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Governor Pushes 'Connect Oregon'

by Peter Wong
Salem Statesman Journal - January 17, 2005

Plan calls for $100 million for air, rail improvements

Oregon lawmakers have committed $3 billion in the past four years to fix bridges and rebuild highways.

Now, Gov. Ted Kulongoski wants the Legislature to approve $100 million for air, rail, seaport and transit improvements in a "Connect Oregon" program.

"It's a follow-up part to our road proposal from last session," Kulongoski said in an interview.

The money would come from bonds repaid by a share of Oregon Lottery proceeds.

It would be less than the $400 million in bonds approved by the Legislature in 2001, $100 million in 2002 and $2.5 billion in 2003 to repair or replace cracking bridges and rebuild aging highways. Those bonds are repaid from driver and vehicle fees and truck taxes, which the Oregon Constitution reserves for road and bridge work.

The 2003 Legislature approved Kulongoski's request partly to stimulate the economy and create construction jobs and partly to fix a growing number of aging bridges -- including several on Oregon's main north-south corridor of Interstate 5.

"We've gotten a start on our highway and bridge infrastructure so that it no longer poses an impediment to our economic health and business development," said Patrick Cooney, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

"Now the governor believes it is time to address other parts that connect to our highway system. We want to make those connections better, or add them where they do not exist, so that commerce can flow freely and the state is a more attractive place to do business."

Projects would require a 20 percent match in cash or materials and services, according to the framework contained in Senate Bill 71.

A selection process has not been determined. But the Oregon Transportation Commission expects to choose projects similar to how it picked road and bridge work under the 2001, 2002 and 2003 bond issues.

Kulongoski said he expects some of that new money to go toward rail improvements.

"With its growth, Oregon has to start thinking about how it can be a better partner with the railroads, both large ones like Union Pacific and Burlington Northern and the numerous short lines that are important to Oregon's economy," Kulongoski said.

"We have an aggressive transportation program, and I place a high priority on it."

After the close of the 2003 session, Union Pacific nearly restricted use of its tracks between Portland and Eugene in a dispute with the state regarding $15 million for rail improvements promised in 2000. The dispute threatened one of two daily runs of a state-supported train operated by Amtrak.

The dispute was settled after personal intervention by Kulongoski and fund shifts that came up with $10 million. Amtrak service was not disrupted.

"People have a tendency to accuse each other of sin when both have been sinners," Kulongoski said. "They also bore some responsibility, but that's all in the past."

The state of Washington, in contrast, invested $184 million in the past decade in the Portland-Seattle tracks owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe. A 2003 package of $4.2 billion was expected to add at least $17 million more.

Kulongoski said Portland has great potential as the junction of two railroads and interstate highways and with its airport and river traffic.

He envisions a bi-state authority with Washington to enable the region to build a third bridge over the Columbia River and resolve other bottlenecks.

"If we make the right investments, I tell you there is a distribution niche for that port," he said.

Peter Wong
Governor Pushes 'Connect Oregon'
Salem Statesman Journal, January 17, 2005

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