SALEM — The state Transportation Commission began Friday to turn paper to pavement, starting to implement the $5 billion transportation package approved by the Legislature in July.
“This really is the beginning, the implementation phase,” said Tammy Baney, the committee chair.
Baney, who is a Deschutes County commissioner, said residents won’t see the upside of the package — new highways, bridges and transit projects — before they see the downside of higher taxes and fees to pay the bill.
“For our region, the biggest part is the funding rollout for transit,” Baney said. “There’s $100 million a year statewide. This will give local governments a stable, dedicated source of funding.”
Baney said by knowing the transportation package will pay for projects such as the U.S. Highway 97 and Cooley Road traffic choke-points, local officials can turn their attention and local dollars to other areas.
“That means potholes may get filled quicker; curbs may be fixed sooner,” Baney said.
The commission worked Friday on getting the new initiatives into the Statewide Transportation Improvement Project, the ongoing list of work around the state. Revenue to pay for the projects includes a graduated increase in the gasoline tax amounting to 10 cents per gallon at its peak. Also going to those projects is an additional $26 in registration and title increases, a $15 tax on some bicycles, a 25 percent truck mileage tax increase, a $0.1 percent statewide payroll tax, and what is essentially a 0.5 percent new car sales tax.
The package originally called for nearly twice the spending over 10 years. Because the projects required new taxes, the state constitution required approval by three-fifths supermajorities in each chamber. Democrats are one vote short of supermajorities in the House and Senate. The bill was revised several times to try to satisfy tax-averse conservative Republicans. But the changes went so far as to move some environmentalist-minded liberal Democrats to say they would oppose the bill. Between opponents on the left and right, no version was brought up for a vote.
Gov. Kate Brown stepped in and negotiated with legislative leaders from both parties and both chambers to come up with a pared-down version that spread projects more evenly throughout the state. The revised bill was co-sponsored by a Democrat and a Republican in each chamber and leaders agreed to supply enough votes to get over the three-fifths threshold. The bill passed the House 39-20 and the Senate 22-7. Brown signed the bill into law.
A key component is improvements on Interstate 5 and I-205 in and around Portland. To pay for some of those projects, tolls would be added to what are now free highways. That plan has drawn criticism from Washington State officials and could face additional opposition from the federal government.
The package has remained a political issue after becoming law. Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, voted against the bill, saying the taxes were too big for what state residents would get in return. Buehler has since announced he will run for governor, hoping to replace Brown.
The bill was signed into law in mid-August, but Brown did a series of ceremonial bill signings around the state in September, including one at Highway 97 in Deschutes County — an area represented by Buehler. Brown did not mention Buehler, but touted how the projects would improve the economy, job market and quality of life for area residents.
Among Republicans who supported the package were House Majority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, and Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver. Baney, a Republican, believes the transportation package is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to catch up on delayed transit improvements.
“This is a historic opportunity,” she said. “The commission wants to do it right.”
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