Oct 26, 2023 - Transit

Budget shortfall could mean snowier roads this winter

An aerial image of a curvy road carved through a forest of snow-capped evergreen trees.

The Santiam Pass. Photo: Courtesy of Oregon Department of Transportation

As Oregon experienced its first significant snowfall this week, state transportation officials warn that a funding deficit will mean fewer snowplows clearing major roads this winter.

Why it matters: Drivers may encounter more setbacks and dangerous driving conditions as the weather gets colder and wetter.

What's happening: Due to the rise of electric vehicles, the Oregon Department of Transportation's (ODOT) budget has taken a drastic hit because it depends on the state's gas tax to fund road maintenance operations — including snowplowing, salting and infrastructure management.

  • The agency predicts it will have a $720 million budget deficit by 2027 if it's unable to come up with additional revenue sources, which could spur widespread cuts to jobs and basic services (like repairing potholes and clearing highways after collisions).

Driving the news: Snow plows and deicers will be deployed less frequently this winter, ODOT spokesperson Don Hamilton told Axios. ODOT will prioritize heavily trafficked interstates like I-205, I-84, I-405 and Highway 26 "to keep freight and commuters moving as effectively as we can," he said.

  • But crews may be able to get to these roads only once a day, compared with as many as four times a day in the past.
  • Meanwhile, less traversed routes like Oregon Route 99W and 99E will see lesser service.

What they're saying: "The public needs to be aware that we're not able to service the roads as frequently as we have in the past," Hamilton said, "so when there's a big storm, it might be a good idea to take an extra day at home."

State of play: Even though Portland partially funds its transportation bureau with the state's gas tax, it doesn't expect a change in service levels this winter, according to Dylan Rivera, a spokesperson for the bureau.

  • "But if the budget cuts we announced in September go through as proposed, we would expect our service levels to be reduced next winter," he said in an email. "We would cut service on our secondary plow routes."
  • Right now, PBOT operates 68 plows citywide.

What's next: Transportation officials, along with Gov. Tina Kotek's office, are currently exploring a variety of options to plug ODOT's budget shortfall — including increased fees at the DMV, tolling, and expanding the voluntary per-mile tax, OReGO.

What we're watching: El Niño. Meteorologists predict the Pacific Northwest may see a warmer, drier and overall milder winter than in years past — so there may be less need for plows anyway.

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