BY JOHN PINKSTAFF
Traffic congestion from Portland to the Oregon Coast along the Highway 99W corridor is steadily increasing. I vividly recall sitting in traffic on the way to the wine country or the beach, thinking there must be a cost-effective way to complete transportation projects in tight economic times.
Traffic congestion has substantial environmental and economic costs, and failure to invest adequately in transportation improvements will lead to travel delay and associated reductions in market access. In addition, it may result in a potential income loss valued at $1.7 billion annually in Oregon by 2025, with a loss of 16,000 ongoing jobs, according to “The Cost of Highway Limitations and Traffic Delay to Oregon’s Economy,” a 2007 study prepared by the Boston-based Economic Development Research Group, Inc.
Transportation-budget shortfalls have prevented traditional government funding for major infrastructure projects. The Newberg-Dundee Bypass that the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) designed to improve mobility and reduce congestion would cost nearly $1 billion. There is $192 million in stimulus funds for phase one but no current or projected funding source for phases two or three.
However, there is a possible solution to this problem: a public-private partnership to deliver a limited-access highway from I-5 to the west end of McMinnville, paid for with private funds and given to the state after the private debt is paid for with user fees.
Public-private partnerships are not a new concept. They consist of an agreement between a private entity and a governmental agency for the development, financing, maintenance or operation of public infrastructure such as transportation facilities (e.g., bridges, highways, airports, seaports). A partnership infrastructure project typically provides for acceptance of a private investment in the project, sharing of resources and the means of providing the project, and cooperation in designing, developing and implementing the project. Partnerships are commonly used for private-sector delivery of on-time, on-budget, commercially viable transportation facilities in Europe, Latin America, Australia, Canada and the U.S.
State laws have authorized partnerships for transportation projects since 2003 (Oregon Innovative Partnerships Program, ORS 367.800 to 367.826), and for tollway projects since 1995 (ORS Chapter 383, and OAR 731-070-005 to 731-070-0360).
Building upon existing law, House Bill 2696, currently before the Oregon legislature, would establish partnership methodology to deliver a specific transportation project: the “Coastal Parkway.” This parkway would be a 12- to 14-mile limited-access, high-safety standard highway from I-5 to McMinnville, paid for with private funds and tolls over a 30-year period, after which parkway ownership would be transferred to the state.
The estimated construction cost of the Coastal Parkway is $280 million to $340 million, using private financing and design-build with Oregon-based contractors and designers. Construction could begin as early as 2015 and finish as early as 2016.
The private entity must establish financial capacity; conduct environmental studies; design, construct and operate the facility paid for by user fees (tolling); reimburse ODOT’s expenses and transfer ownership to the state within 30 years, after which tolling will be eliminated. ODOT would use its condemnation power, if necessary, for right-of-way acquisition, and it will be an ODOT project for purposes of compliance with laws.
This is not forced tolling. Motorists would be able to choose between the tolled Coastal Parkway and the current non-tolled Highway 18 and 99W routes. No existing highways would be tolled.
Building state highway infrastructure through a partnership provides an option for bringing private investment into the transportation system to help offset shortfalls in governmental resources by shifting elements of funding, management, operations and financial risks to the private sector. At the same time, the state continues to play an important role through project evaluation, selection, permitting and oversight, and, in the end, receives public ownership of the project.