For many, the topic of transportation funding evokes a dry wasteland of charts, graphs and acronyms.
On Friday, it found new expression: a large jar of seed corn.
The 2018 Regional Transportation Plan update
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Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen scooped cup after cup of kernels out of that jar before scores of elected officials, community advocates and business leaders at the Oregon Convention Center.
While Dirksen scooped, Metro planning and development director Elissa Gertler explained what the disappearing seed corn represents: Transportation funds that have already been committed or targeted for road and maintenance operations, transit service increases as part of the strategy to address climate change, and several other major projects, including the Southwest Corridor light rail project, Division Street bus rapid transit and three freeway bottlenecks.
Finally, with a once-full jar reduced to a few paltry inches of corn, Dirksen stopped scooping.
That, Gertler said, represents what the region has left to allocate – maybe $3 billion for transportation projects over the next 25 years.
That’s $120 million a year, less than half the cost of the new Sellwood Bridge.
The demonstration was part of Metro’s third regional leadership forum in support of a major update of the region’s 25-year transportation plan, which is expected to be complete in 2018. At previous forums, leaders from around the region have discussed big visions, emerging technologies and lessons from other places.
On Friday, the gathered leaders plowed into hard facts of paying for growing needs in an increasingly bleak funding outlook.
The $120 million estimate is far short of what leaders think the region needs to keep pace with growing demands for congestion relief, seismically sound bridges, safer walking and biking connections and new light rail and rapid bus lines.
His scooping complete, Dirksen raised the nearly empty jar of corn to the room.
"My question is, who in this room is satisfied that this is what we've got to work with for the next 25 years?" he asked.
No hands were raised.
The outlook gets worse: There’s a drought underway. Much of the $31 billion leaders counted on in the last 25-year plan depends on revenue assumptions that either haven't happened or have very questionable futures. These include regular small increases in the gas tax and vehicle registration fees at the state level and federal funding continuing at current levels.
Instead, the gas tax is basically flat at both the state and federal levels – and because of inflation and more-efficient vehicles, it's actually worth less and less each year.
ODOT leader: Don’t count on Uncle Sam
The federal government doesn’t look likely to rain the same amount of transportation funding most metropolitan areas have come to rely on over the years, Oregon Department of Transportation assistant director told the forum a few minutes before the corn scooping.
The current federal transportation bill expires in 2020, and its future is murky at best.
On the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump suggested that infrastructure would be a priority for his administration, Brouwer noted, but it may not be the kind Oregon is used to.
"So far we have not seen that the administration is planning to come in with additional transportation funding. What we have seen is that the incoming Trump administration is talking a lot about transportation financing," Brouwer said. "There's a very important distinction between the two."
Here’s the difference: Funding is like a grant, though it’s often at least partially matched with local or state funds. Financing has to be paid back, often with interest.
That means the region and state should be prepared to raise a lot more money here, or take a new leap into toll roads and other pricing mechanisms. Also, financing tends to work only for big projects, not more mundane but vital things like maintenance, transit operations or walking and biking projects.
"Don't expect salvation from the federal government," Brouwer said. "I think for the most part, states and metropolitan regions are going to have to try to chart their own course and raise their own revenues to backfill this loss of federal transportation revenue."
More from this forum
See materials from this forum, including agenda, discussion guides and the transportation funding presentation, on the Metro event page. Go
Can the Legislature fill the gap?
One option: The Legislature could simply raise the gas tax or pass another funding mechanism. But that's never as simple as it seems.
Major transportation packages are never a sure bet. A $344 million package in 2015 was the most recent to go down in defeat. The last major state transportation package passed in 2009.
There's reason for optimism in the 2017 legislative session, said Drew Hagedorn, president of the Oregon Transportation Forum, a coalition pushing for more state transportation revenue. His group, which includes business, environmental, transportation and labor groups, is proposing an as-yet unspecified gas tax increase in the Legislature next year.
Hagedorn said both the governor and legislators have held recent listening tours that revealed transportation is a major concern all over the state. Congestion and transit service are top priorities in both urban and rural areas.
It isn’t a partisan or urban versus rural issue, either. Congestion in the Portland metropolitan region vexes even Oregon's most rural corners, Hagedorn noted, because they depend on reliable freight movement through the state's economic center. Legislators pay attention to that, he said.
"I think we've got an awful lot of momentum toward a package," Hagedorn said. "This is our session to get it done."
But there are also reasons for pessimism about how much the state can help fill the Portland region's transportation gap.
A draft budget unveiled last week by Gov. Kate Brown included transportation as a top priority, but also revealed a $1.7 billion hole in the state budget, in part because of voters' rejection of Measure 97 last month. And legislators might be inclined to focus on education, housing and health care in raising new revenue.
Another reason for concern, at least for some: Automobile and freight advocates aren't comfortable with raising the gas tax too much. They can support a cap of around $300 million on a statewide transportation package, Hagedorn said, with the possibility of referral to voters if it tries to raise more from a gas tax or other user fee.
A call for more seed corn
That wasn’t sitting well with Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, who will be sworn in as Portland’s mayor in January.
“I’d like to stop us just kowtowing to all these organizations that say, ‘You know, you have a dramatic thoughtful reasonable vision – we’re not interested in that.’ Well, to hell with them,” Wheeler said. “We’ve got a state to run. We’ve got a region that is on its knees as far as transportation funding. Let’s go big. Let’s go to the public and talk about something that’s actually inspiring.”
Wheeler said the $300 million idea was business as usual, and neither he nor legislators would find it sufficient.
"I think we should go big and stop playing small ball, stop being cautious, stop being risk averse and acknowledge that actually we have real transportation funding needs in this state and region that are not being met and will not be met with a $300 million package," Wheeler said. "Frankly, it's a waste of our legislators' precious time and resources to be talking about a $300 million package."
Wheeler urged leaders in the room to develop a bigger transportation vision and organize a coalition that can push it to victory, whether at the ballot box or the Legislature, even if some traditionally powerful groups oppose it.
Metro Council President Tom Hughes shared Wheeler's impatience for small visions, but added that more work needs to be done to prepare a bigger vision and create momentum to pass it with voters.
"It's not a question of how much money it is. It's a question of how persuasive the vision is," Hughes said. "I don't think that happens overnight. That requires a lot of groundwork that we have yet to do. Because we've been doing groundwork on small ball. We haven't been doing groundwork on a bigger vision."
Priorities intertwined, discussions reveal
How to do that groundwork – and apply it to the right priorities – consumed much of the rest of the morning's discussions.
Elected officials, community advocates and business representatives shared tables for two rounds of frank small-group discussion. County commissioners talked with college students, active transportation boosters spoke with mayors, and businesspeople dug into tough topics with equity advocates.
They dug into which of the region's transportation challenges are most urgent, and which funding mechanisms would be most effective to address them – seeking more federal or state revenue, or looking to potential new regional or local funding sources.
Reporting back, table representatives expressed a common difficulty isolating any one transportation challenge as most pressing, because they all are intertwined.
Congestion relief can't be achieved without safer streets, better transit and fixing aging infrastructure. "It's not aging, it's old," quipped Metro Councilor Sam Chase.
Creating a more equitable system isn't possible without better bus and train service, cleaner air, reducing crashes and linking housing to transportation planning.
Reducing fatalities means safer biking and walking connections but also better transit service, fixing aging infrastructure and improved vehicle technology. And so on.
"You can use any one of these as a lens to look at the others," noted Columbia Corridor Association executive director Corky Collier. Collier, along with several others, suggested equity might be the best place to start.
Kelly Haines, senior project manager at workforce development nonprofit Worksystems, Inc., suggested focusing on the opportunities a better transportation system can bring, as it's built and for years to come.
"What type of opportunity will be made available with that funding?" Haines said, pointing out that building a better transportation system means many construction and operations jobs, training opportunities and more. She noted that can improve equity as well.
"It could be something that benefits women and people of color getting into construction, getting good-paying jobs and having training opportunities and career pathways. So not just transportation benefits, but the economic opportunity that results from this activity that then goes back to the community."
Several attendees noted that a big vision with specific projects that serve specific populations – so that as many people as possible see benefit to themselves or their community – has been a common theme of transportation packages that have been successful in other places, including Los Angeles, Seattle and Alameda County, Calif.
But Beaverton City Councilor Marc San Soucie suggested while a good vision is specific and bold, it begins with an inclusive process to see what's important to all communities.
"Specificity is important but how you get to that specificity is also important," San Soucie said. "Engaging people that are not normally part of the conversation is going to be really crucial...If you want to go big, you need a big vision. And a big vision is going to have to come from a lot of people."
Momentum Alliance representative Gloria Pinzon agreed.
"As an Oregon resident, I would more likely want to pay for something if someone asked me what I needed," Pinzon said.
And while not committing to any specific transportation funding approach going forward, several people urged the room to remember that accountability matters.
"We need to make sure our constituents trust that we're going to act properly with the funds we're given," said Vancouver City Councilmember Ty Stober. "Say what we're going to do and then do what we say we're going to do to maintain that trust."
In other words, perhaps, you reap what you sow.
Learn more about the 2018 Regional Transportation Plan update