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No guts, no glory on transportation bill

Lawmakers hashing out the details of a massive transportation package are divided over how large it should be, and whether voters would accept the tax increases necessary to pay for it. Taxes are never an easy sell, but if shippers, business interests and motorists can be brought on board and legislators agree to campaign for it, we believe Oregonians will go along.

Oregon lawmakers haven't passed a major transportation package since 2009, and nearly everyone agrees the state is overdue for another one. Bridges are crumbling, public transit districts need help, and freeway congestion in the Portland area costs shippers across the state time and money. But time is running out in this session, and bipartisan support is needed to enact the tax portions without referral to the voters.

Lawmakers had a deal in the 2015 session, but Republicans pulled their support over a clean fuels bill they said would increase gas prices on top of the gas-tax hike in the transportation bill. A last-minute, closed-door negotiation by the so-called "gang of eight" failed to craft a compromise. Democrats should be prepared to give ground on the fuel standards issue if they want this package to pass.

After the 2015 failure, lawmakers responded with a joint, bipartisan committee that has worked for more than a year, traveling the state to hear from voters and interest groups and holding hearings. The result, which has yet to be drafted into bill form, calls for $8.2 billion in projects over 20 years, paid for over 10.

Major elements of the plan include three big projects in the Portland area, fixing bottlenecks on Interstate 5, Interstate 205 and Oregon 217, paid for in part by tolls. Portland-area residents would pay more in taxes than other Oregonians.

The I-5 corridor to the California border and the aging bridges on Highway 101 on the coast would get most of the rest of the work.

As currently envisioned, the package would be paid for with increases in the gas tax, phased in over 10 years. The first year would see a 6-cent increase, reaching 14 cents by the end of 10 years. The tax currently stands at 30 cents, and has increased only once in 20 years. In addition, every worker in Oregon would pay a 0.1 percent payroll tax, which would go to mass transit throughout the state. The Rogue Valley Transportation District badly needs the help to add routes it can't afford to add now.

Oregonians also would see a 1 percent excise tax on new cars, a 4 percent tax on bicycles (excluding children's bikes) and higher auto registration fees.

Proceeds from the taxes would be shared, with the state taking half, counties getting 30 percent and cities 20 percent.

Supporters want to pass those increases with the required 60 percent majority so the measure won't need voter approval. Of course, opponents may try to place a referendum on the ballot to overturn the new taxes — a possibility skeptical lawmakers have raised as the measure is being discussed.

If lawmakers continually shy away from passing needed legislation for fear of voter backlash, nothing of substance will ever pass. And if legislators convince the major interest groups of the need for this package, and then go out and campaign for it in their own districts, explaining why it's vitally important for the state to invest in its infrastructure, a referendum might be avoided.

Taking a piecemeal approach, as some lawmakers have suggested, might be easier to pass this year, but there is no guarantee future legislatures will stay the course. A 20-year package also allows local governments to plan their own improvements.

Oregon cannot afford to wait any longer to begin addressing its transportation needs.