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Opinion » Editorial

With a Transportation Survey, a Chance to Weigh in on Forward-Thinking Options

The City of Bend is asking people to take part in a short survey about transportation issues

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Transportation issues are a major concern for people in Bend. Right now, the City of Bend is asking people to take part in a short survey about transportation issues.

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, ALEXANDRE PRÉVOT
  • Wikimedia Commons, Alexandre Prévot

According to info on the survey, "The City of Bend is considering making strategic investments to reduce traffic congestion and improve the safety of neighborhood streets. These improvements could require an increase in local taxes or fees."

While nothing has yet been decided, another General Obligation bond to pay for transportation-related infrastructure is very likely to come before Bend voters in 2020. The last GO bond, approved by voters in 2011, saw the completion of projects such as the roundabouts at Reed Market and 15th, Mt. Washington and Simpson Ave., 18th and Empire and more.

Because local people value transportation upgrades, a new bond is likely needed in order to continue making upgrades to some crucial pain points drivers experience around the city—not to mention, ideally, seeing upgrades that make it safer for non-drivers to get around.

But even if voters approve a bond, that money is likely not going to be enough to cover the vast amount of infrastructure upgrades needed. While the temptation could be to simply increase the amount of the bond, voters may balk at the sticker price. What's more, bonds place the financial burden solely on local property owners. In a housing crisis, it's unwise to put all the fiscal responsibility on property owners who could very well pass that increase onto tenants who already face issues of housing affordability.

That then begs the question: What other funding sources are out there, and how can we see transportation infrastructure paid for, at least in part, in a way that puts the burden on the people who use the system the most? One such option is a local gas tax, which, in theory, allows the tens of thousands of tourists who visit here each year to pay some of the cost. In a climate-conscious world—one in which some electric cars use no gas at all—a gas tax is a limited solution, albeit one that we believe should be part of the funding picture.

Another promising option lies in a road usage charge, which charges people a fee for the number of miles they drive, rather than relying only on the amount of gas they add to their tanks.

Fortunately, some of Oregon's leaders have seen that, too. The Oregon Legislature formed a Road User Fee Task Force back in 2001 and conducted two pilot programs to test out the technology needed to make the system work. Under the voluntary program, OReGO, up to 5,000 vehicles in the state paid 1.5 cents per mile in lieu of the state's gas tax. With the passage of HB 2881, the 2019 legislature moved to expand the program by removing the 5,000-vehicle cap and directing the Oregon Department of Transportation to work with vehicle dealerships to encourage people to participate.

This has been a long game on the part of state leaders to keep transportation dollars flowing as cars become more efficient. It has the potential to offer more sustained funding for state projects on ODOT-managed roads in Bend, such as Greenwood Avenue or Highway 97—but unlike the local gas tax proposed in 2016, doesn't draw a direct line between the usage in Bend and the need for transportation upgrades in the city.

But local governments are already exploring how road use charge programs could fund local projects. According to meeting notes from the state's Road User Fee Task Force, next month, the task force was set to begin testing out geo-fencing and other programs in the Portland area, which would begin to explore how to track usage in a specific area, and then how to allocate some road use charge dollars to the city or county where drivers are using the roads.

A report created by the National League of Cities this summer pointed out that these programs may be more challenging for cities to implement (versus state- or region-wide ones, but that intergovernmental collaboration could be key in seeing more localized programs succeed. In other words, the City of Bend would need to work closely with state leaders to see this become a viable funding option, and to see it implemented in a way that could work.

And that's where you come in. Now is the time to offer input on what types of projects you support in developing local transportation infrastructure. While the City's one-minute survey doesn't ask about types of funding, there's room to type in your own comments. The survey is available at bendoregon.gov/one-minute-survey.

A local road user charge could have a host of other benefits—including increased ridership on public transit, and or more people actively commuting. E-bike use could increase. Heck, it could also result in people in Bend being more than just avid trail cyclists—instead making them well-rounded cyclists who also pedal to work and school.

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