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New Bill May Allow Funding for Oregon Transportation Updates

It’s not quite over yet, but after nearly three years of extensions and waiting for the new Oregon road bill to be passed–part of the federal transportation bill–the end of the road (if you’ll pardon the play on words) may finally be in sight. Thankfully, the powers that be have come up with a far more acceptable plan for Oregon’s bicyclists than was previously on the table.

The Highway Trust Fund, which the government has been using to fund transportation projects for 900 days since the last transportation bill expired over 900 days ago, would have been bankrupt by the autumn of 2013, but now, after a seemingly interminable number of delays, the new federal transportation bill finally appears about to become a reality. At last, construction workers who have been waiting for the go-ahead and the funding to start work on badly needed road projects may get their opportunity to start building again.

Facing a national meltdown of funding for road projects, and having been unable or unwilling to agree for nearly three years, both the House of Representatives and the Senate finally woke up, smelled the coffee and realized that something needed to be done, and quickly. Over the past few months, both have worked on polishing up their own versions of a new transportation bill which would have a direct impact on Oregon road bills.

The Republicans tried and failed to get a bill through the House that would have been a disaster for Oregon road bills that include provisions to build new bicycle and walking corridors. The Republicans had proposed:

  • Scrapping decades of programs and funding for bicycling and walking paths
  • Paying for new highways with domestic oil drilling

This bill was so bad, even some Republicans found it far too extreme. The Senate’s bill was far more palatable and was passed, but the Republicans weren’t overly pleased so just continued agreeing to new extensions of the old bill.

Once word got out that the funding for these extensions was on life support, the two sides finally put up a white flag and have now locked themselves into a joint committee with a mission to hammer out a new agreement, come what may, that both sides can agree upon, at least to the point of getting it passed. Reports straight from Washington say the talks have progressed rapidly to date, and that the two sides are now facing into “the meaty issues of disagreement between the two chambers,” according to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer.

Boxer, a Democrat, is herself expected to have face-to-face meetings with her direct counterpart in the House, Republican John Mica, on Thursday of this week.

The Cardin-Cochran amendment

One crucial element of the new bill that cycling and walking advocates will certainly want to see survive the negotiations between the parties is the Cardin-Cochran amendment. This component was written into the Senate’s version of the new federal transportation bill, and it includes:

  • Dedicated funding for what are called “Transportation Enhancements” or TE
  • Provision of money to build dedicated “Safe Routes to School” or SR2S

Among the groups avidly and actively supporting the Cardin-Cochran amendment are the League of American Bicyclists and the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. According to Safe Routes National Partnership spokesperson Deb Hubsmith, “Without this (Cardin-Cochran amendment), states would be able to use bicycling and walking funds towards more highway lanes.”

Clearly, having funds for cycling and walking lanes siphoned off for other projects is something the cycling and walking groups would like to avoid in future Oregon road bills. Interested members have been calling on all parties to contact their local member of Congress to make sure the amendment doesn’t get phased out of any new agreement drawn up by the conference committee.

Why Cardin-Cochran would help Oregon bicyclists and walkers

Even though it’s part of the proposed federal transportation bill, the Cardin-Cochran amendment should be of major interest to Oregon bicyclists. BikePortland.org says that:

  • The amendment gives individual states control over some of the federal funds
  • Oregon would have control over the funds that would go to TE and SR2S projects
  • If the funds are passed to the state’s control, Oregon cycling and walking advocates are confident they can keep funding for biking and walking projects continued in future Oregon road bills to at least the same level they receive now.
  • BikePortland backs up this claim through a recent survey that stated some 83 percent of respondents want to at least maintain, if not increase, federal spending on bike lanes and sidewalks.

Oregon support at national level

The good news for Oregonians is that we have two sensible and strong supporters of reasonable transportation policies fighting our corner in Washington. Both Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio are members of the conference committee currently thrashing out the new agreement. With future Oregon road bills heavily dependent on federal funding, we’re sure these two public representatives will do what is ultimately best for Oregon citizens.

Like all things political, this new federal transportation bill could go down to the wire, but with funding for never-ending extensions running dry, the impetus is now there to come up with a reasonable new agreement. Biking and walking organizations, as well as Portland pedestrian and bicycle accident injury attorneys, are hopeful that the new bill gives the state of Oregon both the funding and control of those funds to make Oregon roads safer for all users.