June 04, 2001 11:00 pm

When it comes to highways, Oregon has been in a maintenance mode for close to a decade. Without any increases in the state gas tax, the Oregon Department of Transportation has had to make maintenance its top priority and dole out money sparingly for highway enhancements.

The result has been a decline statewide in our highway system. The roads havent kept pace with the traffic in some areas of the state. Several areas are in need of bypasses and road improvements in order to meet increases in traffic, but needed projects are placed on priority lists. The money to accomplish all that is needed isnt available.

Oregonians have a hard time understanding why their roads are not like they once were the best in the country. They blame ODOT. Few citizens stop to consider what it costs just to maintain roads, much less enhance existing roads and build new ones.

The real blame belongs with the legislatures of the 1990s, which refused to address Oregons highway needs and the impact more traffic was having on the roads. The 1999 session knew it had some catching up to do. But rather than tackle the issue head on, it proposed a gas tax increase along with elimination of the weight-mile tax on trucks. The shift in the burden of funding highway improvements didnt sit well with voters, and when combined with spiraling gas prices, the measure was trounced at the polls as it should have been.

No one expected the 2001 Legislature to do much about highway funding. An increase in the gas tax and restructuring of the tax on trucks would be off limits due to the 1999 debacle. But Rep. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, pushed through a plan that resulted in bipartisan support and both Oregon AAA and the trucking industry voicing approval. HB 2142 will provide $400 million in bonding authority for road and bridge improvements. A reasonable increase in vehicle registration fees will provide the financial backing for the plan.

Oregonians will pay more $13 for registering a car and $80 for a truck. But the increase about the equivalent to a 2-cent rise in the gas tax is reasonable. Oregon long has had one of the least expensive vehicle registration fees in the country. Its not unfair to ask people who drive to help pay a little more so that the roads they drive on can be improved. And instead of paying every time they pull up to the pump, well pay once every two years when we register our vehicles.

The plan isnt going to solve Oregons highway woes. Needs far outweigh available resources for example, the new Bend parkway alone cost more than $100 million. But the bill, if it makes it through the Senate and gets the governors signature, provides some new money new dollars that highways havent seen for a decade.

Oregon has ignored its highways long enough. Catching up to where we should be will take a lot more than the $400 million a year HB 2142 will provide. But the modest increase each of us will pay is a start to putting us on the right road.