Broaden uses of Oregon Gas Taxes?

Doug Allen retired after 35 years with TriMet Service Planning and Scheduling and belongs to AORTA. He is a long time supporter of good transit and land use planning, and lives in SE Portland.

Senate Joint Resolution 16 would refer a constitutional amendment to Oregon voters in November 2016 that relaxes constraints on the use of motor vehicle revenues. A hearing is tentatively scheduled before the Senate Business and Transportation committee on Monday, March 30, at 1:00 pm.

In brief, this amendment adds to the list of allowable uses: “Surface transportation infrastructure that reduces the traffic burden of, or pollution from, motor vehicles on public highways, roads and streets in this state.”

It covers construction and operation of certain bus, rail, bicycle, and pedestrian facilities, but not aviation or waterway projects.

Follow SJR 16 here:

Oregon’s Constitution strictly limits what can be funded with motor vehicle taxes and fees, including tolls and carbon or mileage taxes. They can only be spent on “construction, reconstruction, improvement, repair, maintenance, operation and use” of public highways and rest areas.

Before 1980, this money could also be spent for State Police and State Parks, but after the Legislature asked voters to eliminate these uses, separated bicycle and pedestrian facilities no longer qualified for funding under the 1971 “Bicycle Bill” which designates 1% of highway fund money for bicycle and pedestrian paths. They must be part of a highway project to qualify for highway funding. The Oregon Supreme Court subsequently confirmed that the intent was to limit expenditures to facilities within or adjacent to highway rights-of-way. [1]

An earlier Attorney General opinion had already concluded in 1970 that indirect benefits to highway users, “…such as mass transit facilities which reduce highway congestion,…” were not allowable expenditures, and this opinion was cited by the Supreme Court.

SJR 16 was submitted at the request of Jim Howell, Policy Director for Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates (AORTA). Chief sponsor is Senator Michael Dembrow, and co-sponsors include Senators Monroe, Roblan, and Shields, and Representatives Frederick, Gallegos, Keny-Guyer, and Nosse. A simple majority of both houses is required for passage.

SJR 16 has been endorsed by Coalition for a Livable Future, 1000 Friends of Oregon, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, Oregon Environmental Council, Upstream Public Health, AORTA, Transportation for Oregon’s Future Coalition, and Bike Walk Vote.

By itself, SJR 16 does not raise taxes or change the current allocation of motor vehicle taxes and fees. That can only happen through future legislation.

Current restrictions were imposed by voters more than three decades ago. Attitudes have changed. The 2013 Oregon Values and Beliefs Project discovered from a survey that: “Oregonians find the proposal to shift some funding for road and highway construction towards public transportation such as better bus service and high speed rail projects desirable at a 1.7 to 1.0 ratio …”

SJR 16 would allow future legislation to assign a portion of motor vehicle taxes and fees for purposes such as rural bus service, safety and congestion relief projects that include transit, separated bicycle facilities such as the Sullivan’s Gulch trail, and local match for federal funds for non-highway transportation projects. Oregon received far less federal stimulus money to improve Amtrak service than did neighboring Washington because we did not have enough local match. Bridge and road tolls could be spent on transit, pedestrian, and bicycle facilities that provide alternatives to highway travel.

Non-highway alternatives may be cheaper, less polluting, or less damaging to the human or natural environment. These alternatives may also be desirable components of a new highway facility, allowing for a smaller, less-damaging structure that is more likely to win approval of nearby residents.

SJR 16 would allow for true “least cost planning” of the Oregon highway system. It is not a “raid on the highway fund” but a modest expansion of the allowed use of motor vehicle revenues consistent with the “user fee” concept. It only adds uses that address problems caused by motor vehicles. It applies the “polluter pays” principle.

[1] Rogers v. Lane County

5 responses to “Broaden uses of Oregon Gas Taxes?”

  1. This is a potential game-changer. Allowing use of gas-tax revenues for expanding the rail and bicycle path network would be a great benefit to everyone. Every person that rides a bike or takes transit is one less person contributing to car congestion. Oregon can’t afford (monetarily and environmentally) to build more roads, so we need to to get smarter about our transportation network, This would be a great first step towards that goal.

  2. Let’s get real here. This about funneling more money to Portland area alternative transportation with TriMet getting the bulk of the money to continue building light rail. Other projects will happen with much PR but few dollars. Good roads are critical to the rural economy and we all know the first place road repair funds will be reduced is for rural roads because the rural residents don’t have the ear of the legislature. Tax the user? This will just lead to the gas tax being increased to fill the hole created by the diversion of funds. Again the rural residents will be impacted the most.

    • Since I worked with Jim Howell to help craft the language in SJR 16, I can assure you that there is no intent to shift funding from rural areas to urban areas, nor can I grasp why this amendment would facilitate such a shift. The only way I can imagine a proportionate shift happening is if the Portland area imposes additional local taxes on motor vehicles. I can, however, imagine the Portland area shifting some of its current share of revenues to alternative projects; likewise other areas of Oregon could benefit from greater investment in Amtrak and rural bus service, and should have the freedom to make that choice through their own elected officials. I am curious why anyone would think this is an urban versus rural issue?

      • “I am curious why anyone would think this is an urban versus rural issue?”

        Because many people like to manufacture “us vs them” issues that don’t really exist.

  3. This is an excellent idea that will help allow Oregon to invest transportation dollars for the solution that best addresses the need. We cannot “build our way out of congestion.” Congestion is a characteristic of a form of transportation that is inherently inefficient when it comes to terrestrial space (and energy). The more we expand the road system, the more sprawl that is generated, the farther people drive, and congestion just gets worse. We need to maintain what we have, but we need to invest much more wisely on transportation expansion. Adam H is on-target!

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