By Pat Caldwell
SALEM – Malheur County moved to the head of the line at the Oregon Legislature last week as five county residents were among the first to testify on an ambitious $8.2 billion transportation proposal.
Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce, onion farmer Reid Saito, Ontario City Manager Adam Brown, Vale City Manager Lynn Findley and Kit Kamo, executive director of the Snake River Economic Development Alliance, were the fifth group to go before the Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation and Modernization Monday night.
The time before the panel was by invitation only. The five residents were the first non-governmental group to testify on the subject. Findley testified by phone while the other four were at the hearing in Salem.
The massive transportation plan is designed to tackle an array of challenges such as antiquated bridges and roads through several funding mechanisms, including a hike in the gas tax. For Malheur County, the plan is especially significant as it includes $26 million for a rail facility that is critical to keep local agriculture producers competitive. A transload railway facility – where farm products are trucked in and then loaded onto special trains - is also projected to create jobs for the county.
Securing money for the project has been a key goal for state Rep. Cliff Bentz, who is the co-vice chair of the Transportation Preservation and Modernization Committee. Bentz also was instrumental in ensuring the five residents were invited to testify Monday.
“They did a wonderful job in expressing why the transload facility would be transformational to the community,” Bentz said.
The invite-only scenario, though, involved a degree of chance, said Bentz.
“The co-chairs were trying to decide how to set up the hearings last week. I went up to my office and who was there but Adam Brown. He had come over to talk about the facility. I said, ‘Hey, your timing could not be better. Let’s see if we can get a panel of people over here,’” said Bentz.
From there, Bentz worked to get the five to Salem, or at least have them testify by phone.
Brown said he felt honored to be asked to testify and pointed out the $26 million earmarked for the facility is just a starting point.
“As we line up other sources it could go up to $40 million. We could leverage money from Biz Oregon. The committee was very receptive. There is a lot of support for that whole package. I felt good about my testimony, based on the feedback and the energy in the committee. There was no negativity,” said Brown.
Biz Oregon is the state’s economic development agency.
Findley said he told the panel he is a strong supporter of the transportation package.
“I will support the increase in taxes and users fees,” said Findley. “I mean, you got to pay for it. Do I want to pay more gas tax? No. Will I? Yes.”
Kamo said the trip to Salem was important because it made a statement about how crucial the rail facility will be for the county. Kamo said her sense after the hearing is the transportation upgrade plan has plenty of support.
“I was surprised at the variety of entities that testified. It just wasn’t one part of the state and I never heard anyone against it,” Kamo said.
Bentz said the Saito’s testimony about the proposed rail project was especially relevant.
“He was asked if the negotiations with Union Pacific Railroad were going to work out and he indicated the railroad was enthusiastic supporting the project. That is essential. We have to have Union Pacific support or the project won’t happen,” said Bentz.
For Findley the focus of his testimony was a state program that helps fund local transportation projects to cities with under 5,000 residents. The program currently provides $1 million – half of it from gas tax revenue and half from the state highway fund – each year through the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Cities under 5,000 residents can apply to the program each year but only a select number receive grant monies. That’s because there are about 160 small cities that via for the $1 million allotment. Many cities must wait up to 10 years to receive the grant money.
But as part of the proposed transportation package, the program would get $5 million annually. While the transportation department would continue to supervise the program, projects will be selected by an advisory board of small city officials. With the boost of $5 million that long wait period will be over because more money will be available, Bentz said.
“We just moved it up 500 percent so it should drop that 10 years wait down to one. That was the whole idea, to put more money in the pot because our small cities have such a need,” said Bentz.
Findley said the program pays dividends.
“We had one (grant) last year and used it to pave B Street. It is a huge deal and it is something I’ve worked on for years,” said Findley.
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