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Oregon seeks $920 million in federal public works grants

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By PETER WONG
Oregon Capital Bureau

Oregon has begun in earnest seeking federal grants from the $1 trillion public works spending plan that Congress approved and President Joe Biden signed last year.

The 14 grant applications that lawmakers on the Emergency Board cleared on Friday, Sept. 23, range from $200,000 to $750 million.

The total this round was for $920 million, most of it for the proposed new Interstate 5 bridge and the Rose Quarter widening at I-5 and I-84 in Portland. Other agencies submitted a total of 11 applications to share almost $70 million, and they drew no opposition.

Agencies would have to return to the E-Board, or the Legislature if it is in session, for spending authority if any federal grant is approved.

The board, which consists of 20 members who decide budget matters between sessions, did approve an initial round of nine applications by state agencies back on June 3.

Seven of those came from the Oregon Department of Transportation, including $18 million for the Outer Powell Boulevard project to improve safety between 99th and 174th avenues in Portland. Six of the ODOT requests totaled $261 million; the seventh was for new ODOT positions for the expanded work made possible by the 2021 law. The two applications by other agencies totaled $72 million.

For this round, ODOT submitted three new applications totaling $851 million, which drew a handful of opposing votes from minority Republicans.

The largest application, at $750 million, is for construction of a new bridge across the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver, Washington, that awaits completion of a supplemental environmental impact statement. Federal law requires that step before construction, the start of which is envisioned in 2025.

Project financing is not yet lined up, although contributions from Oregon and Washington are expected to be at least $1 billion for each state, plus a bond issue repaid through tolls, in addition to federal aid.

A report from the Legislative Fiscal Office, which does the budget work for lawmakers, shed light on why ODOT made the request to its federal counterpart now.

“An early application for this competitive grant helps ODOT to hone its application and signal to federal partners that the project is proceeding,” it said.

Though no specific federal source was identified for the applications, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — the 2021 law that approves federal spending on public works over the next six years — provides money for large bridge projects. It also sets aside $100 billion for the U.S. secretary of transportation to award for large competitive projects.

ODOT is also seeking $1 million from the spending plan for bridge planning, specifically for potential ground improvements on Hayden Island against liquefaction that an earthquake could trigger.

It also is applying for $100 million for a portion of the Rose Quarter project that would reconnect the Albina neighborhood. The money would be drawn from a national total of $1 billion available for such reconnections under the spending plan.

About a year ago, the Oregon Transportation Commission approved a modified version of the project whose cost could top $1 billion, depending on whether a proposed cover over part of it will support three- or six-story buildings. The project also involves reconnecting some streets in a predominantly Black neighborhood that was split in the early 1960s, when I-5 was built through North Portland.

All three ODOT requests were approved over the objections of most Republican members. Rep. Greg Smith of Heppner was absent from the meeting. Rep. Duane Stark of Grants Pass voted no on the Rose Quarter request, but was absent on the other votes. Sen. Bill Hansell of Athena voted for the bridge planning request, but against the other requests.

The requests from other agencies, approved without dissent:

  • Higher Education Coordinating Commission, $5 million with the Oregon Conservation Corps for projects under the America the Beautiful Challenge, grants for which will be administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Federation. Among the uses: Restore ecosystems, reconnect wildlife corridors, improve resilience of ecosystems, expand access to the outdoors. Five state agencies are seeking grants under this program.
  • Oregon Health Authority: $23.7 million for its revolving loan fund for improvement of drinking water.
  • Department of Forestry: $5 million for America the Beautiful Challenge.
  • Department of Environmental Quality: $5.5 million over five years for property reuse and redevelopment in communities affected by past pollution.
  • Department of Agriculture: $4.3 million for America the Beautiful Challenge.
  • Department of Water Resources: $1 million for its program for potential high-hazard dams.
  • Department of Water Resources: $200,000 for its dam safety program.
  • Department of Parks and Recreation: $350,000 for America the Beautiful Challenge.

Department of Fish and Wildlife: $14.9 million for America the Beautiful Challenge.

  • Department of Fish and Wildlife: $8.5 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for restoration of fish passage through the Wallowa Basin and the North Fork of the Klaskanine River.
  • Department of Fish and Wildlife: $1 million from the Forest Service’s Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program for a fish passage project in the Illinois River basin.

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