Port of Portland Director Warns of
by Edward Stratton
Wyatt calls for investment in transportation
In a recent snowstorm, Port of Portland Executive Director Bill Wyatt was in his office, looking at the clear, deiced runways at the Portland International Airport. Then he thought of the many people who couldn't get to the airport because of the clogged or icy highways and roads.
"I think it's a perfect metaphor, really, for the value and the importance of transportation," he said. "It's great to have a wonderful airport, but if you can't get there, who cares?"
During a luncheon Tuesday at the Barbey Maritime Center with the North Coast's political and business movers and shakers, and in a meeting with The Daily Astorian, Wyatt pitched the need for consensus on a new transportation funding package in the legislative session that starts in February.
Wyatt, a 67-year-old native Astorian, said the presentation would likely be his last as director of the Port of Portland. The agency announced earlier this month that Wyatt would retire in June. In his entourage was deputy executive director and heir apparent Curtis Robinhold.
On Monday night in Tillamook, Wyatt said, he heard from two brothers -- a trucker and a farmer, both members of the Tillamook County Creamery Association -- who need to get goods to the creamery's processing facility in Boardman. The focus of their complaints about transportation was not on fixing problems in Tillamook County, he said, but on the gridlock in Portland. Wyatt said he's heard similar concerns from shippers in the Willamette Valley and other regions, all stymied by gridlock in the state's largest metropolitan area.
"As a legislator 30 years ago, that's not something I would have heard here or anywhere else in nonurban Oregon," he said.
Wyatt said Oregon has ignored transportation for too long and is falling behind California and Washington state, which have made significant, tax-funded investments in infrastructure.
"If we do nothing in Oregon this year, the state of Idaho will spend more on road system improvements than Oregon will," he said. "And … Idaho's a state that's about 10 percent our size."
Wyatt said the possibility of a big transportation package only comes along about once every decade, but that Gov. Kate Brown's administration has broached the possibility this year. Oregon has revenue challenges and a projected budget shortfall, but lagging infrastructure, he said, is a weight around the ankles of the regional economy.
"That's a big message from me to you," Wyatt said. "Tax increases aren't any fun. It's a big challenge to be sure. But if we don't continue to make some progress on this front, we're just going to get behind."
'Get to yes'
State Sen. Betsy Johnson explained efforts to pass a large transportation bill amid an estimated $1.8 billion budget shortfall and the voter rejection of a sales tax measure in November that would have raised an estimated $3 billion a year in new revenue.
Johnson helped pass what she called the state's last major transportation package, the Jobs and Transportation Act in 2009, and is part of the Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation and Modernization, a collection of 14 legislators trying to pass another package this year.
"We probably have, conservatively, $20 billion worth of unfulfillable expectations," Johnson, D-Scappoose, said of all the transportation requests she's heard in meetings around the state.
Gas tax increases have failed nine times, Johnson said, and there is a more emboldened environmental community such as cyclists, electric car-drivers and pedestrians who don't contribute to the transportation budget through gas taxes but want a bigger piece of the budget.
"I remain cautiously -- I won't say optimistic -- cautiously encouraged that we will be able to do something," she said. "But we have a number of obstacles in front of us.
"And the message that I have been sharing with whatever group I get to appear in front of is you all have constituencies that you go back and associate your views, and your politics and your activism with. Tell everybody to get their 'get to yes' face on."
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