According to Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson and other local leaders who participated in a recent City Club of Portland panel, the package marks a historic step, but left some major issues unresolved.
The 2017 Oregon Legislature passed a $5.3 billion bill, the largest investment the state has ever made in transportation. Revenue will come from higher gas taxes, vehicle registration fees, and payroll taxes, along with a privilege tax on the sale of cars and certain bike sales.
In the Portland area, the project will fund new lanes on two highways and extended merging lanes on another. The bill will also fund transit and safe routes to schools around Oregon.
While calling the package “an incredible investment,” Commissioner Vega Pederson noted that “it didn’t address some of the big transportation challenges that we have, including a vision for equity and our multimodal future.”
While the package will address several major freeway bottlenecks such as the Rose Quarter stretch of I-5, it will not fund other “major needs, such as the Southwest Corridor transit project, or the seismic vulnerability of our roads and bridges,” said Vega Pederson.
She said the bill also does not make it significantly easier for low income residents to get to work and other destinations on transit. To do that, we will need to “bring in all the different voices to determine what we want our region’s solution to be,” she said.
Other panelists at the City Club event were State Representative Barbara Smith Warner, who serves on the Joint Committee for Transportation Preservation and Modernization which crafted the bill, and Sarah Iannarone, executive director for First Stop Portland and a former Portland mayoral candidate.
Rep. Smith Warner toured the state with her committee listening to Oregonians and heard consistent requests about transportation priorities. “Across the state, transit and Portland congestion were priorities,” she said.
Support for Congestion Pricing
One new topic the bill addressed (which all panelists supported) was congestion pricing. This is a way to manage traffic demand by charging users for trips at peak times.
Commissioner Vega Pederson said congestion pricing will need a system-wide approach, to avoid penalizing low income residents. “For people in East Portland who don’t even have a sidewalk to walk down their block to get to their bus stop, asking them to give up their car is hard,” she said. “The bus stops tend to be farther away than in other parts of the city and their job may not be in the downtown core.”
Rep. Smith Warner believes that congestion pricing is just one part of solving traffic jams. “We need to get away from one person in one car getting to work,” she said. “We also need to consider land use planning, and the fact that many people can’t afford to live near where they work. This contributes to congestion. Affordable housing needs to be part of the solution. All of it has to work together.”
Iannarone believes that congestion pricing may be needed on some arterial roads if it applies to highways, so that we don’t overload traffic onto neighborhood boulevards. “We need to decide what we want our city to be like,” she said, “and what do we value as a common good.”
Finding funds for transit
While Oregonians asked legislators to improve transit, gas tax revenue can only be used on roads, not on transit. So legislators approved a .5% excise tax on new car sales to fund transit.
“That was a big deal,” Rep. Smith Warner said. “It sends a message about the state’s priorities.”
Commissioner Vega Pederson expressed frustration with Oregon’s past dependence on the gas tax and its limitations. “The gas tax doesn’t consider other impacts that cars have, such as adding to congestion and pollution. Other cities in the nation have funded transit investments with tools like a sales tax, which we don’t have. So we need to be creative.”
The next challenge will be to find ways to make it “easier and safer for people to walk, bike or take transit,” Commissioner Vega Pederson predicted. “That makes it more attractive and viable for people to stay out of their cars and take an alternate mode of transportation.”
Transportation investments should make our community more fair and equitable, which was not always true in the past, she said. When it comes to transportation, we need to make “dollar investments that improve the lives of those who have been harmed by past decisions,” Commissioner Vega Pederson said.