Oregon News

ODOT wants to hear from Oregon residents about use of $400 million in ‘flexible’ federal funds

By PETER WONG/Oregon Capital Bureau — Oregon transportation officials want to hear from the public about how the state should spend more than $400 million in “flexible funds” from the federal government over the next five years.

The $400 million is part of the $1.2 billion that Oregon will receive for transportation from the federal infrastructure bill, which President Joe Biden signed on Nov. 15. Oregon will get more money for other programs, such as water and sewer lines and broadband connections, that does not go through the Oregon Department of Transportation.

In fact, $200 million of the $1.2 billion for transportation will go to TriMet and other public transit agencies. Much of the rest is earmarked for specific work by ODOT, such as bridge repairs and charging stations for electric vehicles.

The Oregon Transportation Commission will offer four scenarios for public comment through Feb. 17, when it plans a two-hour seminar. Chairman Robert Van Brocklin of Portland said the panel isn’t wedded to the numbers in any of them, but is likely to tailor its own plan after hearing from the public.

“It’s difficult to say there is one scenario I feel comfortable with,” commission member Julie Brown, who is the general manager of the Rogue Valley Transportation District, said at a Jan. 20 meeting. “We have to weigh all of these things.”

Even before the meeting, ODOT received public comments adding up to 300 pages on how to spend the federal money. The agency also interviewed 1,500 people in 2021 — it conducts these surveys every couple of years — about what they would like to see from the transportation system.

Though the money would flow into three general categories, as described below, the commission would have to approve specific projects as soon as this spring. It plans a decision on the broad allocations on March 30.

Alternatives
Scenario 1: About $107 million would go into Fix-It, a list of maintenance projects for roads and bridges, and the rest evenly split between enhanced state highways and two other programs. For Safe Routes to School, ODOT has received $4 in requests for every $1 in available money. A new program of Great Streets would improve state highways that also function as main streets in communities.

The aim of Fix-It is to maintain 85 percent of the state’s 8,000 miles of highways at fair or better pavement condition and 78% of the 2,750 state highway bridges. Even with an infusion of new federal money, bridge conditions are projected to deteriorate because so many of them were built during the interstate highway era of the 1950s and 1960s and are past the 50-year mark.

Scenario 2: About half would go into Safe Routes to School and Great Streets, as described above, and the rest evenly split between Fix-It projects and enhanced highways.

Scenario 3: About half of the funds would go into enhanced highways — the current state money is scheduled to decline after 2024, seven years after the state’s 2017 law funded the latest round of projects — and the rest evenly divided between Fix-It and the school and street programs.

Scenario 4: Each of the three categories would get an equal share of $214 million.

Plan for the rest

ODOT officials have proposed the rest of the flexible funds ($198 million) for these programs:

— $100 million for ODOT to carry out new access projects to comply with a 2017 settlement of a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

— $40 million to help offset a projected shortfall in agency operations and maintenance.

— $40 million to enable Oregon to compete with other states for a share of $100 billion that the U.S. Department of Transportation will award for other projects. Possible Oregon contenders are two projects on Interstate 5: Rose Quarter widening and partial capping and a new bridge over the Columbia River to connect Portland with Vancouver, Washington.

— $15 million to help communities with planning for climate change, including the transportation planning rule that seeks to reduce the need for travel between home, work and other activities. The rule dates back to 1991, but was updated in 2012.

— $3 million to boost business and the workforce required for construction projects.

“What you have learned is that there is a need for money all across the transportation system,” said Travis Brouwer, an assistant ODOT director.

In the 2021 survey, large majorities gave priority (90% or better) to six of 13 points, in descending order: Maintain roads and bridges, improve safety, reduce traffic congestion, protect the environment, seismic improvements, provide transportation for seniors and people with disabilities.

The Oregon Capital Bureau in Salem is staffed by reporters from EO Media and Pamplin Media Group and provides state government and political news to their newspapers and media around Oregon, including Highway58Herald.org

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