Road funding facing bumpy future


The rollercoaster that is the roads budget in Wallowa County has hit bottom and is starting another climb.

Thanks to new vehicle dealer privilege, public transportation payroll, bicycle and gas taxes and increased registration and license fees, the Oregon Department of Transportation will have double its usual budget for the upcoming 2021-2024 period, raising the four-year total to $2.4 billion.

A proportionally increased amount will trickle into Wallowa County. It will take seven years, said County Commissioner Susan Roberts, but eventually Wallowa County will be getting a bit more than $500,000 a year from the state.

That money is meant to make up for the loss of timber receipts and then Secure Rural Schools money. However, $500,000 a year still does not match the approximately $800,000 per year the county was receiving from the federal schools program two years ago, Roberts said.

The county received around $825,000 into the road department in 2016, Roberts said. This year Wallowa County received around $200,000 in Statewide Transportation Improvement Program money and $61,000 in 2015 timber receipts that were held over pending congressional approval.

Timber receipts are historically split between schools and roads, so not all of that $61,000 went to roads.

“It’s a considerable change,” Roberts said. “We lost the timber revenues, we went to SRS, and then lost that, and now over the next seven years, the ODOT money should build us back to $500,000. But that’s still $300,000 less than we had.”

As a result, county projects, such as completion of the 39 Road have been placed on the back burner. The road, also known as Wallowa Mountain Loop, is 45 miles of paved winding road on steep side slopes.

It connects the northern leg of the Hells Canyon Byway, Hwy. 82 from La Grande to Joseph, with the southern leg of the byway, Hwy. 86, from Baker City to Halfway and the Hells Canyon and Brownlee dams of the Snake River.

“We still have the hotplate on, but not as high as we had it,” said Roberts.

Some new money allocated to special infrastructure projects will also be available from ODOT in the coming years. Whether special projects will be identified in Wallowa County has not been determined, according to Tom Strandberg, spokesman for ODOT Region 5. ODOT will be making those decisions over the next four years.

“A lot of the money is going to go to preservation and maintenance,” said Strandberg. “If you have a project that is hot on your mind, make sure it’s on the county’s needs list. The first place we look when we’re allocating special project money is the high priority projects on the county plan.”

Past special projects in Wallowa County have included construction of the Automated Weather Observation System and runway restoration at Joseph State Airport and the Community Connection bus barn in Enterprise.

Still on the list and expected to be completed this coming summer are the $5.5 million Minam curve and bank stabilization project; the $1.8 million construction of the bike path from Joseph to the north end of Wallowa Lake; and the $900,000 Wallowa River Bear Creek bridge project.

The Minam and bike path projects are expected to go to bid this month.

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