Federal highway funding extended

Congress has extended highway funding through March of next year, but the extension does little to ensure the long-term care of the nation's roads, according to those directly doing the upkeep.

With drivers consuming less fuel, fewer dollars are going into the Highway Trust Fund. Congress is reluctant to increase gas taxes, and there is little will to spend money that's not there.

The American Society of Civil Engineers said in a new report that deficiencies in America's surface transportation system cost businesses and households nearly $130 billion in 2010.

What amounts to $35 billion is not enough to maintain the system, let alone improve it, said Mike Crennen, president of Knife River's Southern Oregon Division.

"There will be less money filtered to the states, counties and cities, and that will impact the amount of work companies like Knife River does," Crennen said.

Considering that 90 percent of the work Knife River does is publicly funded work, fewer funds means fewer projects and jobs in a region already struggling economically.

Southern Oregon revenue for Knife River, a multi-state unit of North Dakota-based MDU Resources, peaked in 2007. Today, the company's work force is half of what it was in 2007 and about 10 percent smaller than it was a year ago.

The good news is that state projects, such as the Highway 62 bypass skirting the eastern flank of the Medford airport, are funded through state bonding.

"There wouldn't be money in the federal budget for projects like that," Crennen said.

The highway funding bill was due to expire at the end of this month, and Congress extended funding for the eighth time in a little more than two years without giving the trust fund long-term support.

"Any kind of new highway bill is going to require some sort of new funding mechanism, and no one wants to be blamed for creating any new taxes," Crennen said. "The focus has been on cost cutting, but they don't distinguish between types of cost cutting. It's important Congress makes the distinction, keeping in mind that infrastructure is an investment, not an expense, and that seems to get lost."

The World Economic Forum, which ranked the U.S. No. 1 for its economic infrastructure competitiveness as recently as 2005, now ranks it No. 15.

The only states with a different experience than Oregon right now are the oil-patch states — Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota — where the Bakken Oil Field is being developed. They're benefiting from oil-shale revenue.

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