The Times, Nov 21, 2007, Updated Nov 21, 2007

Since it was launched in 2002, the Oregon Business Plan has done a good job of putting a statewide spotlight on the need for high-quality jobs, well-funded schools, stable state finances, health care reform and sustainability.

Along the way, community, government and business leaders have collectively made these issues their priorities.

The result has been a more successful Oregon. The state’s economy is far better than during the depressing days of 2001 and 2002.

When the Oregon Leadership Summit convenes Dec. 3 in Portland to unveil the 2008 Oregon Business Plan, we hope that after a bit of celebration for past achievements, Oregon’s leaders will quickly expand their attention — and commitment — to an issue or two more.

One such priority is Oregon’s decaying transportation system, which is becoming an onerous economic liability and increasingly threatens local residents’ quality of life and the environment.

It’s not that business leaders haven’t called attention to Oregon’s transportation troubles before.

A report released in March, prepared by a Boston economist and funded by partners in the Oregon Business Plan and some public agencies, stated that without significant and strategic investments in the state’s transportation system, statewide travel delays would grow by another 150,000 hours each day through 2025.

Overall, the report estimated statewide travel delays would increase to 1 million hours per day and would cost Oregon’s economy and citizens $1.7 billion per year and 16,000 jobs.

While transportation matters weren’t a major priority before, times have changed.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has said that transportation will be his second-highest priority for the 2009 Oregon Legislature — just behind education. Legislative leaders also are calling for an expanded focus on transportation.

The attention is well warranted — and not just because Oregon’s economy is nationally and internationally trade-dependent. The state’s economy and its pride are fueled by Oregon’s quality of life, by its tourism and by vibrant, unique communities. And each is threatened by mounting transportation troubles.

The state’s environment suffers as well, due to the fumes of idling vehicles stuck in congestion — and because some transportation improvements that could help the environment languish without funding.

Oregon’s leaders should act with urgency, knowing that surveys indicate that the public’s concern about transportation trails only its interest in education and health care.

Yet without immediate attention, other transportation breakdowns are in store. More local governments say they can’t wait on Salem to act and instead hope to persuade voters to fund local transportation solutions.

While these community-based efforts address important needs, a hodgepodge of localized funding solutions is problematic. They do not link Oregon and instead pose the threat of a balkanized state where some communities enjoy better, safer transportation systems than others.

The Dec. 3 leadership summit itself won’t solve Oregon’s transportation woes.

But it should serve to mobilize leaders from throughout the state to work together now to provide for a well-connected, stably funded Oregon transportation system — one that reliably serves the state’s economy, along with its citizens, communities and the environment well into the 21st century.