Oregon faces 'Transportation crisis'

State Sen. Rick Metsger, chairman of the Senate Business and Transportation Committee, planned to end his statewide tour to assess Oregon's transportation infrastructure on Friday in Ashland where he will be meeting with regional officials today to discuss local road needs and priorities.

"We're really facing a transportation crisis in this state," the Welches Democrat said. "Our statewide highway system is over $500 million behind in maintenance and preservation, and that's just repaving roads and preserving what we have."

Metsger said that $500 million is just what it will take to upgrade the roads that the state maintains, not what local communities need to repair their roads.

Metsger, who began his fact-finding Moving Oregon Transportation Tour in Northeast Oregon in The Dalles on Sept. 19 and will conclude his tour in the Rogue Valley after meeting with the Ashland Chamber of Commerce on Friday, said improving the state's transportation systems will be among the 2009 Legislature's top priorities.

"How are we going to meet city needs in Ashland and county needs in Jackson County if the state doesn't have the dollars to pay for its own needs, let alone build anything new?" Metsger asked.

He said information that he is gathering from communities around the state will help him put together a comprehensive transportation proposal for lawmakers to consider in 2009.

"Let's put together a plan so people will know what they are buying," he said.

Although Metsger stopped short of endorsing a specific plan to bankroll improvements to Oregon's highways and byways, he noted that Oregon's gas tax hasn't increased since 1993, when it was raised to 24 cents per gallon, and hasn't been increased since, even to account for inflation.

Currently, he said, most of the state's road dollars come from the gas tax and car title and registration fees.

Oregon, he added, ranks among the states with the lowest spending on roads. The Beaver State dedicates 35 cents per gallon of gasoline sold, compared to neighboring California and Washington that spend $1.13 and $1, respectively.

"I think we will also need to look at additional maybe new revenue streams to provide an even more even balance," noting that the city of Portland is considering a utility-type fee to help pay for $400,000 in overdue road maintenance there.

Raising the state's gas tax has not been able to gain traction among Oregonians. In 2000, voters rejected a nickel-a-gallon increase.

"The problem is without the ability to build roads and access, companies aren't going to be able to grow and expand, and they are going to have to go somewhere else," Metsger said. "We need to make sure we have modernization of our infrastructure to attract more business growth in Ashland and the surrounding area."

The key to raising additional road funds, he said, is to ensure that no one is over-burdened by the cost of doing so, "but that the entire citizenry benefits by the economic value."

Ron Fox is the executive director of SOREDI, Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development, Inc. He said looking at local transportation issues is "a very important discussion."

In addition to improving local roadways and improving rail service, Fox said that expanding the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport beyond the renovation and planned freight terminal expansion will help drive the regional economy.

Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, said there is definitely a lot of road work that needs to be done.

"I'm very concerned that for years, especially in the 90s, we paid our fair share of taxes and most of the money went to the Willamette Valley, which has now been corrected" Bates said. "We've got a huge backlog to take care of now."

Bates added that the rapid growth in the Rogue Valley makes prudent transportation planning difficult. "We're growing so fast down here that it's hard for us to say that in ten years we need this when maybe we need it in two or three years," he said.

Ashland City Councilor Kate Jackson said local roads are in need of maintenance.

"Cost is a huge, huge issue," Jackson said. "The county in particular keeps saying we don't have the money to connect the cities."

As for the city's roadways, Jackson said all of the state-maintained roadways, including Hwy. 99 and I-5, have been either been resurfaced or entirely rebuilt.

"Our state highways are doing pretty well," Jackson said, conceding that the city Public Works Department is unable to keep up with the Overall Condition Index, which gauges the remaining life of a given road given the amount of patching, fatigue and cracking on it.

"We don't have the income; we need a maintenance fund," Jackson said.

The transportation fee assessed on city utility ratepayers just isn't able to meet the city's road demands, so the City Council is considering such things as raising the utility surcharge, issuing bonds and a countywide gas tax, she said.

"We don't have failing streets, we have streets that need maintenance or they will fail," Jackson said.

covers the state Legislature for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com.

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