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In 1979, Oregon's budget was in great shape. In a decade, the population had increased by over half a million people. The timber industry was doing well. Gov. McCall's admonishment "to visit but don't stay" had attracted young, educated entrepreneurs. There was one problem. The state's road system was not keeping pace with growth.
Even in the best of times, politicians abhor raising taxes, but the Department of Transportation had a simple solution. Pass an amendment to the Oregon Constitution that would restrict the use of all taxes and fees on motor vehicles to streets, roads and highways. That meant removing state police and state parks from the "highway fund." It also meant not paying for transit or other transportation options from those revenues.
No problem. The state coffers were flush. Legislators toured the state promising that neither Oregon's premier park system nor public safety would be compromised. Transit? That was for those places back East.
The amendment passed easily in 1979.
The promises lasted less than a year. The bottom dropped out of the housing market. The timber industry went into freefall. The recession dragged down the rest of Oregon's resource-based economy and the fat budget became a black hole. Both state police and state parks took major cuts, a pattern that would continue for three decades.
Thirty years later it is time to take a new look at how we fund transportation. What seemed like a good idea in 1979 has locked Oregon into a 1950s transportation system. Though many states dedicate gas taxes to roads, Oregon has the strictest limitation in the nation, restricting all fees associated with motor vehicles.
Most Oregonians support fuel-efficient vehicles and many support improving all forms of transportation, but the law offers no flexibility. Bikeways funded from "transportation funds" must be contiguous with roadway pavement, which really means that bike lanes are nothing more than shoulders on highways rather than safer, separated pathways. Does this make sense?
A recent OSPIRG study clearly shows that highway user fees don't cover the cost of the nation's road system. Oregon is no different. The general fund subsidy to highway users is high. The most obvious subsidy is for law enforcement. In Oregon, state police are funded by income taxes and local law enforcement by local property taxes, even though well over half of their time is spent on traffic control. Consider the cost of emergency responders.
Can we continue supporting an expensive way of moving people and goods while we neglect more efficient and safer systems? Or perhaps road users should pay the full cost of the road system. Most drivers pay slightly over a dollar a day for the privilege of using public roads, far less than the cost to the public.
There are powerful interest groups that protect the dedicated road dollars, but perhaps there is a chance that courageous legislators will look to the future instead of holding on to the past and may bring some equity to all Oregonians.
Claudia Howells of Salem is retired after working for the government and transportation-related departments. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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