On March 11 in the Joint Committee on Transportation, Union County Commissioner Paul Anderes; Marion County Public Works Director, Brian Nicholas; Multnomah County Counsel, Courtney Lords; and Association of Oregon Counties (AOC) Legislative Affairs Manager, Mallorie Roberts testified in favor of
HB 3049 during a public hearing. County road departments manage the largest share of public rights of way in the state and provide essential public works services that ensure a safe and reliable multimodal transportation system. This includes managing the location of utility facilities using free permits. Part of this work is utility permit review which includes administration of permits, reviewing relevant traffic control plans, and site inspections before, during, and after construction. Unlike cities, which enjoy broad utility franchise fee authority, counties are currently precluded under ORS 758.010, from charging any fees to recover the costs of permitting utilities operating within the county right of way.

“The expense of administering right of way comes from somewhere, and currently that’s coming from our public works and road department,” said Commissioner Anderes of the current process. “In Union County, we have a total of 589 miles. Of those 589, 418 miles are gravel roads, unpaved. It becomes fairly difficult to find a center line under a gravel road, to figure out exactly where it is and is time consuming, and it draws away from our public works and road department’s time and budget.”

According to a survey conducted by the AOC County Road Program, counties spend an average of 969 hours on utility permit review – an estimated average of $93,985 of county funds each year- which does not include the cost of equipment, vehicle expenses, materials, or Geographic Information System (GIS) support. Dollars spent on permit review come out of the county’s State Highway Fund distributions, which results in reduced resources for critical operation and maintenance activities on county roads.

HB 3049 would give counties the authority to assess fees to recover the costs associated with issuing and administering permits for utility work in the right of way.

Commissioner Anderes further commented, “What we are hoping to do is get some protection for those incredibly fragile budgets.”

The bill also attempts to address the costly delays counties often face during public works projects that require utilities to relocate facilities from the county right of way. Statute requires counties to coordinate with impacted utilities and allows counties to request that a utility relocate to accommodate a public works project, but utilities are not required to do the work of physically relocating. This leaves counties to find appropriate contractors and manage the work of moving the utility’s facility. Utilities are responsible for actual relocation costs but counties currently have no means to recover the significant additional costs that are often incurred due to delay, which can be up to $4,000 per day. HB 3049 would increase available remedies to counties when utilities delay or refuse to relocate their facilities by expressly allowing for the collection liquidated damages.

Despite the progress and significant investments made through HB 2017 (HB 2017), over the past two decades, a combination of dwindling federal funds and timber receipts, increasing deferred maintenance, a trending decrease in gas tax revenues to the State Highway Fund, and limited local funding options have forced severe cuts to county road department budgets.

HB 3049 is not a revenue raising bill, and is certainly not a silver bullet, but it proposes fair and modest cost-recovery tools for counties, which are facing an estimated loss of $60 million in projected State Highway Fund dollars from March 2020 through the end of Fiscal Year 2021, and an additional $40 million by 2025.

 

Contributed by Mallorie Roberts, AOC, Legislative Affairs Manager, Transportation and Community Development