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7 interesting nuggets buried inside Oregon’s new transportation bill

Snapped this photo from I-205 path bridge over SE Powell. It says a lot about how we've chosen to allocate road space.


Powell Blvd got a major funding boost in the bill, but it’s biggest advocate inexplicably voted no.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Oregon’s statewide transportation bill is on its way to Governor Kate Brown’s desk. With support from boths sides of the aisle it passed the House yesterday 39-20 and passed the Senate today 22-7.

House Bill 2017 was on the rocks just weeks before its passage; but that was before lawmakers hashed out major compromises. The initial proposal would have raised over $8 billion dollars — including about $777 million for four freeway widening projects in the Portland metro region. Funding for those projects would have come from a new local gas tax and increased registration fees. Those fees and taxes brought auto lobbyist groups out of the woodwork in opposition. With the threat of referral to voters, lawmakers slashed the funding for those highway projects, reduced the size of tax increases, and ultimately shrank the bill’s overall revenue by about $3 billion (they also got environmental groups and Republicans to agree to changes in the low carbon fuels program).

The amended bill will raise $5.2 billion over 10 years. And while the big-ticket highway project earmarks — including I-5 expansion at the Rose Quarter — went way down, the revenue share for public transit, biking and walking remained intact.

Among other things, the bill will provide: $103 million a year to transit agencies to improve bus service via a 0.1% employee-paid tax on wages; $125 million for Safe Routes to School via a 40% matching grant program; and an estimated seven million per year (exact amount will fluctuate) dedicated to paved paths and multi-use trails via a combination of sources including a $15 bike tax. The boost in gas tax revenue will also help pay for road projects that will include a minimum of 1 percent investment in biking and walking-related upgrades thanks to Oregon’s “Bike Bill”.

While not perfect, the bill is being hailed by The Street Trust and their partner organizations as a major win with unprecedented investments in active transportation. They have reason to be happy. The Street Trust’s Advocacy Director Gerik Kransky was ever-present in Salem; at the table for months to protect pieces of the pie. In part due to his advocacy and organizing, Oregon will make its largest ever investment in biking, walking, and transit!

We’ll share more from Kransky and the bill in general in the weeks to come. For now I’d like to share a few nuggets I came across while combing through its 250-pages…

Project oversight weakened by ODOT

The initial version of the bill called for ODOT to submit a written analysis of the costs and benefits of all their major projects (those included in the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, STIP). The provision was included as an accountability measure and a way for the Oregon Transportation Commission (and the public) to prioritize highway modernization and capacity increasing projects. In a letter to lawmakers ODOT Director Matt Garrett objected to the initial language and requested amendments.

Garrett said requiring cost-benefit analysis reports on all projects in the STIP would be too costly. He wanted the requirement to only apply to projects that cost over $25 million (the original bill language had no cost threshold). Lawmakers agreed, and then went one step further. The bill passed yesterday says ODOT must only do a cost-benefit analysis on projects over $15 million. They also added language that makes all 42 highway projects earmarked for $647 million in funding completely exempt from the requirement.

Oregon-based advocate with Transportation for America Chris Rall said the exemptions would increase the chances of future project boondoggles. “In an earlier analysis I found only three projects over $10 million and I don’t know how many of those were over the $15 million threshold,” he wrote in a letter to lawmakers on July 1st. “Since the bill also exempts from CBAs [cost-benefit analyses] all earmarks and all Congestion Relief Projects, it’s unclear what projects CBAs would even apply to… the $15 million threshold will render the effort fruitless.”

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The strange tale of Powell Boulevard

Rep. Bynum.

Powell Boulevard is an urban freeway a wide arterial that runs through Portland and has a terrible safety record. It’s a state highway managed by ODOT, a fact that hamstrings the City of Portland’s ability to make changes that would save lives. Both agencies want it to go through a jurisdictional transfer that would allow PBOT to manage the street from I-205 east to the Portland city limits (around 174th). The only reason that hasn’t happened already is because PBOT doesn’t want it until it gets major maintenance and safety upgrades that are estimated to cost about $110 million.

With pressure from voters and lawmakers, this was the year it would finally happen. The initial version of HB 2017 included some funding (about $6 million) and language that would require ODOT and PBOT to hash out an agreement on the transfer.

But somehow, thanks in part to hard work from State Representative Janelle Bynum (more on her later), the final version of the bill appears to fully fund the Powell upgrades. In section 71(d), amid a list of $249 million in projects to be funded in Region 1, the bill states, “Southeast Powell Boulevard jurisdiction transfer.” The bill further states that the upgrades must be completed before the transfer can take place. There’s a bit of mystery still because the bill doesn’t attach a specific dollar amount to the Powell transfer project. However, a close read of the two versions of the bills leads us (and a source with knowledge of the issue) to have confidence that $110 million is on its way to Powell Blvd and its new home is with PBOT.

Which brings us back to Rep. Bynum. For the past several months she raised awareness about the need for safety improvements to Powell Blvd. Yet despite the good news delivered in the final version of the bill, Bynum voted against it. She was one of 16 House Democrats who issued a veiled threat to vote against the bill if lawmakers didn’t address revenue needs for other public services; but she told the Portland Tribune her signature shouldn’t be taken as a “no” vote on the transportation bill. We reached out to ask why she voted against it and have yet to hear back.

*Note: The bill also calls on ODOT to study the cost of upgrading inner Powell from SE 9th to I-205 and then transferring it to PBOT by 2020.

Earmarks for ‘pedestrian safety’ projects

Active transportation advocates have even more to be happy about than the funds this bill dedicates to transit, paths and Safe Routes to School. The Street Trust estimates the bill includes $1.3 billion for those three things over its 10 years.

The actual amount is much higher because not all “highway projects” are freeway and bridge expansions.

Despite early calls for the bill to avoid earmarks, HB 2017 includes $647 million for 42 specific projects. Of those, nine are listed as “pedestrian safety” projects. One of them from our region (Region 1) is labeled “Columbia Boulevard pedestrian safety.” I’m not aware of the details of all these projects, but they’re a good reminder that not all ODOT projects are about auto capacity and many of the “highway projects” they build also have significant bicycling and walking elements.

The hidden e-bike tax that subsidizes cars

Electric-assisted bicycles are growing in popularity. Unfortunately — as we saw with our post earlier today — their legal status is still murky on many fronts. One of them is in tax law.

HB 2017 includes a new, 0.5 percent “motor vehicle privilege tax” that will be paid by motor vehicles dealers. Included among the motor vehicles this tax applies to are electric-assisted bicycles. E-bikes are exempt from the new $15 bicycle excise tax, but at an average retail price of about $3,500, dealers will have to pay about $18 for the privilege of selling them. In another strange twist, this privilege tax on e-bike dealers will go into the new $12 million “Zero-Emission Incentive Fund” that will give people rebates on their purchase of zero-emission cars and plug-in EVs.

This is not good policy. For the purpose of tax law, e-bikes should be classified as bicycles. Perhaps we’ll see a fix to this in the interim 2018 legislative session.

Gas tax increases are conditional

The bulk of revenue raised in this bill is from gas tax increases. They’re expected to raise $1.3 billion over the course of 10 years. But lawmakers have put a list of conditions on the gas tax increases from 2020 onward.

The conditions are laid out in section 45 of the bill. They include stipulations that the Oregon Transportation Commission identifies “sufficient shovel-ready highway projects… to justify the increase,” and a requirement that two “congestion relief” projects on I-205 are funded and completed. Other conditions are status reports on any project over $20 million that hasn’t been completed, including the I-5 Rose Quarter widening project.

Possible win for bike theft recovery?

As we shared in our post today about the bike excise tax, bike dealers will now be required to keep receipts for up to five years. This could be a boon for bike theft recovery efforts.

Some big shops (like Bike Gallery) already keep records on all bikes sold as a service to customers in case a need for warranty or other issues arise. One piece of information that’s often important is a bike’s serial number. Many people never record theirs and are happy to know that when their bike gets stolen, they can call up the shop and get it. With this new requirement, every shop that sells new bikes could potentially keep a bike’s serial number on file.

A better use for unused ODOT property?

Another provision in the bill in the accountability section calls on ODOT to compile an inventory of “property that is in excess of the department’s operating needs.”

ODOT owns a lot of land adjacent to their roads and freeways. Much of it is kept vacant just in case they want to expand the facility, or to store and stage equipment. But as we saw with the 25-acre Gateway Green parcel, this land can often be put to better use. ODOT owned Gateway Green for decades before advocates envisioned using it as a bike park instead. ODOT ultimately sold it to the City of Portland and now we have a wonderful new place to enjoy.

It makes me wonder… How many other Gateway Greens are there in Oregon? Where else can we build a few bike trails or a pump track?

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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