SALEM – Travis Brouwer had given up on Congress Friday afternoon.
Brouwer, an assistant director of the Oregon Department of Transportation, was eager to see the federal infrastructure package pass. That would mean billions for Oregon in the coming years, and the state agency was already planning what to do with it.
But Brouwer thought the pivotal vote was once again going to be put off, and he quit tracking each development. He was reading a Nancy Drew novel to his daughter when he got a text alerting him that, in fact, the U.S. House had passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“Nancy Drew went out the window,” Brouwer said.
Brouwer and others at the state agency worked through the weekend to put in motion what they have been planning for weeks — how to put new federal money to work in Oregon in the next five years.
According to Congressional assessments, Oregon will get $3.4 billion for highway work and $268 million for repairing bridges. Another $747 million is coming to bolster public transit.
The work will start next year, and Brouwer and his team are certain Oregonians will see improvements across the state.
“What I hope you see is the average Oregonian has more ways to get around, that it’s easier to hop on a bus or hop on a bike or walk safely through your neighborhood,” Brouwer said in a Sunday interview with the Capital Chronicle.
Congestion should ease in the Portland urban area. Statewide, “You’re going to be able to move about more freely,” he said.
That includes fixing more of those tire-eating potholes and zeroing in on improving roadways with a high incidence of fatal vehicle crashes.
Brouwer and Cooper Brown, another assistant director at ODOT, have been leading a team at the agency since September, anticipating the infrastructure package would pass at some point. That wasn’t because they relish more meetings. The calendar is partly their master. Brouwer said the money will flow quickly to Oregon, and that means compressing the usual time for planning, engineering and building highway projects.
A project typically can take four years to go from Oregon Transportation Commission approval to opening day.
“We’ve got more like four months” to get ready for construction, Brouwer said. “We want to get projects out on the ground quickly so people can see the benefits.”
An estimated $100 million in work has to be committed by next September to meet federal budgeting requirements. The state already has detailed strategic plans that map out transportation needs for years. But the fresh infusion of federal money means adding other projects.
About $350 to $400 million comes with few strings attached, meaning the Transportation Commission and the agency can decide where that money goes. Brouwer expects it to flow into fixing and maintaining roads, highways and bridges, expanding transportation options that also improve equity and intermodal access, and enhancing highways to ease congestion and speed commercial traffic to sustain the state’s economy.
At least $200 million over the next five years will be shared with local governments to help with roads, bridges, community paths and safety projects.
The agency also will manage millions coming for climate-related projects. Oregon, for instance, is appropriated $52 million over five years to install more electric vehicle charging stations.
“ODOT recently completed a needs analysis for transportation electrification, and we are already making investments in EV charging, such as recapitalizing the West Coast Electric Highway and creating a new community charging program,” Brouwer said.
Brouwer said there’s also funding to otherwise work to reduce emissions in the transport section, including low and no emission buses.
Improving safety on Oregon’s roads will get a $50 million boost as well, he said. The agency will add more “safety countermeasures” to help drivers get from one point to another safely. Such projects, he said, range from adding rumble strips to alert straying motorists, adding more emphatic signage on roads with significant curves, and providing more guardrails to keep traffic on the road.
ODOT intends to turn to its advisory committees to tap into public ideas for how the money can be spent. The agency has 12 regional groups and then additional committees focusing on areas such as bicyclists and pedestrians, freight, and public transportation. Brouwer said the agency also anticipates holding a public webinar in December to explain potential use of the money and listen to public feedback.
In the meantime, he said the agency is assessing whether it has enough staff and how much it will expand the use of outside engineering and other professional services. The state, he notes, competes with private industry for employees, and that could be a more significant challenge in the current labor market.
The Transportation Department already invests about $2 million a year to encourage women and people of color to enter the construction industry.
“These are great jobs,” Brouwer said. “They pay extremely well.”
And the expansion of construction comes as the global supply chain remains constricted, creating shortages or delays in getting materials and driving up prices.
“We expect that will be an issue,” he said. “We will be watching inflation very, very carefully.”