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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Transportation Package Stalls In Oregon Legislature

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Chris Lehman
/
Northwest News Network
Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle inspects the underside of a bridge over Fanno Creek.

Oregon lawmakers came into the session revved up about the need for new revenue to pay for improvements to roads and bridges.

The money could come in the form of a hike in the gas tax, but bipartisan talks have sputtered over concerns about a separate bill that Republicans say will also raise the price of gas.

That bill would make fuel producers lower the amount of carbon in their products. State analysts predict it will increase the cost of gas by up to 19 cents per gallon -- none of which will go to infrastructure.

Infrastructure challenges ‘everywhere’

Beaverton mayor Denny Doyle can show off a number of bridges and intersections in his city that he said need work. Most of the time, traffic hums along.

"It's only when we have a problem that people really notice,” he said. “And that's our mission, to let people know that we have these challenges everywhere."

Beaverton transportation planner Todd Juhasz concedes that it's “not a very sexy topic."

To drive home the point that this isn't a sexy topic, Doyle, Juhasz and I picked our way through the mud on the bank of Fanno Creek. We took shelter from the rain underneath a bridge. The nondescript span was so low we have to bend over double.

It's so low, in fact, that the creek routinely floods here, cutting off the only access to a bustling industrial area. Juhasz said those floodwaters are taking their toll. He pointed to damage on the underside caused by frequent floodwaters.

"And over time it just forces these joints to wear out. And you can see some areas where rebar is starting to show,” Juhasz said. “Yeah, there's significant wear on this bridge."

Juhasz said without a fix, the city will have to put a weight restriction on the bridge in a few years. He said that would be a huge inconvenience to the companies that use the street.

Like many other cities and counties in Oregon, Beaverton officials are casting an eye toward Salem. But at this point, what are they likely to get?

Stalled negotiations

"Not one dime for a road. Not one dime for a bridge,” said House GOP leader Mike McLane near the end of the five-hour debate on the low carbon fuel standard. “And to what end?”

McLane was the only one raising his voice during the debate, but he wasn’t the only Republican who feels that way. After the bill passed, Republicans walked out of talks aimed at crafting a bipartisan transportation package.

Democrats need at least one Republican vote to approve a hike in the gas tax. GOP Representative Cliff Bentz said there's no reason to even participate in the talks since any tax hike would likely get referred to voters, who could take an even dimmer view.

"It's not enough to go try to find one vote, add it to all 35 Democrats and pass this thing,” Bentz said. “Because it would get referred, and it would fail."

Bentz said negotiators were looking at a gas tax increase of six to ten cents per gallon before Republicans left the talks. He said a hike of that size was a heavy lift, politically speaking, even before the low carbon fuel standard was signed into law.

"The idea of a gas tax increase is something that most people don't want to think about or support, which is too bad,” Bentz said. “Because we've got to pay for our roads. There's no doubt about it."

A spokeswoman for Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek said Democrats are still committed to finding common ground on a transportation package. And she said the group that's still working on the proposal has not decided on a specific funding mechanism at this point.