What Oregon’s new “Transportation Bill” means for you: Part 1

Medford, Ore. – When House Bill 2017 goes into effect January first, the average Oregon driver will pay $0.08 for each mile driven in gas tax and registration.

That’s about $6 to $40 each month, and nearly $77 a year – in exchange, for better roads and more reliable trips.

Money from House Bill 2017, also known as the Transportation Bill, will fund major projects within the state.

Those projects will focus on improving local roads and bridges reducing congestion, enhancing public transportation, creating safer biking and walking options and electric vehicle incentives.

Again, the bill is statewide, but what upgrades can we expect locally?

“Presently, we get about $2.4 million in property taxes and the same amount in federal taxes,” said Rogue Valley Transportation District (RVTD) Director Julie Brown. According to Brown, the additional money could potentially allow the district to double its services. “Sometimes our routes don’t match up to where you can actually make your connection easy and go on with the rest of your ride sometimes there’s a wait.”

Ten years down the line, the community may see more buses, more routes and more efficient rides – including express routes. Brown explained, “It’s limited to its stops but it’s quick, so people could actually get from Medford to Ashland in a shorter period of time than 50 minutes.”

And RVTD isn’t the only agency benefiting from the bill. John Vial is the director of Jackson County Road and Parks. He said, “A lot of people know that ODOT gets the money but 50% of it goes towards cities and counties, of which 30% of it goes to the county. I think of all the entities that from benefited from this transportation package, the counties probably dedicated the most.”

Vial’s department will be able to make upgrades that have been put on the back-burner for years because of lack of funding. “For the past ten or twelve years, we’ve been doing very few capital projects,” he explained. “All we’ve been doing is maintaining.”

But with an additional projected $3.5 million a year: “What this is going to do, it’s going to make our system safer, wider straighter, and better,” Vial said. “In ten years, what you’re going to see, is you’re going to see roads that are safer to drive on.”

And Vial said he already knows which roads are going to see upgrades first. “Really what we’re going to be targeting first is improvements along Foothill Road. Foothill Road is one of the busiest corridors that we have in Jackson County. It’s a road that was basically built for Model Ts.”

The bill could make roads built decades ago fit for the 21st century. “The problem we have is our county roads are typically narrow, they’re windy, and they have some real safety problems with them,” Vial said.

The goal doesn’t end at making your daily trips safer. The Transportation Bill will also fund improvements to protect you when the big one hits.

“If we have a 9 to a 9.2 earthquake, which is anticipated, our infrastructure here can’t handle that on the bridges,” Representative Sal Esquivel said, adding the money is long overdue, which is why the bill supports what’s called the “seismic triage.”

“So consequently, we would be cut off for quite some time, so this will bring in about $35 million to seismic retrofit our bridges so we can, in fact, get out of the valley to bring in supplies and take stuff out,” Esquivel explained. “We desperately needed that here in Southern Oregon. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have that to start with but it’s okay we’ll get it now.

Oregon Department of Transportation spokesperson Gary Leaming said, “Pretty good insurance policy before the event so that we can stay connected and keep our economy and industry moving and going in the aftermath earthquake.”

Though the seismic triage, as well as many of the projects related to HB 2017, won’t be complete for a number of years. Local leaders say the delayed gratification will be worth it.

“We’re going to be looking at projects on Table Rock Road, Old Stage Road, and some of these arterials in the floor that are not handling the traffic in a safe fashion,” explained Vial.

When it’s fully in place by 2024, Oregon’s gas tax will reach $0.40 per gallon.

In regards to tolls–according to ODOT–if, and when, the Federal Highway Administration approves the state’s application. Oregon may start to see toll roads in a few years.

Under the Oregon constitution, toll revenue must be spent on roads.

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