Oregon does not overspend on highway projects

We are writing in response to the Mail Tribune's editorial Sept. 10 regarding Oregon Department of Transportation spending. We strongly disagree with the implication that too much money is being spent on highway construction and other infrastructure projects.

First, from a purely factual point of view, ODOT's legislatively approved budget for the 2009—2011 biennium is $4.3 billion, not $5.2 billion as reported by the Mail Tribune (editor's note: We stand corrected. ODOT's projected revenues for 2009-11 are $5.2 billion.) Federal funds account for about $1 billion of that total. Readers will also find that the sources and uses of Oregon's transportation funds are very transparent and easily accessed on ODOT's website. It's important to point out that in Oregon highway funds are shared between the state (60 percent), counties (24 percent based on vehicle registrations), and cities (16 percent based on population).

Oregon funds its road system through "road user fees" based on the principle that those who use the roads pay for them, and that "road user fees" are to be used for constructing, improving and maintaining roads. In fact, the money raised by taxes and fees on the ownership and operation of motor vehicles and the fuel they use is constitutionally dedicated to the State Highway Fund. This practice is also consistent with how our federal government funds the federal highway program. The highway fund and general fund are intended to be separate in both their sources and uses of funds.

The Mail Tribune's opinion that the condition of Oregon's highway system is above average or adequate is based on a recent report by the Reason Foundation, which ranked Oregon 10th nationally. However, that ranking may not mean much when you consider that one-third of America's major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, 25 percent of America's bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, and 45 percent of major urban highways are congested according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. In 2009 the ASCE graded the current condition of U.S. infrastructure a "D" on their national report card. With those sobering statistics in mind, being ranked better than average is not an indication of success.

Most experts agree that efficient and safe highways, bridges, railways and airports are necessary for growing the state and national economy. On a recent visit to Medford, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden stated, "You can't have a big-league economy with a little league transportation system."

Approximately 74 percent of the total $8.4 trillion worth of commodities delivered annually in the U.S. are transported by trucks on highways. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that every $1 invested in the nation's highways yields $5.40 in economic benefits in the form of reduced delays, improved safety and lower vehicle operating costs. It is also estimated that congestion in all major cities costs Americans approximately $87 billion every year. This cost alone exceeds the total annual spending of $70.3 billion for all highway capital improvements in the U.S. In addition to the cost of congestion, it is estimated that driving on roads in need of repair costs U.S. motorists $67 billion per year in extra vehicle repair and operating costs.

State and federal highway fund dollars spent on transportation projects are an investment in the future while also creating good, family wage jobs that put people back to work and stimulates the economy. Nationally, unemployment in the construction industry is about 22 percent, which is more than double the overall unemployment rate. It is estimated that every $1 billion spent on highway construction projects creates 34,000 jobs annually. This is why state and federal stimulus programs have directed economic recovery efforts through investment in transportation system improvements.

In summary, ODOT has done an excellent job of maintaining Oregon's highway system with the dollars they've been given to do this work. Their high ranking by the Reason Foundation is a good indicator of ODOT's efficiency in spending our state's transportation dollars. However, it is not an indication that the total amount of dollars going into the State Highway Fund is adequate for maintaining or improving our state's transportation system for the future. There are certainly going to be difficult challenges ahead for Oregon in trying to balance its General Fund with declining state revenues, but the notion of raiding the State Highway Fund to shore up General Fund shortfalls is not the solution to Oregon's problems.

Mike Crennan is president of Knife River's Southern Oregon Division. He wrote this on behalf of the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County's board of directors, which unanimously endorsed it, and the Chamber's Transportation Action Team.

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