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Republican legislators call for ODOT director to quit over emissions claims

Posted by on November 19th, 2015 at 11:55 am

ODOT Director Matt Garrett
Matt Garrett has led ODOT since 2005.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

A few weeks after left-leaning former Metro president David Bragdon all but called for the firing of Oregon’s top transportation official, legislative Republicans are calling for it explicitly.

Oregon Department of Transportation Director Matt Garrett is facing criticism from both sides over the incident, earlier this year, when his office and Gov. Kate Brown’s temporarily claimed that tens of millions of dollars in freeway investments would be part of reducing long-run carbon emissions in Oregon by more than 2 million metric tons.

“Director Garrett must resign effective immediately so ODOT can begin repairing its broken credibility and we can move forward with new negotiations to finally fix Oregon’s roads and bridges.”
— Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day)

When Garrett later retreated from that claim at a state Senate subcommittee meeting, it effectively killed a proposed bipartisan compromise that would have hiked state gas taxes by two cents and thrown out a forthcoming low-carbon fuel standard that’s expected to drive up Oregon gas prices but reduce greenhouse emissions per gallon burned.

As we wrote at the time, claims that freeway investments are energy savers usually rely on the false assumption that more free-access lanes reduce idling. That may happen temporarily, but they also tend to induce people to drive more and live further from their destinations.

According to emails acquired by Republican state legislators under the state’s open-records act, Garrett told two of Brown’s own top advisors about possible problems with the greenhouse gas reduction claims two weeks before Garrett finally told legislators that they were bad.

One of those gubernatorial advisors, energy policy advisor Margi Hoffmann, has since been replaced. The other, Karmen Fore, remains Brown’s top transportation advisor.

Garrett was appointed to lead ODOT in 2005 by former Gov. Ted Kulongoski.


Here’s the account from Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day):

“In June, following the implosion of transportation negotiations, I demanded Governor Brown immediately request the resignation of Director Garrett due to gross incompetency at best and dishonest manipulation at worst,” said Ferrioli. “Whether Director Garrett knew the numbers ODOT provided the workgroup were wrong or he simply failed to provide the updated numbers in his possession, his decision to surprise workgroup members with new numbers in a public hearing without any advance warning led to the demise of a critical, bipartisan transportation infrastructure package for Oregonians that would have resulted in real carbon reduction. Director Garrett must resign effective immediately so ODOT can begin repairing its broken credibility and we can move forward with new negotiations to finally fix Oregon’s roads and bridges.” …

Despite being aware of clear inconsistencies related to the GHG reduction estimates, Director Garrett failed to have ODOT staff vet the numbers until less than 24 hours before he was scheduled to testify before the Senate Sustainable Transportation Committee.

At a City Club address last month, former Metro president Bragdon also cited “incompetence or dishonesty at the highest levels of ODOT” and later criticized Garrett by title.

Bragdon, who now runs a public transit think tank, tangled with Garrett and his subordinates for years over the proposed Columbia River Crossing freeway-rail expansion. So did some Republicans in Oregon’s legislature.

Governor’s office was also involved

bike legislation discussion at PDOT
Karmen Fore, now Gov. Brown’s top
transportation policy advisor, in 2007.

At The Oregonian, Ian Kullgren has a good summary of the twisting events that led up to the June 24 hearing:

The new emails show that Garrett had doubts by June 10. He sent an email to Margi Hoffmann, then Brown’s energy policy adviser, and Karmen Fore, Brown’s transportation policy adviser, saying the reduction estimates were 0.87 million metric tons — not the 2.02 million he’d been telling lawmakers — over 10 years.

The number mattered because the transportation deal proposed to repeal Oregon’s newly approved clean-fuels program and replace it with new carbon-reduction measures. House Democrats and environmentalists were already in revolt. If the new measures looked to be significantly less effective, all bets would be off.

Hoffmann replied, however, that the new number would still be enough to meet the goal.

“That gets us there,” wrote Hoffmann, whom Brown, a Democrat, went on to replace in September.

Other emails show department officials scrambling to figure out a correct estimate. Brian Dunn, a planning analyst for the department, notified Garrett that the 2.02 million number was wrong in an email sent at 12:16 p.m. the day of the hearing.

The Transportation Department had kept repeating the 2.02 number in official estimates until the day of the hearing. Then at the hearing itself, Garrett offered an even lower number: 0.43 million metric tons.

Further complicating the ethics of this situation: during most of the two weeks that Garrett was apparently keeping his opinions from legislators, legislators were keeping their opinions from the public. A bipartisan “gang of eight” legislators from both houses, plus legislative leaders and the governor’s office, negotiated a deal behind closed doors. Informed in part by ODOT’s inaccurate projections, they aimed to unveil and pass the compromise bill within days.

But only after the deal went public and the state’s projections were subject to general scrutiny outside the legislature did Garrett concede publicly that the numbers were wrong.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

NOTE: At BikePortland, we love your comments. We love them so much that we devote many hours every week to read them and make sure they are productive, inclusive, and supportive. That doesn't mean you can't disagree with someone. It means you must do it with tact and respect. If you see an inconsiderate or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan and Michael

21 Comments
  • Opus the Poet November 19, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    So the highway guy lied about highways making things better, and people are surprised?

    Recommended Thumb up 20

    • paikiala November 20, 2015 at 10:33 am

      People often fear being wrong and making mistakes to the point of making even larger ones, as in this case. Leadership includes honesty, and the person that acknowledges errors up front usually suffers much less than the person to tries to hide them and gets caught doing so.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

  • David Sweet November 19, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    It’s about time! I thought Garrett’s head would roll after he pissed away tens of millions on the CRC fiasco. Someone has to take the hit for this one, and I somehow doubt that it will be our Governor.

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  • 9watts November 19, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    The problem goes so much deeper (and I don’t mean just at ODOT but) with this sort of wishful accounting in general. There’s very little oversight, and no institutional checks to discourage this kind of claim, whether it is packaged in the Oregon Global Warming Commission’s reports, in the Oregon Dept of Energy’s ten year forecast, in the Northwest Power Plan, or anywhere else. Everyone constantly makes wishful claims that amount to a tacit bargain with the public who are assumed to fall for this: you can keep your goodies (cars, air conditioners, big fridges, gameboys) and we’ll fudge the numbers so it will look like as long as we get more energy efficient everything will be o.k. Flatter your audience, confident in the belief that no one has any motive to find fault with this sort of accounting because we all win, right?!

    Recommended Thumb up 7

    • Eric Leifsdad November 19, 2015 at 2:08 pm

      Math is hard?

      Recommended Thumb up 2

    • Mao November 20, 2015 at 1:33 pm

      pfff, gameboys have been outdated for years.

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  • J_R November 19, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    Republican opposition to Garrett is the best recommendation I can think of for retaining him. I certainly don’t agree with Garrett on everything. For example, I think he give too much weight to rural constituencies.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

    • Chris I November 19, 2015 at 2:34 pm

      Not necessarily, but it is important that we understand this opposition does not come from the same place as our opposition. The exurban and rural representatives want even more tax dollars sucked away from urban taxpayers and gifted to exurban and rural counties. If they had their way, we wouldn’t have any transportation improvements in Portland.

      Recommended Thumb up 6

  • nuovorecord November 19, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    Goodbye Matt. And take Weisenhimer with you.

    Recommended Thumb up 6

  • BeavertonRider November 19, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    Just another lesson that reveals that government is fallible. This should pause to all of us who rely on government statistics and data to support our policy preferences.

    I did note above that devious cycle of imposing new regulations that increase the price of gas and then imposing an increased gas tax to help raise revenues. Devious.

    We ought to be focusing on how not to waste tens of millions of taxpayer road dollars on consultants; marketing; diversity and inclusion; predetermined climate studies. Just doing that at both the state and local (looking at you PBOT) would go a long way toward avoiding hiking gas taxes and institutional credibility in ODOT & PBOT to properly prioritize, allocate, and fund road construction and maintenance, incl improving bike infrastructure.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

    • joebobpdx November 19, 2015 at 3:32 pm

      Do you really think that nickel and dime stuff you note (except for design services, consultant or in-house, which, in the real world, are needed to build stuff) would account for tens of millions of dollars? You may, and I may think this and that are not needed but there sure as heck are not tens of millions of dollars laying around waiting to be spent on whatever it is that we may prioritize.

      And yes, CRC. But most of that dough went to federally-required environmental work and the design that is necessary to advance a project, even to the point of killing it. Not defending that project, mind you.

      Can these folks lean up considerably? Yes, but there is not a mountain of waste, fraud and abuse out there, more like a molehill.

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      • BeavertonRider November 19, 2015 at 9:47 pm

        I listed examples of waste that contribute to tens of millions in waste at the state and local levels over the last 20 years. Perhaps you think ODOT and PBOT are sterling examples of fiscal responsibility?

        I

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  • wsbob November 19, 2015 at 7:00 pm

    “…The new emails show that Garrett had doubts by June 10. He sent an email to Margi Hoffmann, then Brown’s energy policy adviser, and Karmen Fore, Brown’s transportation policy adviser, saying the reduction estimates were 0.87 million metric tons — not the 2.02 million he’d been telling lawmakers — over 10 years. …” ian kullgen/oregonian

    Any report of not just when, but how Garrett came to understand the numbers were wrong?

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Randy November 19, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    Freeways have never ever been free – they have big healthcare costs (lungs) esp. for those who live or bicycle near them… Siting bike parks/lanes adjacent to freeways = poor planning, aka Maywood Park

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  • Jeff Bernards November 20, 2015 at 12:39 am

    They could achieve greater Green House Gas Emission reductions by just lowering the speed limit. Every 5 mph over 50 mph burns 5% more fuel for the distance traveled. The Cost? FREE

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • buildwithjoe November 21, 2015 at 12:52 am

    – ODOT deleted reports that the eziating Columbia bridge will last 60 years:
    2013: “These CRC bridges need to be replaced,”
    2005: “With ongoing preservation, the bridges can serve the public for another 60 years.”

    Here’s the 2005 Data that was deleted by ODOT but saved by the Tides Foundation Project Archive.org
    http://web.archive.org/web/20100806211221/http://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/HWY/REGION1/interstate_bridges_elec/index.shtml

    Put ODOT leaders in Jail for this $200 lie. $200 million wasted to plan a bloated $10 billion freeway for WA state.

    So pissed those liars still making over $100 k a year. Kris Strickler too.

    Site today
    http://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/HWY/REGION1/interstate_bridges_elec/index.shtml

    Recommended Thumb up 2

    • buildwithjoe November 21, 2015 at 12:53 am

      The existing Columbia River Bridge.

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    • J_R November 22, 2015 at 8:10 am

      You probably cannot be persuaded with the facts, but your claims about the CRC project are highly distorted. It was never a “$10 billion freeway project for WA state.” In round numbers it was a $4 billion dollar project; more than $1 billion was for transit; a bit less than half the project was in Oregon.

      Your obvious hatred for the project seems to have distorted your ability to accurately represent any facts. Your claims appear to be even more outrageous than what you rail against “these liars.”

      Recommended Thumb up 1

  • buildwithjoe November 22, 2015 at 8:43 am

    Both sides have their CRC facts. Joe Cortright showed the cost to be $10 billion. I’d say it could be even higher if you consider economic intangibles from the long term damage of a 7 mile freeway that’s 18 lanes in some spots. Look at the outrageous Potterville in its a wonderful life. The CRC is the Jimmy Stewart protagonist in this case. Its a wonderful life without the CRC. Time to fix the problems with solutions that are better for the people, planet, and economy. Where are your facts? My facts here. http://tinyurl.com/csatalking

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • mark November 24, 2015 at 10:19 am

    ODOT KNOWS!!!

    Just imagine working for this guy. It has to be horrible.

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