The 2017 session of the Oregon Legislature failed to accomplish some of its top goals — reforming the business tax structure and getting a real handle on growing costs were among them — but lawmakers did manage to pass a major transportation funding bill, and that's good news for Southern Oregon as well as the state as a whole.
The version of the bill that finally won approval in both chambers is smaller that it was when it started out — $5.8 billion over 10 years rather than $8.2 billion as originally proposed. The difference was largely the result of scaled-back tax increases, an attempt by the measure's backers to prevent interest groups from mounting a referendum to overturn it.
High on the list of projects statewide is shoring up aging bridges that are at risk of collapse in a major earthquake — work that has been put off for far too long for lack of funding.
In Southern Oregon, seismic concerns loom large as well. A "Southern Oregon Seismic Triage Project" will take aim at bridges and slopes on Highway 140 and Interstate 5 that would be vulnerable in a big quake.
The biggest potential risk in a major quake is to the I-5 viaduct through Medford, but it has already undergone seismic retrofitting, and is still considered unlikely to survive the Cascadia Subduction Zone quake that geologists expect to hit, and which may be overdue. In that scenario, alternate routes would be necessary. Foothill Road to the east of the city and Old Stage Road to the west are considered prime candidates to handle traffic if I-5 became impassable. Those roads are high on the priority list for major improvements.
New taxes were a major objection to the transportation bill as it made its way through the legislative process, but those that survived in the final bill are logical places to look for transportation funding.
A small — one-half of 1 percent — sales tax on new vehicles targets users of the road system, and a per-unit tax on higher-priced adult bicycles would pay for new bike paths. A 4-cent increase in the gas tax, which would gradually rise to 10 cents, is also on the list of revenue sources.
An increase in the payroll tax, paid by employers, will provide needed funding to bus systems, which benefit those employers by helping workers get to their jobs. The bill marks the first state funding for transit systems, which will directly benefit the Rogue Valley Transportation District.
Overall, the transportation package is the largest of its kind to pass in years, and it's an example of how lawmaking is supposed to work: competing interests trade support for things they don't like in exchange for things they do, some of the most controversial elements are removed along the way and everyone stays focused on the overall goal.
In the end, Oregonians will see an improved transportation system at a reasonable cost to the individual taxpayer. And that's how government is supposed to work.