Commentary

One key to making good use of new federal money in Oregon is public-private partnerships

The state’s business community can help get the most out of every federal dollar newly flowing to Oregon for infrastructure

November 24, 2021 6:30 am
Oregon highway work

A federal infrastructure bill passed by Congress on Friday, Nov. 5, opens the way for major projects in Oregon. (Oregon Department of Transportation)

The scope of the recently passed federal infrastructure bill and its myriad investments is unlike anything we have seen for generations. The funding levels are high, the areas of investment many, and the timelines unknown.

What is clear is that the bipartisan infrastructure bill is good for Oregon. Very good.

Robust infrastructure investments in Oregon – and throughout the region ­– will spark meaningful economic activity with both direct and indirect benefits for Oregonians. The selected projects will create family wage jobs more immediately, and the result of those projects will have a lasting, positive impact on long-term job creation and growth, not to mention the permanent improvements these projects will create for so many communities throughout the state.

To make the most of this historic opportunity, state and local leaders must draw upon the expertise of Oregon’s employers not only to better understand how to get large-scale projects done, including through successful public-private partnerships, but also to understand what is essential to those who drive this state’s economy.

After all, the health of Oregon’s economy is directly linked to the success and stability of Oregon’s private sector employers.

It is widely reported that Oregon will receive more than $5.3 billion from this package. While the vast majority of the funding is earmarked for bridges and roads, significant investments in broadband, water, wildfire prevention, airports, cybersecurity, and other important items should not be overlooked. Again, the opportunities are many, and Oregon Business & Industry is especially excited about a few in particular:

  • The ability for traffic to flow across the Columbia River is not just a Portland issue, it is a statewide issue. We must replace the aged interstate bridge in a manner that increases capacity and improves safety. Oregonians and Washingtonians need to get to work, and goods need to move from place to place without the delays of smog-emitting traffic jams. We must do whatever we can to ensure that Oregon continues to have a thriving import and export economy.
  • The opportunities for additional transportation investments are also significant. Throughout Oregon there are regional highways and interchanges where investments can vastly improve the flow of traffic, reducing congestion and pollution and increasing safety and overall quality of life.
  • Expanding broadband capacity throughout the state will establish or improve connectivity for many, particularly Oregonians who are unserved or underserved by existing infrastructure. Expanding access to broadband through public-private partnerships will also remove barriers to remote educational opportunities and increase capacity for businesses throughout the state.
  • Investment in water infrastructure projects will allow us to address challenges associated with drought and other significant vulnerabilities related to wildfire and earthquake risks. Investments in waterways and river systems will make them more resilient and efficient.

Further, rebuilding dilapidated city water systems will ensure Oregonians have clean and safe drinking water that can keep pace with supply needs as the state’s population grows.

  • Boosting the reliability, efficiency, and resiliency with investments to the electric grid will help all utilities tackle the growing climate change impacts of ice storms, heat waves, and increased fire risks and better serve customers across the state.
  • As the state and local communities embark on developing and prioritizing projects, we must keep a watchful eye on a few important things.

First, these are one-time funds. Any investments must be lasting and sustainable and not require further or regular infusions of funding that doesn’t already exist.

Second, Oregon must adopt a more entrepreneurial approach to getting projects underway. If we don’t, opportunity will pass us by, costs will increase, and the benefits of this massive investment will be delayed or negated.

We must modernize and streamline permitting, leverage dollars between jurisdictions toward even more impactful regional solutions, and ensure investment in planning that truly considers long-term needs and impacts.

We must learn and adopt best practices from other states. We must also look at workforce development now to ensure we are developing both short- and longer-term needs, even if a project won’t be shovel-ready for months.

Oregon Business & Industry and its member companies stand ready to help state and local leaders navigate these extraordinary and highly complicated investments.

We and look forward to the exciting new opportunities they will bring to our state, and the jobs they will create along the way and for decades to come.

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Angela Wilhelms

Angela Wilhelms is the president and CEO of Oregon Business & Industry, Oregon’s largest general business organization, representing approximately 1,600 members from a wide variety of sectors and all parts of the state.

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