Legislators want to re-examine highway program

State officials say it might cost less than expected to fix hundreds of cracked bridges in Oregon and that the $2.5 billion highway upgrade approved two years ago needs another look.

Some want to use any extra money for unfunded congestion relief projects such as the Sunrise Corridor in Clackamas County and a Newberg-Dundee bypass.

The project’s $1.3 billion bridge-fixing centerpiece has created 1,400 jobs, nowhere near the 4,800 a year backers promised for the overall project.

Lawmakers raised drivers’ fees and taxes in 2003 to shore up a crumbling highway system. The plan was sold to the public as a way to put thousands of Oregonians to work.

The project was designed to fix 365 cracked bridges that, if left unaddressed, officials said would cost more than $123 billion in lost revenue over the next two decades. It also set aside money to maintain and expand other roads.

State transportation officials acknowledge they are months behind in repairing bridges.

They blame the delay on new research by Oregon State University that found the cracked concrete bridges are stronger than previously thought. That has forced the department to re-evaluate the number of bridges needing repair, pushing the schedule back, they said.

“It is a little bit slower, but we did have to intentionally hold back a bit until we got the OSU study,” said Pat Cooney, the department’s chief spokesman, who said the goal of 4,800 jobs a year over 10 years still could be reached.

Oregon Bridge Delivery Partners, hired to administer the project, has completed two bridges at a cost of $3 million and started on 35 bridges estimated to cost $69 million, mostly on U.S. 20, U.S. 26 and U.S. 97.

The next stage will address bridges on I-5 and I-84.

The department’s reassessment shows it could cost taxpayers at least $100 million less to fix the 365 spans, although engineers still must evaluate 90 bridges. The number of bridges needing replacement has declined from 279 to 192, and 76 that were designated for repair now require no work.

At least one critic complained that transportation officials and elected leaders failed to properly assess the bridges.

“This is the kind of stuff that continues to build mistrust between taxpayers and lawmakers,” said Russ Walker, director of Oregon FreedomWorks.

“There has been a tendency by agencies to overproject and underdeliver, and I’m not being critical of ODOT per se,” said Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who is on the committee that approves the department’s budget. But the highway project’s slow start “will be something I anticipate drilling on a great deal.”

Some lawmakers want savings set aside for work not fully covered by the original plan.

“The money’s there,” said Rep. Donna Nelson, R-McMinnville, who wants a temporary bypass near Newberg and Dundee. “I feel that to wait 15 more years or 20 years for a major bypass is insane. We need to do something now.”

The bypass, estimated to cost $300 million, is one of seven “projects of statewide significance” approved but not financed by transportation commissioners.

Also on the list are improvements to Oregon 62 between Medford and White City and the Sunrise Corridor from I-205 to U.S. 26.