With Congress passing a $1 trillion infrastructure bill the first week of November, the Oregon Department of Transportation already is projecting to take home $1.2 billion for transportation projects across the state. But local officials are taking a wait-and-see approach to figure out how that money may trickle down to cities in Eastern Oregon.
“This is good news,” Pendleton Public Works Director Bob Patterson said.
But questions remain over how and when rural communities will see money from the bill.
Patterson said the city hoped the bill would include money for a new road connecting Highway 11 and Highway 30 on the South Hill to open up new land for housing. The appropriation didn’t make the cut, but the city is still exploring funding options for the road.
Funding a realignment of the Interstate 84 Exit 209 interchange has been something of a white whale for Pendleton city officials. The city has applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation three times and come up short each time.
The city is making a fourth attempt at securing $24.4 million through the grant, which was known as BUILD under the Trump administration and is known as RAISE now. Patterson said the city plans to stay the course in obtaining money for Exit 209 through the grant rather than through the infrastructure bill. Patterson said the city should know by Thanksgiving if it locked down the award.
But like every other city and county in Oregon, there are plenty of other projects Pendleton could fund with extra money from the federal government. Patterson said the city is waiting for word from the Oregon Department of Transportation as to how it will divvy up its $1.2 billion, but if it’s similar to the state gas tax, half would stay with the department, 30% would be split among the counties and the final 20% would be shared between cities.
Mark Morgan, the assistant city manager of Hermiston, said he was frustrated that attention quickly turned to Portland-area projects, including the Interstate 5 widening in the Rose Quarter and a new Columbia River crossing shortly after the infrastructure bill passed through Congress.
Morgan said cities such as Hermiston and Pendleton are in a “federal grant donut hole;” too big to qualify for infrastructure loans under the U.S. Department of Agriculture but too small to compete with large cities applying for high-dollar grants.
And while ODOT’s work with surface roads makes it a natural fit to distribute federal funds for road work, Morgan said he didn’t know how funds would be distributed for other key infrastructure pieces, such as underground utilities.
“There’s no ODOT equivalent for drinking water,” he said.
Morgan said Hermiston has a number of infrastructure projects it could fund with additional federal money, including the Gettman Road/Railway Alternative Transportation Enhancement, or GRATE project, which aims to connect Highway 395 and Highway 207 by replacing a bridge, building a new road, widening existing road and enhancing a railroad crossing. The total cost of the project is roughly $8.6 million, but it’s broken out into four phases so the city doesn’t need to work on it all at once.
In a newsletter to public officials, Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock also sounded a note of caution. While mentioning Umatilla County’s public works director was optimistic the infrastructure bill could help locally with bridges and surface transportation, Murdock was concerned some of the bill’s allocations were too large for a county the size of Umatilla and smaller communities might have trouble matching grant program created through the bill.
And with the bill covering other types of infrastructure, including public transportation, broadband internet and wildfire management, Murdock said the county would need to wait to see how the bill would apply locally.
“In short, we have learned it will be good for Umatilla County, but comparing over half a billion dollars in new investments with what we are likely to see in Oregon and Umatilla County is very likely an illusion,” he wrote.