoices pertaining to the tax must be kept for five years. Sellers will also be required to file a quarterly tax return with the Department of Revenue. If they fail to pay the proper amount of tax in the allotted time, the state will issue a warrant for collection and pursue the case, “in the same manner… and the same force and effect as is prescribed with respect to warrants for the collection of delinquent income taxes.”
Revenue from the bike excise tax will go into a new fund at the Department of Revenue. After they pay for administration and enforcement of the tax, any money left over will be transferred to the Connect Oregon fund where it will be added to a grant program for “bicycle and pedestrian transportation projects.”
How does Oregon spell congestion relief? W-I-D-E-R F-R-E-E-W-A-Y-S
In an attempt to quell fears that Oregon is sliding into a traffic abyss, lawmakers put the vast majority of their time and effort into trying to “fix” congestion. Science and history tells us widening freeways and building new ones isn’t the best way to do this, but our legislature wants to give it another try.
HB 2017 would turn Oregon’s metropolitan planning organizations into “Congestion Relief Districts”. In the Portland region, the bill uses Metro’s current boundary to create the Metro Congestion Relief District.
These new districts would act as funding and policymaking mechanisms and would be governed by the Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation and Modernization. With that power, the bill states that the committee has the power to approve and fund specific projects in the Portland metro region:
- $338 million to widen I-5 at the Rose Quarter.
- $152 million to build a wider I-205 Abernethy Bridge.
- $188 million to widen I-205 between Oregon City and Stafford Road.
- $99 million to widen Highway 217.
The bill includes a special set of new taxes and fees to pay for these projects. For two years beginning on January 2019, the legislature would impose a 3 cent gas tax increase and a $5 vehicle registration fee within the Metro Congestion Relief District boundary.
A nod to tolling and congestion pricing
HB 2017 calls for the creation of a “traffic congestion relief program” within the OTC. This new program will provide the framework for Oregon to begin to use tolling and “value pricing” (aka congestion pricing) as a way to discourage auto use. The bill calls on the OTC to implement value pricing on two specific locations: I-205 and I-5 from Washington to where they intersect in Oregon (south of the Portland metro area).
Once a tolling and pricing system is set up, HB 2017 has already earmarked over $40 million in highway projects to spend it on.
Closer scrutiny of mega-projects
I didn’t expect to see the phrase “mega transportation projects” in a bill; but HB 2017 is full of surprises. The bill proposes to establish a new legislative task force that would take a closer look at any transportation project with a pricetag of $500 million or more.
This is the legislature’s attempt to avoid embarrassing boondoggles and cost overruns on major projects. The bill says the task force is needed for projects, “that attract a high level of public attention or political interest because of substantial direct and indirect impacts on the community or environment or that re- quire a high level of attention to manage the project successfully.”
And a pinch of salt
Tucked into the end of the bill is a provision that would require the salting of roads throughout Oregon. In the past our state hasn’t used salt during snow and ice storms because of environmental and maintenance conerns. However, the drubbing we took this past winter appears to have lawmakers erring on the side of traffic over trout.
As written, the bill would require ODOT to salt their roads if at least two inches of snow falls within a 12-hour period. The law would also require large cities (over 160,000 population) to use salt under the same circumstances.
There’s a lot to absorb here and I’ll share more of my opinions and analysis in the coming days and weeks. Overall, bill is extremely disappointing. In a craven attempt to cross infrastructure spending off their political wish list, Oregon lawmakers are going down the wrong road.
Public hearings on the bill are set for Tuesday June 6th and Wednesday June 7th. The Committee will discuss the bill (without public testimony) on Monday June 5th. All meetings will be streamed online. You can also email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some other views on the bill:
— The Street Trust (via the Oregon Environmental Council): Transportation Bill Includes Some Potential Wins for Bicycling, Walking, Transit, and Safe Routes
— Portland Tribune: Legislators make transportation package an all-or-nothing deal
— The Oregonian: Lawmakers air massive road-fixing bill amid rising tensions