“This historic investment in walking, biking, & transit puts [Oregon] on the map as a leader in accessibility & active transportation.
— The Street Trust via Twitter
It’s no small task that Oregon legislators passed a $5.3 billion transportation package last week. We haven’t had a new way to fund transportation projects and programs since the Jobs and Transportation Act passed in 2009 and this year’s bill was nearly dead just days before being resurrected thanks to a few major compromises.
But a small part of House Bill 2017 — a $15 tax on new bicycles — has gotten a lot of attention from transportation reformers (did you see the tweet from former New York City DOT Director Janette Sadik Khan?!). And for good reason. The tax an unprecedented step in the wrong direction from a state previously famous for passing the forward-thinking “Bicycle Bill” way back in 1971. And while our debates and discussions about the bike tax will continue, let’s not forget the other major components of this bill.
After all, there had to be something good in the bill for The Street Trust and other progressive nonprofit groups to support it.
So… What exactly did they come away with? Here’s how transit, biking, and walking fared.
Transit: Better bus service coming soon
A new employee-paid payroll tax of 0.1 percent (about 39 cents per week for a minimum wage earner) will raise $1.2 billion over 10 years. This is the best news in the bill for transportation reformers by far.
That level of investment is “Truly a game-changer” says the national nonprofit Transportation for America. According to their numbers it moves Oregon up to 13th (from 19th) in per capita spending countrywide.
The new funding is earmarked specifically for projects that make bus service better (light rail, streetcar, and bike share aren’t eligible). Lawmakers wrote language into the bill to make sure the money is spent to reduce fares and increase frequency and service range of bus service for communities with a high percentage of low-income households and purchase buses powered by natural gas or electricity.
In our region, TriMet says they plan to do just that. In a statement released on July 7th the agency said they expect an additional $35-40 million annually from the bill. And the Portland Bureau of Transportation says they’ll team up with TriMet to make sure the investments align with their ongoing plans to, “make more bus-only lanes and transit priority traffic signals that will improve bus service by helping buses get through rush-hour congestion.”
But the real winners are the smaller, rural transit providers who struggle to find any funding whatsoever. To them and the people they serve, this new source of money could be the difference between some transit and no transit at all.
Safe Routes gets a boost
HB 2017 marks a significant boost for Safe Routes to School project funding. The most ever in Oregon by far. Thanks in large part to a concerted advocacy push by The Street Trust (creators of the graphic above), Oregon will now invest $10 million per year in Safe Routes to School projects through 2021 and the amount will bump up to $15 million per year from 2022 to 2027.
The funds will be put into a competitive grant program (Oregon has about 1,200 public schools) and only projects within one-mile of a school will be eligible.
Local cities and counties will have to dig up a 40 percent match if they want to access these funds. A 20 percent match will be required if the school has a majority of low-income students, the project is on a designated safety corridor, or the town has 5,00 or fewer residents.
While it’s not everything advocates wanted (they wanted even more funding and hoped it would pay for educational and marketing programs too), this is a very big deal. “This level of ongoing, dedicated investment for school travel safety — and the positive impacts it will have on the health and safety of our communities — is unprecedented in Oregon,” wrote the Safe Routes National Partnership. “This is a big step in the right direction for the hundreds of thousands of students in Oregon.”
Funding for off-highway paths and trails
The Street Trust estimates that the bill will lead to $7 million per year for “trails” — a term generally used to refer to multi-use paths like the Eastbank Esplanade and Springwater Corridor.
Despite how it’s being reported as “funding for bike lanes” there’s no money in this bill set aside specifically for on-street bicycle infrastructure like protected bikeways (other than those that might be built as part of other funded “highway” projects via the 1971 Bicycle Bill).
The bill sets aside the $1.2 million per year raised by the bike tax and guarantees that biking and walking projects will receive 7 percent of the total grant fund in the Connect Oregon program, which averages about $70 million every two years. Connect Oregon is a lottery-backed program used to fund projects that can’t be funded with the gas tax because they are not in the public highway right-of-way. To make it clear that on-street bike projects aren’t eligible for the funds, the bill states that, “The [Oregon Transportation] commission may award grants only for bicycle and pedestrian transportation projects that expand and improve commuter routes for nonmotorized vehicles and pedestrians, including bicycle trails, footpaths and multiuse trails.”
While we believe the intention of lawmakers was to only fund paths like the Esplanade and Springwater, the term “commuter routes” isn’t defined in the Oregon Vehicle Code and it remains to be seen what type of projects actually get funded.
A few steps forward, but status quo remains
While there are wins here for transportation reformers, about 80 percent of the funds raised by the bevy of new taxes and fees in the bill are business-as-usual and will go largely toward projects that maintain the automobile-related status quo.
It’s important to keep in mind that the only new, bike-specific funding in the bill is the $1.2 million per year raised by the bike tax. And there’s no new money here for bike-specific, transportation-related infrastructure. The Safe Routes money will be limited to biking and walking projects within one-mile of a public school. The other bike-related investments in the bill — the Connect Oregon money, and the 1 percent Bike Bill set-aside — are continuations of existing law. The fact remains that there’s no new money in this bill dedicated to the type of on-street bike infrastructure we need more of all over Oregon: high quality protected lanes.
On one hand we have an unprecedented investment in public transit and Safe Routes to School, and on the other we have a tax on bicycles and nearly one billion earmarked for freeway and highway projects (more on those in a separate post). It’s a mixed bag for sure. Advocacy groups like The Street Trust say it’s a good compromise.
In a Twitter thread posted earlier today, The Street Trust defended their support of the bill after initial reactions were dominated by talk of the bike tax.
“Let’s be frank: the $15 bike tax is very disappointing,” they wrote. “It’s also well worth the investments in bike safety & accessibility.” Other tweets explained why: “Many legislators refused to consider supporting the package if it didn’t include this tax, leaving us with a difficult choice… Rather than abandon effort to secure these investments, we made difficult decision to support HB2017… This is also the first time #orleg has been so receptive to addressing needs & concerns of advocates for biking, walking, & transit… This historic investment in walking, biking, & transit puts OR on the map as a leader in accessibility & active transportation.”
Stay tuned for more coverage of this and other bills.