We will still pay

Oregon's roads, bridges and other infrastructure may need billions in upgrades over the next 20 years.

Who is going to pay?

The state can't count on a never-ending river of stimulus from the federal government.

The state shouldn't count on its own tax revenue, either.

There's also doubt that what has worked for the past 50 years — state and municipal bonds — will be able to raise enough to fill the size of the need. There are concerns about debt levels and the magnitude of the investment needed.

A solution from State Treasurer Ted Wheeler is to have the state play matchmaker between projects and private capital investment.

Private investors could be enticed. Investing in infrastructure does not traditionally earn eye-popping returns, but it tends to generate a stable return. It also adds diversity to an investor's portfolio, better immunized against poor market performance than more conventional investments.

Wheeler told us that investors may not be interested in investigating smaller infrastructure projects — such as a $7 million one being considered in Independence. Southern Oregon is looking for ways to bundle several smaller projects together.

The Treasurer's Office got a grant shared with California and Washington to investigate the possibilities. It's hired a consulting firm. There may be a proposal for the Legislature to consider during next year's session.

There still are many unanswered questions. What kind of help would small municipalities need to participate? What's the best way to bundle projects and present investors with information they need to make a decision?

Then, of course, there are questions about risk. If a project collapses, who gets stuck with the bill?

The idea of an infrastructure matchmaker is like catnip to a desperate tiger. While it's full of potential, it's far too early to say if it is going to work.

There's also no free lunch and no free road. Taxpayers still will be paying.

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