Yesterday I posted part one of my conversation with Oregon Department of Transportation Director Matt Garrett. Today, I want to share the second part of that interview. Picking up where we left off, the remainder of our chat focuses on spending policies, the politics of bicycling in Salem, the controversial Columbia River Crossing project, the St. Johns Bridge, and more.
“That’s exactly right. You’re right.”
“Well, you can. And as a matter of fact, you’re mandated to spend a certain level [on bicycling, thanks to the Bicycle Bill passed in 1971].”
“Sure. But that’s a political conversation. You could do that. There’s no question. Say, ‘You know what, we’re clearing the bar on the 1%, why don’t we challenge ourselves?’ If you want to have that political conversation… The political calculus is, is it right to do it? Is it doable?
Just the mechanics of it, and this isn’t ducking your question, there’s only one person who tells us what we can advocate for, that’s the governor. As an agency, we do nothing but implement the policies of the governor. My job very simply is to make sure that I carry out my governor’s agenda, so that’s kind of where it would shake out.”
(*Note: In retrospect, I’m disappointed in myself for asking this question. I want to get away from special set-aside pots of bike-specific funding and have ODOT move toward seeing all road projects as having quality bike access simply as the way they do business.)
“I think for some it is. Absolutely.”
“I don’t think we should just throw up our hands and shrug. I think you participate. You get the face-to-face conversations. Whether it’s an issue or an organization, it will either be successful or fail based on the people you bring to the table. Then what you do is you start talking, and you start talking to folks that maybe see things a little differently and then I think you find pathways you wouldn’t realize if you were just talking to like-minded folks.”
“We’ll live and die on the data. The question is, does that change over time?”
“Well it could. Is it just a quick hit? Or is it truly a trend? So we’re watching that. If it’s a trend that will demand a different calculus as we come to the table. The issue is, how long? Does that trend sustain as they get older? Maybe. I mean, there are generational issues, there’s no question about it. I know my daughter is happy with her bus pass, but as she gets a little older will that shift?”
“Well, we are evolving; but that doesn’t mean that one of our charges is not to strategically grow the infrastructure where needed. The Columbia River Crossing — in my opinion here — is just so important for the economic health of not only the two states, but for the west coast, the safety. We’ve got an old, functionally obsolescent bridge. That’s not a safe bridge. If you think the bike path’s a goat trail… There’s no shoulder there. If you break down, you’re stuck in traffic. The ripple effect is significant in terms of safety and economics here because no one can move, either for a social transaction or a business transaction. I am just of the opinion that the importance of putting a new piece of infrastructure there outweighs some of the concerns that I’ve heard expressed.”
“Well, the governor wants it. Absolutely. There’s no question about it. He wants us to be smart. He wants us to vet the issues. Again, just you and I talking, that is my opinion, that it [the CRC] is needed badly here. And I appreciate the passion of folks saying, ‘Oh no, there’s a different way to do it.’ I understand that. But recall that we have been engaged in this effort for now going on 12 years, and if you remember the original conversation with Governor Kitzhaber and Governor Locke centered around the business issues, that we were compromising their ability to grow and expand within our state. And then you can just start to list and itemize some of the other issues; whether it’s safety, or some of the environmental good that we’ll do.
The opportunity to take light rail, to extend to a 55-mile light rail system here and the benefits that brings and the options that that brings. The opportunity to start tolling, and from there, congestion pricing. There are so many benefits that come with this project that as I look longer-term, if we can animate it, what it will do to the system on a whole, that I think those that might be against it… maybe if it wasn’t this project, they might be advocating for the similar types of things that are playing themselves out in this project: congestion pricing, tolling, demand management, commute options.
I’m just thinking… there’s more to it, it’s an interstate that connects three countries. The significance is important. I am the Director of Transportation so I guess I get to be at the tip of the spear with the CRC.”
“[Rick] Gustafson’s class? Was that you?! I do remember that! You were very unhappy with me!”
“Well. Fair enough. You know… you’re judged by your actions. But again, my hope is, people would scrutinize and ask, why were those actions taken? Specifically to St. Johns Bridge, it was what it was and the one thing I remember that’s come back up are the sharrows. Well heck, if I could have dropped those things down then I would have because that just made sense. But I couldn’t, we had to do a little work to get them in that manual [they weren’t officially adopted into the federal engineering manual until 2009, and ODOT adopted them in 2011]. Drop those things down now.* If you can do things operationally, through signage and stuff. Great. Let ‘er rip. But you know as well as I do that it comes down to the responsibility of whoever is on the bike or in the car, to make sure they’re doing their job. That’s another thing we need to keep up on — education and enforcement.”
“Well… now here’s the issue. Remember, it’s a historic bridge. You couldn’t do a whole lot more than what we did. I could have re-striped the lane…”
“Yes. You could have re-striped it.”
“It would have been, but I will tell you, the force of the freight industry, that hasn’t dissipated. So that’s a cross-pressure.”
“It could be. I’m glad I don’t have to replay that though.”
“That this agency is changing and we are asking questions differently. And, come to the table, don’t spectate on this. I need you to participate, and I will tell you, we will probably stumble; but as long as I know I’ve got folks there that are going to pick me up and say, ‘You’re moving the right direction here, here’s where you need to go’. And if I can secure the right people around the table and start the healthy discourse and not get into the, ‘Well, this is the road gang’s money, versus, well we need more money for this,’ If we can say, ‘No, no this is the transportation system, and that’s what’s at stake here.’
It’s a call to action; come to the table, we want it. We are making some adjustments here, but we don’t have all the answers… Bring that collective wisdom to the table. We’ll see where we go. I’ll be the first one to tell you, there’s an outcome I want to get to, but I’m not sure I know all the ways to get there.”
“Thank you for coming down here.. I understand someone who is saying, ‘Well, good rhetoric, let me see the actions.’ Well, I think we’re starting to put together tangible examples of how we’re moving our policies and our programs and then eventually our projects. It’s all coming.”
— See part one of this interview here.