In the last days of the 2023 legislative session, Oregon lawmakers allocated significant funding from the general fund for the Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement Program (IBR). The funding scheme adopted by legislators is worrisome because it could imperil other important state programs by diverting general fund dollars that support critical programs like higher education and affordable housing.
The amendment that funded the IBR raised concerns among legislative watchdogs, including 1000 Friends of Oregon and our partners in the Just Crossing Alliance, for the potential loss of important financial safeguards for the project already in state law and bloated budget. Until the last days of the legislative session, funding for the IBR was in its own bill that included financial and policy safeguards for how and when the IBR would be built. However, only the funding ended up passing, in a large budget bill, and so existing and possible future financial and other safeguards were not included.
The funding package – part of the state’s larger bonding and borrowing bill for the next biennium – allocates $250 million in general obligation bonds every two years until the end of the decade, amounting to a total of $1 billion. Setting bondings on a biennial autopilot, especially of the general fund, is a new and unprecedented move to fund transportation projects. Oregon prides itself on a “user pays” model in transportation, in which drivers, transit riders, and other users partially fund transportation investments through revenue sources like the gas tax. Yet, the gas tax as a revenue source is declining due to the adoption of electric vehicles, and gas tax dollars are restricted to highway projects. Using the general fund to pay for the entire bridge breaks this covenant, and will leave lawmakers with fewer dollars to carefully investment in future general fund budgets, which supports all manner of state priorities (just look what was included along with the IBR’s funding request).
With this bill coming in the last days of the session, and being wrapped up with funding for other programs and investments across the state, lawmakers who did have concerns felt like they couldn’t oppose the bill or risk a carefully negotiated agreement. Some, including Speaker Dan Rayfield, have mentioned changing the funding structure in the future, likely during a 2025 transportation package. (Governor Tina Kotek also expressed concerns about the scale of $1 billion in general fund bonds committed to the bridge project.)
1000 Friends and others will be at the table for those conversations. Among our concerns: policymaking has failed to address core issues, such as impacts of any bridge expansions on local communities, community benefits agreements, and the increase in greenhouse gas emissions of highway lane expansion by increasing the total amount of miles traveled by vehicles.
We also will seek answers to what happens if this project increases in cost, what funding sources will be relied upon then, and how ODOT will finance this and other projects moving forward – especially given that the agency’s budget is projected to be insolvent by 2029. Likewise, the recent financial insolvency of the I-5 Rose Quarter project and the I-205 expansion project again highlights the precarious nature of our state’s transportation finances.
All this means that the hard work of organizing begins now, as 1000 Friends and our partners build our coalition for a 2025 state legislative transportation package that advances systemic changes that expand transportation options for all Oregonians, combats climate change, and is financially accountable – because even though we passed funding this session, there’s still more at stake with a project like this.
Despite the main IBR policy bill languishing during the six-week walkout, our advocacy for a right-sized I-5 Bridge Project has set us up for long-term victories. When legislators take up the project again, we hope you’ll join our coalition, testify, and write your legislators to make sure we build the best bridge we can – one that takes care with state funding, is earthquake-ready, prioritizes multiple modes of transportation, and has the least impact on communities living nearby.