Recent state legislation 'pretty good,' but commissioners want to consider a backlog of road and bridge maintenance needs.

FILE PHOTO - The 2017 Legislature passed a historic transportation package, but Washington County is eyeing other funding options for road projects.Washington County commissioners say recent action by the Oregon Legislature will help them get a real start on a backlog of road and bridge maintenance needs.

But the commissioners say they are not ready to decide whether to reduce or eliminate a standby county vehicle registration fee they approved last year to raise some money for maintenance.

Board Chairman Andy Duyck said at a study session Tuesday (July 11) that despite last-minute doubts until the session ended July 7, "this (legislation) has actually come out pretty good."

Last fall, the commissioners voted to tack on a $30 annual fee to the statewide registration fee of $43, which is collected every other year. They set the starting date of the county fee for July 1, 2018, pending potential legislative action.

The commissioners specified that any legislative action would have to generate at least $8.1 million annually for the county. The proposed county fee would generate a projected $13.5 million annually when fully implemented, but under Oregon law, 40 percent of the proceeds ($5.4 million) must be shared with cities.

"We did not raise the vehicle registration fee to the full $43 (allowed under state law) because we had hope that something like this would pass," Duyck said.

"We knew we had a gap. We were not going to raise enough money for the bridges. But with this package, over time, we could begin to address some of those needs. So this is an excellent position to be in."

Duyck said in addition to maintenance needs on 1,300 miles of county roads, the county has a $120 million backlog of bridge work.

Not yet assured

According to estimates by the Legislative Revenue Office, which analyzes tax measures for lawmakers, Washington County stands to receive almost $122 million in new money — including its share of higher state fuel taxes — through mid-2027. The projected amount to the county in the state's current two-year budget cycle is about $11 million, but the new fees and taxes would take effect on Jan. 1, six months into the cycle.

A county spokeswoman said later that county officials want to consider other estimates before laying out options for the commissioners.

The money is not yet guaranteed.

Although Gov. Kate Brown plans to sign HB 2017, potential opponents have until Oct. 5 — 90 days after the end of the 2017 session — to collect the almost 60,000 signatures required to force a statewide election on the new taxes and fees. If that move is successful, the higher amounts do not take effect until after a vote.

The new legislation sets a $13 surcharge on top of the current $43 statewide registration fee, effective Jan. 1. Two more increases are scheduled in 2020 and 2022, based on vehicle mileage per gallon.

Washington County would be only the second county with a local vehicle registration fee. Multnomah County imposed a $19 annual fee in 2011, without an election, to help pay for the new Sellwood Bridge.

Washington County voters rejected a $30 annual fee in 2014.

Clackamas County commissioners have talked about imposing a similar fee after voters rejected a 6-cent fuel tax in 2016. But they have taken no action.

Highway 217 work

The commissioners heard a briefing by Jim McCauley, one of Washington County's legislative advocates, who said the legislation also commits state funding to long-awaited auxiliary lanes on Highway 217 — the main north-south corridor from Cedar Mill to Tigard.

It was one of three regional congestion-easing projects envisioned in the legislation. The others were a widening of Interstate 205 from two to three lanes between Stafford Road and the George Abernethy Bridge — which spans the Willamette River between West Linn and Oregon City — and a reworking of the Rose Quarter interchange of Interstates 5 and 84 in Portland.

The legislation directs the Oregon Department of Transportation to start planning on the latter two projects and propose funding in the future. But only Highway 217 made the full cut of specified projects to be funded.

"I think people have said Highway 217 has been studied to death," McCauley said to laughter from the commissioners.

"As much as we may have advocated for a higher investment in Highway 217 on a par with I-205 and I-5 — both $450 million projects — having something (priced) at $100 million actually helped. Less was, in fact, much more in this case.

"Legislators wanted to make sure they could demonstrate they could take care of one of these congestion projects and have a path forward for the other two."

Commissioner Bob Terry said the Highway 217 improvements are overdue.

A year ago, the Oregon Transportation Commission shifted $2 million of state money intended for a southbound auxiliary lane of 3.5 miles of Highway 217 between Highway 10 in Beaverton and Highway 99W in Tigard. Instead that money will be combined with a federal grant, for a total of $13 million, for a southbound auxiliary lane on I-5 from Highway 217 in Tigard to Interstate 205 in Tualatin.

'Hard feelings'

Commissioner Roy Rogers, the board's lead member on transportation, said he was disappointed the final version of the legislation dropped local-option alternatives for the Portland region to raise its own money for projects such as those mentioned above and the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail line from Portland to Tualatin.

He also said that while officials from the other counties have told him they are happy that Highway 217 improvements will be funded, "There are a bit of hard feelings, so we need to be cognizant of that. I have told them we support their projects."

The legislation also imposes a new statewide payroll tax to support public transit, a privilege tax on the sale of new passenger cars and trucks to pay for transportation projects other than road and bridge work, and a bicycle tax ($15 on 26-inch bicycles valued at $200 or more) to raise some money for bicycle and pedestrian paths.

"It's not going to raise a lot of revenue," said Commissioner Dick Schouten, an avid cyclist and advocate. "But it is symbolic."

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