As Oregon lawmakers consider $8.2 billion in added taxes and fees over the next decade for road and bridge improvements, one thing that's not proposed for a new hike is studded tires.
That might seem surprising, since some Oregon Department of Transportation officials say that the studs continue to wreak devastating damage on roads while significantly increasing the costs of fixing and maintaining bridges.
Just take a look at the ruts on I-5, said one top ODOT official, Bruce Johnson.
"If you look at the middle lane between Salem and Portland right now, it wouldn't take anyone with a technical background to figure out that something's going on," said Johnson, the state's top bridge engineer, during an interview earlier this year. When it comes to asphalt, "the studded tires just tear that up," he said. "And a huge proportion of our highway budget goes to mitigating that ... it takes so much highway funding to keep repaving."
The cause of the ruts, he stressed, is "100 percent studded tires," noting that several states have banned metal studs, but not Oregon. "You'll have to ask the legislators why they think that's the right thing to do."
The official ODOT line on studded tires is less dire: a spokesman called their impact "minimal" in the context of overall spending. But leaving out studded tires points to a simple political calculus: The votes of lawmakers in Eastern Oregon — where snow and ice prompt more people to rely on studded tires — will be needed to pass the massive new package.
The decision not to tax studs, however, sets up a contradiction. The proposed funding package would include a new tax on bicycles and cars and require electric and other fuel-efficient vehicles to pay higher registration fees than gas-guzzlers, among other things. In short, an Oregonian will pay less in government fees to use studded tires than to own an electric vehicle that does far less damage to the roads.
Given the efforts to spread costs in the transportation package to bikes and electric vehicles, it's only fair that studded- tire owners pay their own way with a tax, too, said Chris Rall, the Oregon representative of the group Transportation for America.
Portland economist Joe Cortright agrees. Under the current proposal, he said, "The tiered system of fees subsidizes those vehicles that do the most damage to roads, and which pollute the most."
Bob Russell, the longtime lobbyist for the Oregon Trucking Association, says Johnson is "absolutely" right about his assessment of studded tire damage. But given how divisive the topic is, it's not practical to tax them, he said. Past efforts to increase fees on studded tires have gone nowhere in the Legislature.
Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, is one of the lawmakers who most closely tracks ODOT construction, and he shares Johnson's concern about rutted and failing roads. But he thinks studded tires should be far down on the list of causes, a lesser concern than poor management and lower-quality materials used by ODOT.
"There are so many factors" in why the roads are deteriorating, Ferrioli said, adding that singling out studded tires "seems absurd to me."
Stud costs debated
In 2000 Oregon economist Mazen Malik authored a landmark study for ODOT that found that addressing studded-tire damage costs the state an estimated $7 million a year.
In a 2014 update of Malik's work, ODOT used a phone survey to find that studded-tire usage was down. The new estimate: Addressing stud damage costs the state $4 million a year.
Internally, some ODOT officials privately echo Johnson's more negative take on studs. They say that the real cost is far greater then portrayed by the study.
Malik is skeptical, noting that his fndings were based on research and a rigorous method that's since been emulated by other states.
But he confirmed that the studded tire study does not look at the cost of dealing with an entire category of widespread bridge damage that, according to Johnson, the top ODOT bridge engineer, stems directly from studded tires.
Click here to read a sidebar on the bridge cracks cited by Johnson
Specifically, ODOT adds extra cement to its concrete bridge decks to prevent the rutting, "trying to make them more resistant to wear from studded tires," Johnson said.
But the resulting high-performance concrete is prone to premature cracking, which causes bridge decks to not last as long. Addressing the cracks to prevent premature bridge failure requires a lot more maintenance, with regular application of an epoxy-like seal.
Johnson oversees a bridge maintenance program that costs $10 million a year, and much of it is to deal with the cracking problem that has become "pretty widespread," he said. Fighting the studded-tires' effect on bridges has "a direct result in more cracking."
"Oregonians and the Legislature, I don't know how in tune they are with the tradeoff of what it's costing them, and how much other deferred maintenance and improvements in highways result from funneling such a large proportion of our money into studded tires," Johnson said.