(Photos © J. Maus)
“He demonstrated a deep personally held conviction that he wanted to make big changes at ODOT … away from highways and other big projects and towards healthier, more community scale projects… he made my jaw drop and gave me a big smile in how passionate and articulate he was on this issue.”
— Michael O’Leary, Portland resident and citizen activist
Democrat John Kitzhaber won a very close contest for Oregon governor against former NBA player Chris Dudley (R). Kitzhaber made his acceptance speech this morning from Tanner Springs Park, an oasis of water and plants in the center of three high-rise condos and bordered on two sides by streetcar tracks in downtown Portland’s Pearl District. This will be Kitzhaber’s third term as governor (he held the position from 1995-2003).
I am yet to meet the new governor myself, but look forward to sitting down with him and talking bikes and transportation sometime soon. To give you a clue of where he stands on those issues, I’ll insights from a citizen activist and from the former bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Oregon Department of Transportation, and bits of his public statements on transportation.
He doesn’t say much about non-motorized transportation on his campaign website other than, “we must transition off of imported oil for meeting our transportation needs.”
When the BTA asked him questions about bicycling specifically, he (or whoever filled out the questionnaire for him) had some exciting answers. He mentioned wanting to “grow our bicycle-related economy,” a desire to take “a different approach to community development” that makes our neighhorhoods “less dependent on automobiles,” and he even said he’d “support increased funding for infrastructure that encourages alternative forms of transportation, including bicycles.” One idea he shared was to open up the “Highway Trust Fund” to support “non-highway investments” like bicycle projects (Oregon already has a mandate that at least 1% of highway dollars must be spent on biking and walking projects).
Another insight into what type of governor Kitzhaber will be comes from Michael O’Leary. O’Leary is a former staffer of the BTA who volunteers for various local activist groups and was very involved with the get out the vote effort in Portland (you might remember him for going public with concerns about the Burnside/Couch project). O’Leary shared with a local email list that he spoke directly to Kitzhaber about active transportation.
Here’s what O’Leary reported about that conversation
“He demonstrated a deep personally held conviction that he wanted to make big changes at ODOT [our state department of transportation], away from highways and other big projects and towards healthier, more community scale projects… he made my jaw drop and gave me a big smile in how passionate and articulate he was on this issue.”
That conversation, combined with Kitzhaber’s responses to the BTA questionnaire made O’Leary write, “All in all, that’s not a bad place to start from. And would reflect a huge change from our current ODOT.”
For more on ODOT, I asked the former manager of their bike/ped program, BTA Alice Awards Bud Clark Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, and biking and walking expert Michael Ronkin for his recollections of working under Kitzhaber. Ronkin recalled a conversation with Kitzhaber while he was running for his first term:
“You could tell he really understood the issues, wasn’t giving us lip service, and offered cohesive coherent answers to our questions. When he became governor, his main role in our program was appointing OBPAC members, and the choices were top-notch, and his staff easy to work with.
I think this will be a very good opportunity for Oregon to regain some lost ground in transportation and land use.”
Any major changes at ODOT or to current transportation funding formulas could be rife with political gamesmanship and will take a huge effort from Kitzhaber. But at least from people in the know, he seems to really “get it.”
The complexion of the legislature changed dramatically on Tuesday and now the leadership is split nearly 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans. At his acceptance speech today, the new governor spoke clearly and firmly about his desire to work with legislators on both sides of the aisle to fight the hard battles. He said a divided legislature might even make it easier to find the “center” on issues.
Watch Kitzhaber’s speech below:
I’d love to hear some other insights into Kitzhaber from those of you who have worked with him or who recall his former terms in Oregon.