“When gas prices are high like this, people start making different modal choices, and they never go back.”
— Julie Brown, OTC member
A press release from ODOT last week about a meeting of the Oregon Transportation Commission raised eyebrows here at BikePortland headquarters. “There was consensus that funding for highway expansion projects should not be the priority of this flexible funding,” it read.
The funding referred to was the $412 million up for grabs thanks to the federal government’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
Climate change and transportation reform activists have been outspoken about what should be funded and have asked the OTC to back projects that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve active transportation options around the state. At an OTC meeting last week, commissioners recognized this public consensus and indicated a desire to move away from traditional highway funding.
As we wrote about last week, OTC members have shown increasing skepticism for funding freeway projects like the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program and I-5 Rose Quarter expansion.
During the IIJA discussion held later at the same meeting, all five OTC members called for deemphasizing enhancing highways in some capacity. Commissioners Julie Brown and Sharon Smith both showed support for a new plan that would combine the “Fix-It” and “Public and Active Transportation” scenarios, two of four funding proposals put together by ODOT. This allocation would maintain investments in fixing roads and bridges, but give more money to the Great Streets and Safe Routes to School programs (both of which emphasize non-freeway projects for people who walk, bike and take transit).
Commissioner Brown, whose day job is general manager of Rogue Valley Transit District, pointed out what many transportation activists have been saying for weeks now since the start of the war in Ukraine: “We’re going to see a shift of people wanting to use public transit, walking and biking,” she said. Brown elaborated on that by pointing out how people’s transportation choices shifted in 2008, the last time gas prices were exceptionally high.
“We have a responsibility to make sure the infrastructure is there,” Brown said. “When we put investment into public transportation and active transportation, that will move the needle. When gas prices are high like this, people start making different modal choices, and they never go back.”
OTC Chair Bob Van Brocklin also showed support for this new, hybrid spending plan, but expressed a desire to focus on a more robust electric car charging system in the state, as well as providing other incentives encouraging people to buy electric cars. This would be on top of the $52 million from the other pool of IIJA funds ODOT has already designated to go to electric vehicle charging.
While ODOT has in the past recognized the increasing popularity of electric bikes, Van Brocklin didn’t talk about improving charging infrastructure or creating incentives for e-bikes or other kinds of electric mobility devices. He spoke about how he thinks convincing people to move from driving gas cars to electric cars will be the best and fastest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions resulting from transportation.
“We are trying to both maintain and preserve an existing system and prepare for new things. We have to transition from today to tomorrow, specifically in electric vehicles,” Van Brocklin said. “People who won’t ride a bus are willing to buy an EV.”
Ultimately, the consensus at this meeting was to further research the feasibility of a new funding scenario that combines elements from the “Fix-It” and “Public/active Transportation” scenarios. Commissioners will make their final decisions for this funding at the OTC meeting on March 30. You can submit a comment about IIJA funding and learn more at the OTC website.