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States struggle with needed transportation fixes after years of cutbacks

July 30, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
Potholes, vulnerable bridges, a lack of sidewalks -- following years of cutbacks in federal transportation funding, states are feeling the pinch. In Oregon, the NewsHour’s Cat Wise explores pressing infrastructure funding needs, like alternative forms of transportation, traffic reduction measures and preparing for a massive earthquake that many predict will hit in the state within 50 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we reported earlier, after much debate, Congress today passed a short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund. But years of cutbacks in federal and local transportation funding are being felt in communities around the country.

The NewsHour’s Cat Wise takes a look at some of the key transportation issues facing Portland, Oregon, and the surrounding region.

CAT WISE: Early one morning this week, as thousands of commuters drove overhead, Oregon bridge inspector Joel Boothe hoisted himself 100 feet up in the air and got to work.

Boothe was doing a routine inspection of one of the state’s busiest bridges, the Marquam Bridge built in 1966. It carries about 90,000 vehicles a day on Interstate 5 over the Willamette River near downtown Portland. Unlike some of the other bridges in Portland, it’s in fairly good shape, but it’s still got some issues.

JOEL BOOTHE, Bridge Inspector: So, question, on both sides of the location of those general hanging locations, we have had problems.

CAT WISE: Issues that are being closely monitored by the state’s chief bridge engineer, Bruce Johnson.

BRUCE JOHNSON, State Bridge Engineer, Oregon Department of Transportation: They found some pack rust, so we have got some corrosion going on. We’re losing some section in our steel. The other issue, this bridge has had a lot of fatigue cracking.

And, of course, we have mitigated the cracks by doing repairs, but we’re concerned about the performance of our repairs and how the cracking is going.

CAT WISE: Johnson says that maintaining bridge safety is a huge task for the state.

BRUCE JOHNSON: Well, in Oregon, we have an old inventory of bridges. We haven’t been funded to systematically upgrade and renew our infrastructure. So, in a lot of cases, we have been patching together and trying to keep old bridges operational and safe. But also in Oregon, we’re vulnerable to a very, very large Cascadia Subduction Zone. And when that happens, unfortunately, we’re not prepared.

CAT WISE: The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a fault line off the coast of the Pacific Northwest that scientists believe is capable of producing a major 8.0 or larger earthquake in the next 50 years. When the big, big one hits, many of the bridges in the state are expected to collapse, including the Ross Island Bridge in Portland and the Interstate Bridge, an important artery for the region connecting Portland to Vancouver, Washington.

The price tag for seismically upgrading Oregon’s bridges is hundreds of millions of dollars, money, Johnson says, the state doesn’t have.

BRUCE JOHNSON: In Oregon, because of reduced state funding, we rely heavily on federal funding to do the majority of the serious, the heavy work, the major rehabilitation and replacement of our structures.

CAT WISE: Repairing and doing seismic upgrade to the bridges here in Portland and around the state is a top priority for local officials. But Oregon, like many states around the country, has a long list of much-needed transportation projects, projects that in recent years have been impacted by cuts to federal spending.

The cutbacks in transportation funding are being felt in the town of Newberg, which sits on a major route from Portland to the Oregon coast. Traffic backups here are notorious. A new bypass for the area has been in the works for years, but the state’s original plans for a four-lane, 11-mile highway, were scaled back several years ago to a two-lane, four-mile road. Not enough federal funding.

ALI MCLEOD, Carpentry Apprentice: Traffic is always on everybody’s minds.

CAT WISE: Twenty-six-year-old Ali McLeod is a carpentry apprentice who grew up here and was hired to work on the project. She says many in the local community are worried the shorter bypass won’t actually solve the traffic problems.

ALI MCLEOD: They’re all pretty upset about it. Knowing a lot of people from the area, everybody’s just like, well, we will see if it works or if it doesn’t work.

CAT WISE: The cost of the $175 million project has been shouldered by the state, and that’s meant some creative financing, according to Tom Fuller with the Oregon Department of Transportation.

TOM FULLER, Communications Manager, Oregon Department of Transportation: Normally, the federal government pays for about 90 percent of the construction projects. The state pays for about 10 percent. There just isn’t any federal money for us to do projects like this, so the state has got to get very creative.

So we do things like selling bonds, using lottery money, even coming up with entirely new ways of charging people for driving on the roads. We have got to do something, because the need is not going away, even though the dollars aren’t there from D.C.

CAT WISE: But federal transportation dollars aren’t just used to build new freeways. They also trickle down to the local level, where they’re needed for much more basic projects.

So, no sidewalk here, I see.

LEAH TREAT, Director, Portland Bureau of Transportation: Right.

CAT WISE: And this is a very busy, fast-moving street.

Leah Treat is the director of Portland’s Bureau of Transportation. She took me to a neighborhood she says highlights the need for more funding, from pedestrian improvements to road repair.

LEAH TREAT: We can replicate this situation in dozens of areas around the city, where we have 300 miles of missing sidewalks in the city. So, we have close to 5,000 lane miles of roadway in the city of Portland, and with our limited resources, we are only able to do preventative maintenance on 100 miles a year.

CAT WISE: The city also wants more federal funds for innovative projects like the new South Waterfront neighborhood, developed with a mix of federal, state, local and private funds, and which offers people a variety of transportation options. The country’s first-ever bridge open only to bikes, pedestrians, and transit, not private cars, will open in September.

Jennifer Dill, who studies national transportation issues, says there’s a need for more such projects.

JENNIFER DILL, Portland State University: And there’s a lot of cities in the U.S. right now that really want to invest in more multimodal systems, more pedestrian infrastructure, bike infrastructure, more innovative types of infrastructure. And the feds have been lagging a little behind on that.

CAT WISE: Oregon transportation officials say the temporary highway funding deal worked out in Washington this week is a good step, but they’d rather have a long-term, consistent source of funding from the federal government.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Cat Wise in Portland, Oregon.