Oregon is still facing major infrastructure issues, according to reports. In this article, we’re going to discuss the current state of Oregon’s infrastructure problems. We will also address the reasons why these infrastructure issues remain problems despite more than a trillion dollars being spent on “shovel ready” jobs in Obama’s first term and far more money being promised over the years.
The Severity of the Problem
Back in 2006, an estimated thirty billion dollars’ worth of public infrastructure was identified for needed repairs, upgrades, replacement or expansion. Little of this maintenance backlog has been taken care of because the public is used to its slow and steady state of decay, while other projects and budget line items end up considered a higher priority. This isn’t unique to Oregon, since there are an estimated two trillion dollars of unresolved infrastructure needs yet to be addressed.
Oregon has roughly 7,700 bridges and about 75,000 miles of roadway. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Report Card gave Oregon a C. This is better than the national average of a C- but still far below what Oregonians want. Around a quarter of bridges in Oregon are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Of the 60,000 public roads in Oregon, about 8,000 are major roads. Six percent of these major roads are in poor condition, while the rate of rural roads is even higher.
The Lake Oroville Dam’s near failure brought attention to seven dams in Oregon that are in unsatisfactory condition. These dams are located in Lincoln County, Malheur County, Curry County, Josephine County and Crook County. They are all rated unsatisfactory for safety while posing a high hazard to the public. Sixty one dams are considered highly hazardous if they failed, but weren’t as bad as these seven.
Oregon’s drinking water systems needs over five billion dollars of new infrastructure over the next twenty years. Wastewater systems need nearly four billion dollars of infrastructure investment over the next twenty years. Neither of these figures takes population growth into account, simply repairing, replacing and maintaining the existing infrastructure as it ages and degrades.
It is estimated that Oregon’s schools have two and a half billion dollars in unmet infrastructure needs, while public parks have about twenty million in unmet needs.
When states decide how to spend infrastructure funds, they allocate it based on the perceived need and general support it creates. This is why highways, bridges and parks are built in suburban areas and left to crumble in rural and inner city ones. In other cases, you get high speed trains built on low-traffic routes because the project sounds good, even if it does no good. Building trains to connect towns sucks up money that could have funded buses in poor communities, but bike paths in the upscale downtown neighborhoods and suburbs garner votes and fundraising come campaign season. You’ll get more votes in the next election when voters are thrilled at the sight of a new community splash park, whereas they are accustomed to periodic water main breaks and mediocre tasting drinking water.
Then there is the bias toward new projects versus maintaining existing bridges. No one cheers potholes filled in or existing bridges repaired. However, you get great photo opportunities cutting the ribbon for a new construction, even if it costs as much as repairing ten existing bridges.
The priorities of voters also determine where money is allocated each budget cycle, and they tend to focus on their own pocketbooks.
Roads that remain in good repair like Interstate 5 do so because of the high concentration of manufacturing firms in the Willamette Valley; bureaucrats and voters demand those roads remain drivable because their jobs and ability to get what they need depends on it.
And the same desire to save money in their own pockets explains why municipalities are reluctant to raise water bills to pay for pipe and sewer replacements.
Environmentalism Getting in the Way
Dams that are located near urban areas, or are the main source of drinking water for major cities like Salem, are in better repair, while those that are in rural areas have not been considered a priority. In other cases, environmentalists have actively interfered with dam maintenance because they want to remove the dams and restore the rivers to a wild state, regardless of the literal cost to do so or impact on rural communities.
In rural Oregon and California, environmentalists also affected the logging industry that provided decent paying jobs and tax revenue. This has left rural communities with a declining tax base as people move away and property values plummet from lack of demand.
Environmentalists, while full of good intentions, are having a negative effect on the local economy for many rural areas reliant on resource extraction and thus their ability to pay for repairs to existing infrastructure. This is why 17% of Oregon’s workforce is rural but only 12% of its jobs are located in rural areas. The lack of opportunity has driven many young people from these areas to the cities looking for work, causing the remaining population to age faster than the state average. This is why the retirement age population in rural Oregon has risen by a quarter since 2015 while the working age population declined. And as there are fewer workers relative to retirees, the community’s tax base declines. In places like the Klamath Basin, where water to farmers was turned off, the local economy cratered as soon as cattle and crops died.
Lifestyle communities like Hood River and Bend made the transition from rural town to a small urban community, now making more money from recreational opportunities than resource extraction. However, few towns can make that transition due to limited demand for such places – and few could do so now as roads, water and other infrastructure declines. For example, Prineville is expanding its existing mountain bike trail network. But if you cannot take care of key needs like water, waste and power, building new bike trails is a luxury. Rural areas certainly lack the resources for new infrastructure beyond the rare federal grant, and for that they are competing with every other rural community in the nation.
Only six rural counties in Oregon have recovered from the Great Recession, though their overall employment rates and private employment rates remain below the state average. And four of them were along the Columbia River and the major freight corridor that runs alongside it. Access to this critical transportation and freight infrastructure helped lessen the impact of the Great Recession in these areas, and the low cost of labor and real estate in these areas has led to manufacturers slowly relocating to these areas. However, most of rural Oregon is completely isolated from the Columbia River corridor and Interstate 5, severely limiting their ability to attract manufacturers or tourists to diversify their economies.
Legacy Infrastructure for Communications
In the United States, most internet traffic flows through fiber optic or copper cables. The last mile of the internet connection flows through twisted pair and coaxial cables designed to handle telephone or, in some cases, video services like traditional cable TV. This infrastructure isn’t designed to handle streaming audio, much less streaming video. Because our internet infrastructure relies mostly on outdated technology, nations that are new to the internet get brand new, and thus faster, wired connections or leapfrog the wired connection for fast 4G wireless internet.
Another reason most consumers in the United States have slower average internet connections than nations like South Korea is lack of competition. About half of American homes and businesses have just two connections for broadband internet connections, and for the faster DSL and T1 connections, they have just one choice. For these areas, switching to a VoIP business phone service may enable them to reduce their reliance on traditional phone companies and save money on communication services.
If you live in a rural area, you may not have access to a faster internet connection at all without traveling to the local library or paying for a satellite internet connection. 55% of residents in rural Oregon have access to broadband internet while 94% of urban dwellers do; though this sounds bad, Oregon’s digital divide is actually better than the national average. However, this does prevent internet based businesses from taking off in rural areas.
Upgrading the coaxial connections to every home in the nation would cost billions of dollars.
Without competition, these telecommunication companies have no reason to upgrade their infrastructure and cut into their profit margins. In rural areas, the costs are truly prohibitive without switching to wireless connectivity, since it costs several thousand dollars per mile to connect someone to fiber optic cables. However, switching to VoIP business phone service through a high quality wireless internet connection solves both the internet and voice communications bottleneck.
Oregon has a major backlog of unresolved infrastructure problems. This is rooted in the nationwide emphasis on new and novel infrastructure in the cities versus the necessary but too often neglected repairs to water, wastewater and power generating facilities. Oregon’s digital divide isn’t as bad as the national average, but the lack of high speed internet limits the ability of rural communities devastated by the loss of resource extraction jobs to diversify their economies. Oregon’s rural communities are pulled down by the job losses brought on by environmentalists’ demands and neglect because of their lack of electoral clout, though a few along major transit corridors do better.