Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Jobs and Transportation Act would help Oregon do its part to tackle climate crisis

Oregon has had an unbalanced, automobile-centric transportation system for too long. The vast majority of funding has long gone to highways and we haven't made much progress towards erasing our dependency on the automobile, which is contributing to the climate crisis, a decline in air quality, and as less vibrant culture.

And this is a problem. A big problem. Oregon’s transportation system contributes to forty percent of the Beaver State’s climate pollution, higher than the national average of thirty three percent.

If we are to make headway in reducing emissions, we must provide transportation options for Oregonians. We must invest in rapid transit, create bike paths and bike facilities to encourage biking, and build walkable neighborhoods so people don't have to drive everywhere. If we do all of these things, we'll not only have cleaner air and a cooler planet, but we'll create jobs.

Walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods will also be more friendly and accessible for seniors as well as the disabled. They'll make it easier to get to school, run errands, shop for groceries, or find recreational opportunities.

But walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods won't build themselves. If we want to escape our dependency on the automobile, we need to take action. Fortunately, there's a bill in the Oregon Legislature that would provide a good start: the Governor’s Jobs and Transportation Act.

The proposal (PDF) has a long list of positive elements. It would give communities tools to combat the climate crisis, allocate all flexible federal funding for non-highway transportation projects, and appropriate $150 million in ConnectOregon funds towards mass transit and multimodal initiatives.

The governor's proposal would also provide more local authority for transit, require more resources to be invested into bike lanes and sidewalks, increase funding for Amtrak Cascades, require environmental stewardship practices in highway construction projects, and allow medium speed vehicles on the roads.

All of these are good, but I want to talk about three in particular: giving communites tools to combat the climate crisis, putting federal flex dollars to work for good, and the transit district payroll tax.

First, climate friendly civic planning doesn't work very well if it only happens at the state level, because so many decisions about transportation and land use are made at the municipal level. HB 2120 will especially help give Oregon's six metropolitan planning organizations new tools for combating the climate crisis.

(Each organization has jurisdiction over a major urban area. The six are: Portland, Salem, Corvallis, Eugene, Medford, and Bend).

Examples of steps the metro planning organizations can take to reduce climate pollution include:
  • Zoning for transit-oriented development
  • Increasing mass transit service (and especially rapid transit)
  • Encouraging ride-sharing, biking, and walking;
  • Incentivizing no and low carbon fuels for automobiles
Metro (the Portland MPO), is already working on this. Once Metro decides on a course of action, the other metro councils will likely follow in its footsteps. That's a major reason why turning this proposal into law is so important. The state needs to be doing what it can to encourage the other five to follow Portland's lead.

Second, allocating all federal flex funds to non-highway construction will demonstrate that we're finally shifting our transportation priorities to where they need to be. Of the money the state receives from the Federal Highway Trust Fund, only a small percentage can be used for things other than highways.

That percentage amounts to approximately $44 million.

Currently Oregon allocates less than half that amount to non-highway projects. It’s time to shift the balance for good.

Third, allowing local transit districts to levy a higher payroll tax would help address budget shortfalls that many districts are currently facing. For example, TriMet is planning to substantially cut service at a time when ridership is at an all time high.

The cap on the payroll tax should be eased from 0.7% to 0.8%, the implementation rate should be doubled, and the requirement for voter approval should be removed.

Oregon has a fine opportunity to shift toward a more balanced transportation systemthat will reduce pollution, create more jobs, save families money, and create healthier communities. Let’s hope the Legislature actually takes advantage of it and passes something meaningful and comprehensive that we can all be proud of.


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