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Testimony for the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Listening Session: Vancouver, WA

Chairman Mica, I want to thank you on behalf of OSPIRG for holding these listening sessions. Representatives DeFazio and Herrera Beutler, thank you also for your leadership and for participating in this event today. 

OSPIRG is a statewide, nonprofit consumer group. We focus on transportation policy from the perspective of consumers and taxpayers, advocating for a 21st Century transportation system that helps end our addiction to foreign oil, repairs our crumbling roads and bridges, alleviates congestion, and gives consumers better choices in an era when rising fuel prices loom large. 

There are many ways to meet these challenges, and we look forward to working with the Committee in the coming months. Today, however, I am here to encourage you and the committee to make important investments in both prioritizing improving Oregon’s rail system and fixing our roads and bridges that are in disrepair. 

The Importance of Investing in Oregon’s Freight and Passenger Rail System

To keep our economy strong, Oregon’s commuters and businesses will need better transit choices beyond cars and trucks in the coming decades. Our most populous region, the Willamette Valley, is expected to absorb 1 million new residents in the next 20-30 years[1], a 44% population increase for the region [2]. Our already-congested Interstate-5 corridor is unready to handle such an influx of people and their need for goods. It will prove difficult and expensive to accommodate these additional passengers and goods by increasing highway capacity. Meanwhile, the next wave of increases in gasoline prices will squeeze the already tight budgets of millions of consumers and businesses that currently rely on cars and trucks to commute and move goods and services.

There is no silver bullet that will solve our transportation issues, but making greater investments in both inter-city passenger and freight rail is an important piece of the solution. Regarding Oregon’s Portland to Eugene passenger rail program, current on-time performance is less than 70%, with only two roundtrips per day between Portland and Eugene. Our passenger rail currently shares track with 20-25 critically important Union Pacific freight trips per day. Finally, passenger rail service is currently funded only through revenues from the farebox and from vanity license plate fees. Despite these challenges, total annual ridership in our Cascades corridor increased by 10% from the previous year, finishing on a 16 year high since the service began operation.[3]

Fortunately, preliminary studies by our state’s transportation officials conclude that even relatively modest, incremental improvements to the reliability, frequency, and speed of our existing rail corridor could achieve remarkable ridership levels that would divert car traffic off I-5, alleviating both congestion and wear and tear on the highway for commuters and businesses alike. These improvements would significantly reduce the long-term cost of maintaining and widening I-5 and create an affordable transit choice for commuters.[4] A true “bullet train” is most likely the best solution for larger regions such as the Northeast Corridor and even the Portland to Seattle corridor. But for Oregon proper, we can meet many of our challenges with more modest infrastructure upgrades. 

Similar kinds of investments in our freight system could also help manufacturers and farmers transport goods around the state quickly and cheaply. Here too, the challenges are great; freight traffic is expected to grow by 80% over the next 20 years.[5]

Oregon is in the middle of a major process to pin down specific plans for passenger and freight rail. We have some big choices to make about the best passenger rail corridor alignment, service levels, and timeline. Our state’s officials and business leaders are in the process of thinking through the best business plan for the corridor, including some mix of public funding mechanisms and private partnerships. We think this is an important time for our state, and we at OSPIRG hope that the federal government can continue to be a strong partner as we move forward. 

Taking a “Fix it First” Approach

These tight budget times provide our country with a unique opportunity to adopt a “fix it first” approach to transportation projects. 

The need to repair our existing roads and bridges is great. As of 2008 45% of federal highways and major roads were in poor, fair, or mediocre condition. The US Department of Transportation found that 12% of our nation’s bridges are rated as “structurally deficient. Poor road conditions cost American motorists $67 billion per year in repairs and operating costs- an average of $335 per motorist.[6]

Unfortunately, we have not made maintenance enough of a priority. The US DOT estimates that simply sustaining our current stock of roads and bridges in good repair would cost $100 billion each year- almost $30 billion more than what we spend now.[7]

It makes sense to us that before we pay for new roads and bridges, we adequately maintain our existing infrastructure. This approach is most effective for taxpayers and motorists. A Fix-it-First approach to road and bridge spending has other benefits as well. Prioritizing road and bridge maintenance and repair will also create more jobs. A study of federal transportation spending found that road repair work generates 16% more jobs per dollar than new road construction.[8]

In this time of deficits, unsafe infrastructure, and high unemployment, I hope that you and the committee will consider prioritizing our dangerously degraded existing roads and bridges before considering investment in building new ones. 

Our transportation system will benefit from investments in our rail system and prioritizing fixing our crumbling roads and bridges. These investments will save taxpayers while creating jobs, stimulating economic growth, and accommodating our state’s population growth.

Chairman Mica and distinguished guests, thank you for taking on these important issues.
 

[1] Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, Demographic Forecast
[2] Oregon Department of Transportation, 2010 Rail Study
[3] Washington Department of Transportation, Ridership on Amtrak Cascades hits all-time record in 2010
[4] Oregon Department of Transportation, 2010 Oregon Rail Study
[5] Oregon Department of Transportation, 2010 Oregon Rail Study
[6] OSPIRG Foundation, “Road Work Ahead: Holding Government Accountable for Fixing America’s Crumbling Roads and Bridges.”
[7] OSPIRG Foundation, “Road Work Ahead: Holding Government Accountable for Fixing America’s Crumbling Roads and Bridges.”
[8] Garrett-Peltier, Heidi. 2010. Estimating Impacts of Pedestrian, Bicycle and Road Infrastructure. Political Economic Research Institute. http://www.bikeleague.org/resources/reports/pdfs/baltimore_Dec20.pdf.

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