Kulongoski, lawmakers eye gasoline tax increase


Gov. Ted Kulongoski said Thursday a gas tax increase should be part of a long-term transportation proposal to be considered by the Oregon Legislature to upgrade highways and bridges.

Gasoline taxes haven't been popular with voters, though. Voters crushed the most recent ballot measure &

a nickel-a-gallon increase in the year 2000.

But Kulongoski and several Democratic lawmakers said they think Oregonians might be willing to consider a gas tax as part of a funding package to overhaul the state's transportation system to keep up with wear-and-tear and increasing traffic congestion.

Kulongoski made the comment at a news conference about recent inspections of Oregon bridges similar to the one that fell in Minnesota. Inspectors say inspections of 45 steel deck truss bridges showed that 20 percent had minor structural problems but none had major safety issues.

Still, Kulongoski said Oregon has "an aging transportation infrastructure that we cannot ignore" and that it's expected to a major issue taken up by the 2009 Legislature.

He said a gas tax would only be part of the answer, since increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles and a move to alternative fuels has made the gas tax a "less important" source of highway revenue. He said lawmakers will need to look for other ways to fashion a long-term, sustainable funding package to pay for transportation upgrades.

State Sen. Rick Metsger, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, noted that the 2003 Legislature approved $1.6 billion to replace or overhaul 505 state and local bridges across the state, a package financed largely by an increase in vehicle registration fees.

Unlike the 2000 gas tax plan that failed, Metsger said, the 2003 bridge financing package won approval because sponsors were able to build public support for the idea that Oregon's economic well-being depends on good roads and bridges.

"This is not a top-down conversation," the Welches Democrat said. "It's a conversation that that has to begin with Oregonians."

To that end, Metsger said he and other transportation boosters would be traveling the state in the months ahead to meet with local leaders and citizens to pitch the need for a highway and bridge improvements package.

State Rep. Terry Beyer, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said she thinks the Minneapolis bridge collapse has served as a wake-up call about aging bridges and roads across the country.

The Springfield Democrat said she's heard from a "lot" of constituents who have indicated they would be willing to pay a higher gas tax or other fees for transportation improvements.

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