The aftereffects of my celebration of the demise of the Columbia River Crossing took longer to wear off than I expected. I think I'm back to normal now.
Today's paper Oregonian (the story doesn't appear to be online) reports that the Oregon Department of Transportation is running out of money and likely will not be able to undertake new projects or even maintain the existing highways and bridges. The reasons are threefold. First, Oregonians are driving less and using more efficient cars, so gas tax revenues are down. Second, federal grants for state highways will stop when the federal Highway Trust Fund goes dry next year. (Yuxing Zheng of the Oregonian wrote about that on March 28, here.) Third, ODOT is making massive debt service payments of nearly $200 million/year, maxing out at $210 million/year) on the $2.5 billion in bonds it's issued to finance the road and bridge construction projects under the Oregon Transportation Investment Act of 2001 and its successors.
Declining revenues, large debts, no federal funds: what's an agency to do? The public is reluctant to raise taxes to finance even the best highway spending, and residents of low-tax areas of the state, mainly rural, don't like to contribute to funds that they see as mainly spent to help urbanites.
At the same time it must be conceded by all but the most Teaful of the Party that the state gasoline tax is cheaper now, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it's been for years, possibly since our first gasoline tax of 1c/gallon in 1919. From 1967 to 1981 the tax was 7c/gallon, from 1981 to 1984 it was 8c/gallon, increases in 1984, 1985, and 1986 brought it to 11c/gallon. From 1993 to 2011 it was 24c/gallon. In 2011 it was raised to 30c/gallon, where it is today, standing at about 9% of the pretax retail price of gasoline. In 2004 Oregon's tax of 24c was about 19% of the pretax retail price (24c out of $1.35 or so). In 1972 the 7c tax was nearly 30% of the pretax price of 25c/gallon. (The state and federal taxes brought the retail price of branded gasoline to 36c/gallon then.)
Herewith, therefore, the Laquedem Pay to Pave Gas Tax Plan. Let us vote on raising the gasoline tax to 40c/gallon, with the extra 10c devoted 95% to road and bridge maintenance (no new projects) and 5% to what the planner-types call "active transportation": bike paths, sidewalks, wheelchair ramps, and other aids to unpowered mobility (no light rail). The first Laquedem catch is that we'll tally the vote county by county, and impose the tax only in those counties that approve the measure. If you and your neighbors don't want to pay the tax to maintain your state highways, you don't have to pay it.
"Why would anyone vote for it?" you ask. That's the second Laquedem catch: ODOT will be authorized to spend the money only in those counties that approve the tax. If, for example, Curry County rejects the tax, then ODOT may not spend any money from the fund in Curry County. People who are willing to pay for paved highways can have them; people who don't want to pay for paved roads can enjoy their potholes while they salute Ayn Rand.