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Counties: We need money for roads, transit, other public works

Originally posted in the Portland Tribune by Peter Wong


Suburban counties say more state and federal money is needed, not only for upkeep of aging roads, but also new highway and transit projects to keep the Portland region moving.

"Our commissioners say go big," Clackamas County's Gary Schmidt said Thursday (Feb. 23).

He and other panelists said local road damage resulting from winter storms — and the dramatic collapse of a concrete spillway at California's 50-year-old Oroville Dam — should prove to be a wake-up call to the public.

Washington County's Jonathan Schlueter said the Oroville Dam, the nation's tallest, is state-owned. It's part of California's system that moves a massive amount of water from north to south.

"But I would say it brings more attention, more of a priority, more urgency to the need for our nation's decaying infrastructure to address that problem," he said at a breakfast forum of the Westside Economic Alliance.

Scoggins Dam, Washington County's main source of water, is undergoing a federal review of whether the existing earthen dam should be strengthened or a new concrete dam be built downstream. It is one of three Oregon dams assessed at the highest risk in a severe earthquake.

Ree Armitage, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's field representative for the two counties, said the Oregon Democrat is prepared to renew a two-year-old proposal for more federal aid to help states and communities issue tax-exempt bonds for big public works projects.

"We need a lot more investment," he said, to supplement what Congress did in late 2015 when it renewed federal transportation spending authority for five years — but added little new money.

A previous version of the Oregon Democrat's proposal, which became part of the 2009 economic recovery act, raised $181 billion for public works projects nationwide by the end of 2010.

Big money for big projects

Regional leaders say four big projects are necessary to relieve traffic congestion by 2040, when the region will have 400,000 more people.

One is the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail line between downtown Portland and Tualatin. The others are improvements of the Rose Quarter interchange of Interstates 5 and 84 in Portland, Highway 217 between Tigard and Beaverton, and I-205 between Stafford Road in West Linn and Highway 99E in Oregon City, just east of the George Abernethy Bridge spanning the Willamette River.

That stretch of I-205 is two lanes in each direction, "and it's almost totally gridlocked now all day," Schmidt said.

Schmidt also said the county supports a second phase of the Sunrise Corridor into Happy Valley and Damascus. The first phase opened last year after state lawmakers earmarked money for it in their most recent transportation funding package.

Lawmakers have not yet offered hints of how much they would raise through fuel taxes, driver and vehicle fees, and other sources. In Oregon, transportation funding is largely separate from money used to support other state services and aid to public schools — but also is usually reserved for road and bridge work.

Schmidt said a funding package should raise $1 billion. Bernie Bottomly, the panel's moderator and executive director of public affairs for the TriMet transit agency, said "I am optimistic" it will be at least $600 million.

The four regional projects probably will require additional money from Portland area voters, although officials say that discussion will await what state lawmakers do or don't do.

Both counties also face demands for more money for road maintenance.

Washington County commissioners last year approved a county vehicle registration fee of $30 annually, payable every other year with the state fee of $43. The fee will take effect July 1, but commissioners say that will hinge on legislative action.

Clackamas County commissioners are considering a similar course. Voters in last year's primary gave the go-ahead for the county to pursue voter-approved funding. But they also rejected a fuel tax of 6 cents per gallon on the Nov. 8 ballot.

State law enables Oregon's more populous counties to impose without an election a vehicle registration fee up to the state maximum of $43.

Discord or progress?

Schlueter and Schmidt talked about other priorities, but they said the overriding goal was to expand upon the favorable economy in the Portland area.

December's unemployment rate in Washington County was 3.8 percent — only Benton County was lower — and 4.2 percent in Clackamas County.

Washington County accounts for one in every six dollars (17.6 percent) in income taxes paid to the state in 2014, and Clackamas County, one in every eight dollars (12.8 percent).

Asked whether increasingly heated political discord on the national and state levels will affect local government, officials from both counties said it doesn't have to — if people are willing to work together.

"We want very much to listen and understand the concerns of our constituents and neighbors, but we also have to be respectful of the process itself to be able govern and get things done," Schlueter said. "When we shout down city hall and take our complaints to the point where public collaboration can't continue, we all lose."

Schmidt said officials, businesses and citizens should do what they can do.

"If we are united, working together — and I feel that we do that as a region very well — we can achieve things (despite) insurmountable odds that may be occurring right now at the federal level," he said.