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Legislature compromised on transportation

The Eugene Register-Guard

The signature achievement of the 2017 Legislature was its bipartisan approval of a $3.8 billion transportation funding package — a bill notable both for its size and for its innovations in public policy. The bill shows how tensions between opposing parties and between rural and urban areas can be harnessed for productive purposes. No one supports all elements of the package, but it will advance the interests of the state as a whole.

This year's success has its genesis in a failure two years earlier, when a deadlock over the state's clean- fuels standard killed a plan to fund improvements to the state's transportation network. Lawmakers then formed a 14-member committee that toured the state and heard the usual demands for repairs and improvements to roads and bridges.

There were some unexpected messages as well. Congestion on Portland-area freeways was having an effect on transport and commerce throughout the state. And Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, co-chairman of the committee, reported strong statewide support for improved mass transit.

The transit element of this year's transportation package is its biggest departure from the past. The state Constitution prohibits the use of gas-tax revenue for any purpose other than to build and maintain the road network. That means state support for transit systems must come from another source. Lawmakers settled on a 0.1 percent payroll tax, which will raise $100 million a year.

Mass transit is often regarded as an urban concern, and a new tax of any kind for any reason is a unicorn in the legislative bestiary. But enough rural legislators supported the tax, because as Beyer found, transit services are increasingly vital to mobility in mid-size and smaller communities. Enough tax-averse Republicans supported the payroll tax because it raises a significant amount of money at a low rate.

A second innovation is a tiered vehicle registration fee, with electric and highly fuel-efficient vehicles paying the most. Vehicles that use little or no gasoline pay little or nothing in gas taxes, making them free riders on the road network. The differential fee works against the state's goal of reducing fossil fuel consumption and emissions linked to climate change. But as fuel efficiency improves, gas consumption will need to be decoupled from transportation taxes. And the unwanted effects will be offset by rebates on the purchase of electric vehicles, financed by a 0.5 tax on the sale of new cars.

Oregon also will impose a $15 tax on the sale of new adult bicycles costing more than $200. This tax was the price for the support of legislators who believe bicycles are subsidized by the current transportation funding system. Revenue from the tax will be used to create more and safer bike routes — and might help reduce the long-running tensions between bicyclists and motorists.

The package's big-ticket projects are mostly in the Portland area. But the Portland projects are likely to be financed in part by tolls. Portland-area lawmakers' willingness to accept the possibility of tolling shows how serious congestion problems in that part of the state have become.

The transportation bill passed by a vote of 39-20 in the House and 22-7 in the Senate — more than the three-fifths majority needed in each chamber. It shows what can be achieved when legislators are willing to listen to people throughout the state and compromise on issues such as the clean-fuels standard. The success contains a lesson for lawmakers in Oregon and elsewhere.