Oregon Lawmakers Ready Transportation Spending Package

May 5, 2017

Oregon lawmakers are expected to reveal details Monday of a proposed transportation funding package. The initial roll-out will almost certainly be a first draft. The final version, if approved, will reflect a dizzying mix of competing priorities for precious transportation dollars.

On highway 101 in Tillamook is a section of the road that lies between two bridges. If there was a major earthquake, both of those bridges would likely crumble and fall into the water. But that wouldn’t be the end of it.

"About 15 to 20 minutes later, you know what's coming: It's the tsunami, and you have no escape,” Tillamook City Manager Paul Wyntergreen said.

"We are the regional center. If there is an earthquake, people are going to have to come here to get most of their medical services, their supplies,” he added.

If Wyntergreen had his way, all of the Highway 101 bridges in Tillamook would be upgraded to withstand the kind of strong Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake that geologists say is overdue in the Pacific Northwest.

And Bruce Johnson, the chief bridge engineer for the Oregon Department of Transportation, would be happy to make those the seismic upgrades happen. He said the agency just hasn't had the funding to get bridges ready to fully withstand the big one.

"We've been doing what you might call a shortcut method,” Johnson said. “Or we call it 'phase one' to make it sound more official."

Johnson said there are 1,000 or so bridges that ODOT has identified as being good candidates for this "life-safety" upgrade. That means they'd probably not collapse during a quake, but they wouldn't be safe to drive across afterwards. So far, the state has completed work on just over a quarter of the bridges that could use that type of upgrade.

ODOT estimates that to strengthen the bridges to the point where they'd be usable after a quake would cost more than $5 billion. No one's expecting that kind of cash to materialize. But Democratic Sen. Lee Beyer said any transportation package will require some kind of new revenue.

"You can't do it without the money,” Beyer said. “The reality is, these projects that people want to make it work better don't come free."

Beyer is the co-chair of the legislative committee that's in charge of crafting a transportation funding package. The funding is expected to come from an increase in the gas tax, hikes to vehicle registration and title fees, a tax on the sale of new cars and bicycles, and a statewide payroll tax. Those details are still under consideration. So are the projects that it would fund.

The money will likely be split up among a variety of ways. Those include providing relief for notorious freeway bottlenecks in the Portland area, adding capacity to trucking routes in central Oregon, and expanding public transportation choices in rural Oregon.

Also on the list: Seismic upgrades to some of the state's vulnerable bridges. But those small spans along Highway 101 in Tillamook? Beyer said they're probably not going to make the cut.

"To the extent we start doing seismic; we'll do the seismic on the freight routes,” he said. “Our economy is dependent on being able to move. And that's where you put the money. Not out on the coast so much.”

But he said maintaining access from the coast to inland valleys will be among the priorities. That's good news in places like Tillamook, where Wyntergreen said he understands why fixing up his city's bridges can be a tough sell.

"You're counting on a once every 300 year event to make your case, as opposed to the problem of every day getting up and getting to work for a commuter, it often times will fall off the radar screen,” he said.

But at least one Tillamook bridge should be ready for a major quake: A downtown crossing is getting completely replaced this year, and the new span will be seismically upgraded. As it turns out though, the earthquake protections are merely a fringe benefit. ODOT's primary motivation was to untangle a traffic chokepoint that slows tourists and commercial vehicles.

Even on the coast, traffic congestion continues to be the driving factor in how the state spends its highway dollars.