Peak Gas Hits Oregon

Less driving means less gas tax, means less money for roads.
This post is 17 in the series: Dude, Where Are My Cars?

We hate to say we told you so…wait, strike that, we actually kinda like it: “ODOT says road projects may need to be cut.”

Oregon transportation officials say they may have to scale back plans for highway work because revenue from road users is coming in more slowly than expected. Cash-strapped drivers are using less gasoline, so they’re also paying less in gas taxes—and that means Oregon stands to lose $150 million or more in federal funding, officials warn.

Just last week, we released a new report showing that gasoline consumption in Oregon and Washington has been pretty much flat since 1999, while vehicle travel flat-lined in 2002. In short, people are driving less; and it’s not just the recession. We warned that these trends could wreak havoc on highway financing. And in only one week, we’ve had 2 confirmations of those warnings. 

First came Washington’s official transportation revenue forecast, predicting declining gas consumption as far as the eye can see; and now ODOT is saying they need to cut their road budgets because people are driving less than they expected. Yet despite a decade-long lull in traffic growth and widening shortfalls in gas tax revenue, multi-billion dollar, car-centered megaprojects—the Columbia River Crossing, Seattle’s deep-bore tunnel, and the SR 520 bridge across Lake Washington—still dominate the Northwest’s transportation debates.

I just have to put this question out there:  do we really have a realistic plan to pay for all these big highway projects? Or were our financing plans based on assumptions that seemed reasonable a decade ago, but are now badly out of touch with reality?

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  1. Kevin Matthews - ArchitectureWeek says:

    Is the funding gap a signal that we’re not collecting enough, or that we’re still planning to build too much 1950s style highway infrastructure?

    Let’s spell out what you’re mostly leaving implicit.

    There are two ways to address highway project underfunding.

    One is to dig out more funding from somewhere else, tending to increase the relative share of subsidy for an unsustainable approach to transportation. (The State of Oregon is pioneering the absurd idea of soaking electric vehicles for more than their share of road costs.)

    A better approach is stop expanding the capacity of the existing highway system, which serves mainly to induce even more highway traffic.

    Amazingly, engineering methodologies for full lifecycle costing of road systems are still in their infancy. They’ll show, however, that we’re continuing to plan for giant expansions of a type of system we will not be able to maintain.

    Not. Sustainable.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      You said it better than I did, Kevin!!

  2. Curt says:

    We need to raise the gas tax. The additional funds can cover the cost of road repairs, added bike paths, and much more. But, with high gas prices, nobody wants to make it worse for the consumer.

    Well, we don’t have to. We’re seeing gas prices at the pump going down now. That’s the perfect time to add to the gas tax. If we added a penny to the gas tax every time the gas prices went down ten cents, it would hardly be noticeable — gas prices would be down by nine cents rather than a dime.

    Those taxes would stay in place the next time the gas prices go up, but being in the “base price” the effect during price increase cycles wouldn’t really be noticeable either.

    If over time, this cycle of raising gas taxes when gas prices dropped raised more money than we could spend on roads, we could use that fund as a hedge against catastrophic future price increases. Wouldn’t consumers love it if the state offered a gas tax holiday when prices hit $5.00 per gallon (or something like that)?

    It would be a different way to handle taxes, but it could be done. And, if you ask me, it should be done.

  3. Callie Jordan says:

    Today’s Sightline Daily presented a serendipitous juxtaposition of articles suggested a solution: Peak Car from the Globe and Mail (sounded like they were paraphrasing your series, Clark) and Seattle’s 400 miles of major streets that need fixing. With no money to fix the streets, and fewer cars to drive on them, let’s do like they did in Ecotopia and turn all the streets into pedestrian promenades, with resurrected streams bordered by trees. Hey, they liked promenading on the viaduct…

    • Callie Jordan says:

      Oops, it’s after midnight. That was yesterday’s Sightline Daily (10/24)

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