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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.

Lawmakers Tour Oregon To Get Input For Transportation Package

 Oregon lawmakers will try once again next year to round up support for a major transportation funding package. Their most recent attempt got sidelined amid a dispute over a separate bill. As part of the effort to craft a new next version, a legislative committee is touring the state to try to figure out what to include.

Exit 177 on Interstate 84 near Hermiston in eastern Oregon is a little-used interchange. Just a mere fraction of the traffic that a typical exit in the Portland area would get each day. But local officials say they expect -- and in fact hope -- that traffic increases at this interchange in the coming years as the nearby Umatilla Army Chemical Depot transitions to a National Guard base and a business industrial park that's expected to draw more truck traffic in the coming years.

That's why they're proposing to upgrade this lonely interchange to modern standards. Streets in town are on the agenda, too. Local leaders pointed out problem spots to lawmakers on a bus tour of the region.

Big competition for highway dollars

Of course, those local leaders are keenly aware that they are competing against the rest of the state. During a hearing in the auditorium of the town’s high school, Hermiston Mayor Dave Drotzmann figured he'd tip the scales a bit by presenting lawmakers with some of his city's trademark watermelons.

As lawmakers anticipated the juicy melons that awaited them, the mayor fired up the Power Point presentation and showed a picture of a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam in downtown Hermiston.

"Every afternoon around 3 o'clock traffic stacks up like this,” Drotzmann noted.

Not every request was for a road improvement project. Mary Jo Carpenter is the Baker County manager for the Community Connection of Northeast Oregon. She helps organize transportation for mobility impaired people.

"There's no other way for them to get around,” Carpenter said. “Our local taxi service doesn't have an accessible vehicle."

Carpenter is hoping lawmakers will include funding for increased public transit in places like Baker City. But she doesn't know how they'd pay for it.

"I wish I had the magic answer to the funding source,” Carpenter said. “But I don’t."

‘Must benefit the entire state’

Lawmakers are still looking for that formula, too. Republican Representative Greg Smith's district includes Hermiston.

"We gotta be careful when we talk about how we're going to pay for this because that's a very broad conversation and it's going to be based upon the needs throughout the state of Oregon,” Smith said. “People need to remember that the gas tax can only be used for roads."

The Oregon Constitution prohibits gas tax revenue from being used for anything other than highways. So improvements to things like public transit, rail lines or port facilities would all have to be paid for with other kinds of revenue.

Smith said it's too early to say what those sources would be. But he said one thing is certain: "Any transportation package that gets passed is going to have to benefit the entire state of Oregon.”

Smith said that means people in his rural eastern Oregon district would have to come to terms with paying for improvements to Portland area roads, just like lawmakers from the Portland area would have to be comfortable paying for highway upgrades in places like Hermiston.