Central Oregon highway projects OK without federal funding — for now

Without congressional action, federal Highway Trust Fund faces insolvency by September

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

WASHINGTON — The Oregon Department of Transportation doesn’t expect any of its major highway projects in Central Oregon to be immediately derailed if Congress fails to replenish the quickly evaporating Highway Trust Fund before going on recess in August, state officials said Tuesday.

The biggest local project, the overpass of U.S. Highway 97 at Murphy Road, is state-funded and will proceed on schedule, said Peter Murphy, an ODOT spokesman based in Bend.

Other big projects in ODOT’s Region 4, including the Biggs Junction interchange at Interstate 84 and Highway 97, are similarly funded by the Jobs and Transportation Act, which the Oregon Legislature passed in 2009.

In addition to raising permit and registration fees for certain vehicles, the act raised Oregon’s gas tax by 6 cents per gallon to 30 cents per gallon, starting in 2011.

It was the first increase in the state gas tax since 1993.

“We happen to be in an advantageous position because of those JTA funds,” said Murphy.

The federal Highway Trust Fund, which raises revenues from the federal gas tax of 18.3 cents per gallon, provides funding for highway transportation infrastructure projects. In recent years, thanks in part to more efficient cars and fewer miles being driven, Congress has been forced to provide the fund with $54 billion from general tax revenues to keep it solvent.

The U.S. Department of Transportation projects that, without congressional action, the fund will run dry at the end of August. The current legislation authorizing the funding is set to expire at the end of September.

Last month, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., proposed a short-term solution that would raise $9 billion for the Highway Trust Fund, in part by raising fees on heavy commercial trucks, to keep the fund solvent through the end of the year. After Republicans raised objections at a hearing last month, Wyden set the proposal aside to continue negotiating with GOP lawmakers. Wyden told reporters Tuesday that discussions were ongoing and “making progress.”

ODOT Assistant Director Travis Brouwer said the agency has enough money it can tap into to keep funding projects for about two months. Some of this cash on hand is money that is spoken for but won’t be spent until next year, he said. If Congress hasn’t taken action in a few months, ODOT will start paying the federal government’s share of highway projects that involve federal funding, he said. In essence, Oregon would be loaning the federal government up to $150 million.

Without funding certainty from the federal government, ODOT will be forced to reconsider projects scheduled for 2015, he said.

“We start bidding those projects in the fall, but we will hold off bidding them if we don’t have (federal) funding for 2015 secured,” he said.

One local project that could face delays if the Highway Trust Fund issue remains unresolved is the project to improve safety and the flow of traffic on Highway 97 on the north side of Bend, said ODOT’s Murphy. But this remains speculation at this point, and decisions regarding which projects could be put off have not been made, he said.

“(North Bend project) is the kind of thing that would be delayed, because we are submitting for qualifying federal funds,” Murphy said. The environmental impact statement for the project has not been finished, and funding has not been set up, he said.

“That is a long-term project. We’re not looking for money for next year,” he said.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com