SALEM — A state lawmaker from Wilsonville wants Oregon to issue as much as $120 million in bonds to pay for transportation projects starting in 2016.
Rep. John Davis, R-Wilsonville, said he plans this month to introduce an interim bill, to start tackling the state’s backlog of highway, bridge and other transportation projects ahead of a larger transportation funding package that lawmakers could pass in 2017.
Oregon needs the money in order to compete for a share of the $800 million in federal grants for freight projects, which will be available this year as a result of the transportation funding bill Congress passed in December, Davis said. He hopes to motivate other lawmakers and the governor to start working now on a larger state transportation funding bill they could pass next year.
“The (federal) funding starts immediately in 2016 for this,” Davis said of the freight project grant program. “We’re in a tenuous spot because Washington passed a transportation package, Idaho passed a transportation package, and California always has money ... That’s a significant thing that’s shifted since the (2015 legislative) session.”
Davis said an example of a project that might qualify for a federal freight grant is the Oregon Department of Transportation plan to widen Interstate Highway 5 to three lanes through Portland’s Rose Quarter and improve highway ramps. He is waiting for ODOT to produce a list of eligible projects. Davis expects to unveil the bill by early to mid-January so that people can critique it and offer suggestions for improvement.
Any transportation funding bill faces long odds in the short 2016 legislation session, which starts in February. Gov. Kate Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, have all said it is unlikely they will pass a transportation bill this year. Davis could also run into opposition because his proposal would eliminate part of the state’s low-carbon fuel program, although he is discussing the plan with environmental groups.
Davis was a member of the bi-partisan group of state lawmakers that Gov. Kate Brown dubbed the “gang of eight,” who met secretly toward the end of the 2015 legislative session to negotiate a transportation funding package. The legislation lost support after the Oregon Department of Transportation revealed the plan would not achieve the promised reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which was a sticking point for environmentalists because the deal would have repealed the state’s low-carbon fuel standard. Republicans had refused to support any increase in the state gas tax, a crucial funding source for transportation, while the fuel standard remained in place.
Davis’ proposal would modify the low-carbon fuel standard, so that fuel producers and importers would only be required to reduce greenhouse gases by blending biofuels with lower carbon content into gasoline and diesel. Fuel companies would no longer have to purchase carbon credits generated by electric vehicle charging stations and other businesses in order to meet the fuel standard. The cost of the carbon credits fueled much of the opposition to the standard, Davis said.
The Oregon Environmental Commission voted in December to delay enforcement of the fuel standard until 2018, and commissioners said they wanted frequent updates on the supply and cost of alternative fuels and carbon credits.
Oregon’s low-carbon fuel standard is supposed to reduce emissions from transportation fuels by 10 percent over a decade. So far, carbon credits sales under a similar program in California have increased the cost of gas by approximately 1 cent per gallon, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Air Quality Planner Cory-Ann Wind told the commission in December. At this point, California has reduced carbon emissions from fuels by 1 percent.
Oregon has $167 million in available bonding capacity from the general fund during the current two-year budget cycle, Davis said. That bonding capacity remained unallocated at the end of the 2015 legislative session, when lawmakers decided against using it to overhaul the Capitol.
The Capitol project, which would upgrade the 1938 building to withstand earthquakes, is a top priority for Courtney. However, Courtney’s plan ran into opposition from both parties after the Willamette Week newspaper reported that Courtney had not informed other lawmakers that the price tag increased to $337 million and the project included extras such as an expanded cafe and gathering place for lobbyists, along with a 3,000-square-foot “legislative lounge.”
Courtney was unavailable to comment Monday on Davis’ proposed use of the bonding capacity.
“We’ve got the capacity right now, at very, very low interest rates that will only go up,” Davis said.
Finally, Davis said he wants to increase oversight of ODOT’s spending. His legislation will create a special legislative committee to review the agency’s spending and call for “some pretty robust audits.”
The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group. Hillary Borrud can be reached at 503-364-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.