Life in one small Oregon mountain town is improving partly because of a $250,000 transportation grant.
“It’s just a 500-foot stretch (of road), but it goes right through the center of town,” Detroit city council member Greg Shepphard said of a road widening project that means pedestrians will be able to stroll through the heart of this lake town that has taken its share of lumps lately.
“We’ve been recovering from a 2020 forest fire that took about 80% of the buildings here,” Shepphard said. “The Small City Allotment grant made possible a project that will help in our recovery.” With a year-round population of only about 200, Detroit relies heavily on tourists who have vacation homes or come to campgrounds to enjoy the surrounding Cascade Mountains and the lake formed by the Detroit Dam.
The $5 million annual Small City Allotment program makes grants to municipalities of fewer than 5,000 residents to improve streets, roads, intersections and sidewalks that are inadequate for the people they serve or are in unsafe condition, according to SCA program manager Deanna Edgar. In some small cities, a lack of sidewalks has meant that people in wheelchairs or other mobility equipment have had to use roadways to move around town.
In 2017, the Oregon legislature passed a historic funding package that created the program specifically for small cities that typically do not have the money to repair local roads. To include as many cities as possible, Edgar said, no local matching funds are necessary to qualify.
“By the end of our last project solicitation, we had an unprecedented participation rate of 84%, meaning that 134 of the 160 eligible cities either had an active SCA project, which precluded them from applying again, or had applied,” Edgar added.
The annual statewide allotment for the program is $5 million, although if money is not spent the previous year because a project was canceled or used fewer dollars than estimated, the unspent money carries over to the next year.
Grant money available for the 2024 program amounts to $5.7 million. To illustrate the importance of the program to small cities, Edgar said the Oregon Department of Transportation received 69 applications requesting a total of $16.5 million.
ODOT’s annual solicitation for proposed projects typically accepts applications between June 1 and July 31 of the previous year. Cities can request as much as $250,000 for a project.
Sheppard said his tiny lake city requested $100,000 for its project. However, with inflation and the cost of transporting materials, ODOT increased the maximum grant request to $250,000. “I got a phone call asking if we wanted to cancel the $100,000 request and take our chances on getting $250,000. I talked with our city council, and they thought that sounded like a pretty good deal.”
The change made all the difference in the outcome of the grant request. An ODOT representative went to Detroit to discuss the request and look at the condition of the roadway in question. “Highway 22 cuts right through the middle of Detroit. As we were walking the roadway, a big gravel truck came barreling through, almost knocking us off the road,” Sheppard said.
Within months, Detroit’s grant request was approved to widen the 500-foot stretch of the roadway and add a walk zone for pedestrians.
By the end of 2023, the asphalt roadway had been widened, and all that was left to do was stripe a pedestrian zone on one side of the road.
Crosswalks were an area of concern for Wood Village, a one-square-mile suburb of Portland. City manager Greg Dirks explained that the busiest roads in the village are maintained by the county. However, for the safety of local pedestrians, the village wanted to upgrade its crosswalks on the one mile of road through the village. The answer was to install rapid flashing beacons (RRFB), a traffic control device that flashes a yellow light and a pulsing sound when a pedestrian is using the crosswalk located in the middle of a block or where there is no traffic control device.
For the village of 4,500 residents, coming up with the money to create three safe crosswalks was a stretch. “Knowing that the county had way more projects than money to pay for them,” he said, the village looked into applying for one of the early $100,000 SCA grants.
Dirks said Wood Village and Multnomah County had to forge an agreement to allow the village to construct the crosswalks and for the county to maintain them. ODOT “was great to work with through the whole process,” he added.
In fact, Wood Village has applied for another grant to complete a fourth crosswalk in the one-mile stretch of roadway.
The ODOT program is funded by a bicycle excise tax that was created in 2017 when the transportation funding bill passed. It is a flat tax of $15, which is collected when a consumer purchases a bicycle that is $200 or more and is exclusively human-powered or electric-assisted.
In addition to making it possible for small cities to complete some long overdue projects, the state has made the application process as simple as possible by recognizing the limited number of staff people in small municipalities and the limited resources small towns may have to start a project.
“The program offers an advance payment of 50% of the award amount upon execution of the agreement (with the state). Without this help, several cities would not have the funding to get their projects off the ground,” Edgar said. The balance is paid when the project is complete. These concessions are particular to the SCA grants to make it possible for small cities to complete their projects.
“Generally, our grant programs require the recipients to provide a percentage of the overall cost, such as matching funds, and do not offer any advance payments,” she noted. Sometimes a project, such as the Wood Village crosswalks, will cost more than the grant. Dirks said Wood Village was able to pay the additional money to complete the three crosswalks. At other times, a project will cost less than expected, in which case the leftover funds will revert to the state of Oregon and will be added to the next cycle of grants.