Interview with ODOT Director Matt Garrett (Part 2)

ODOT Director Matt Garrett-1

ODOT Director Matt Garrett, photographed in Salem.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

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.

I understand that highway fund money must be spent only on highway right-of-way. But highways, according to Oregon Law, are defined as “every public way” — not just interstate freeways — and the federal law doesn’t specifically prohibit using the money to improve the road for bike access… So, isn’t it true that you actually can use highway trust fund monies to make roads better for bikes?

“That’s exactly right. You’re right.”

Right, OK, but do you see how we get caught in this language trap? “Those are highway dollars so we can’t do any bike stuff with them,” is the mentality that I often come across.

“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].”

Right, we decided to change the system by creating the Bike Bill with a 1% minimum for bikeway improvements; so why can’t you, in 2013, make it, say, a 3% minimum?*

“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.)

There has been tension around bicycling in the legislature in recent sessions. It’s gotten so bad that sometimes, if the word “bike” is in a bill, some legislators won’t touch it.

“I think for some it is. Absolutely.”

How do we get beyond that?

“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.”

ODOT Director Matt Garret at OATS-2

Garrett donned a bike pin at his Oregon Active Transportation Summit speech in April.
Are you aware of the trends showing how people are driving less in America — especially younger people? Have you seen these trends and does that change or help validate what you’re doing?

“We’ll live and die on the data. The question is, does that change over time?”

You think driving levels might actually go back up?

“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?”

A lot of people at this conference will recognize you as the guy who’s always testifying in support of the Columbia River Crossing project. How can you say ODOT is evolving as an agency and then in the same breath also push for a highway expansion project that will vastly increase auto capacity at a cost of several billion dollars?

“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.”

I noticed that you expressed your opinion on that answer, instead of saying you’re just carrying out what the governor wants…

“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.”

The last time you and I talked at any length was at a PSU transportation class, way back in 2006, and I got on you a bit about the St. Johns Bridge…

“[Rick] Gustafson’s class? Was that you?! I do remember that! You were very unhappy with me!”

Yeah, I was petty fired up. And I still am. It’s just so symbolic and it was such a disappointment to see that happen. You know, a guy got hit while biking on the bridge. He could have been killed. There was nowhere for him to ride. Jason Tell said he’d be looking at some things to improve it. But you know, that’s one of the open wounds for people, including me. It’s going to take a while for ODOT to get back into good graces. To make these changes, you’re going to need people on your side, you’ll need our help. The people at this summit, they represent some serious passion, commitment, and energy around transportation. It would be great to get all of us working with ODOT; but stuff like the St. Johns Bridge and the CRC, it makes it hard for many people to come on board.

“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.”

*ODOT installed sharrows on the St. Johns Bridge last weekend.

What if the St. Johns Bridge renovation project came up today, with ODOT’s organizational shifts in place? I bet it would be a much different looking bridge. Would you agree?

“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…”

Right, and there was a whole conversation about the lane configuration. You could have striped it differently.

“Yes. You could have re-striped it.”

Right, and I wonder if that idea to stripe two lanes for motor vehicles instead of four would have had a little more ammunition with ODOT’s new organizational structure…

“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 would be interesting if it came up again.

“It could be. I’m glad I don’t have to replay that though.”

What will you hope to impress upon the biking, walking and transit advocates with your speech at the Active Transportation Summit tomorrow?

“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.”

Thanks Matt. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.

“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.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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12 years ago

Are you mad at this guy? These are some unfortunate picture selections.

Adams Carroll (News Intern)
Reply to  Scott

huh? I don’t think they’re bad shots at all. They are just candid photos I snapped while he was talking. And then I just added one of him speaking at the Active Trans. Summit.

12 years ago

Mid-word shots always look so weird. I’ll accept that it is just me.

12 years ago
Reply to  Scott

I think the photos make him look like a hard worker. Who’s maybe a bit nervous being grilled by the bike-centric press! hehehe

12 years ago

Thanks for this two-part interview, Jonathan. I guess I’m disappointed in his slipperiness, his reluctance to step out in front of an issue and lead.

Your (great) question:
Are you aware of the trends showing how people are driving less in America — especially younger people? Have you seen these trends and does that change or help validate what you’re doing?

Garrett’s answer:
“We’ll live and die on the data. The question is, does that change over time?”

Huh? That non-answer is from someone who polls every issue and will go with the loudest/best funded voice. But that is no way to lead on these issues. The future of transportation is going to look nothing like the past. Pretending otherwise is not a prudent strategy. His timid approach leads to a bunch of stranded assets, a whole infrastructure that was built for a world that is about to end.

Chris I
Chris I
12 years ago
Reply to  9watts

That is the kind of answer you see from a politician that has already made up his mind. He wants the CRC, and he really doesn’t care what the data says. We have had 10 years of decreasing traffic on that bridge, in and out of recessions, and ODOT has not changed their position. They are completely ignoring the generational shift in driving. Decreased VMT is due to younger people not driving as much, and the baby boomers hitting retirement. I can’t conceive how the numbers are going to get anywhere close to the ODOT projections.

Cheap fuel is gone, and the “Driver’s Generation” is retiring.

Evan Manvel
Evan Manvel
12 years ago

Garrett’s a nice guy. But his repeating the flawed, misleading arguments for the CRC drives me nuts. Here’s Garrett:

“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.”

In contrast, ODOT’s Transportation Safety Administrator Troy Costales, says:
“Interstates are — by far — the safest roads in the state.”

And ODOT’s Safety Corridors program has decided not to target the CRC area, because it’s not anywhere near the worst safety problems.

About the age of the bridge spans? ODOT’s own report from 2004 said this:

“personalized care, combined with large maintenance projects, has kept the [I-5 bridge] spans healthy and free of weight restrictions. With ongoing preservation, the bridges can serve the public for another 60 years.”

And as far as fixing the bottleneck for economic growth? The CRC’s own models show the bottleneck moving just two miles south.

Read more:

Joe Rowe
Joe Rowe
12 years ago
Reply to  Evan Manvel

Earl Blumenauer is also supporting the CRC with the myths Garrett has put in writing. Earl and other democrats add the myth of jobs.

Nice personality + lots of myths = not nice guys.

Earl has made no public support or public criticism of the CRC that I know of. But Earl has made his support of the CRC very clear to me with a key witness present.

I wish the bike community would get Earl to state where he stands in public. The only people in power who stand up to the myths thus far are Jefferson Smith, David Bragdon and Robert Liberty. Mary Nolan is pretty hush, as is Steve Novic.

Jake Cummings
12 years ago

The goat trail is fine, maybe just pressure wash those blood stains off the NW entrance?

12 years ago

Nice job Jonathan. I especially liked how you kept his feet to the fire on issue of SJB striping, when he tried to redirect it as a historic designation issue – which it of course is not. Ultimately he seems to pass ODOT’s stance off it off as a political tradeoff with the trucking industry, rather than taking full responsibility for the agency’s decision to effectively say “it’s more important that a handful of cars be able to pass slow-moving trucks on this bridge than for bikes to have a safe, dedicated portion of the right-of-way”.

Also: “that was you?!?” Simply awesome.

Although he’s been giving lip service to bikes and multimodality, I get the feeling Garrett is doing so as a savvy politican than as someone who’s truly enlightened about it. His responses on the SJB and especially the CRC seem to confirm this, and like a number of the commenters above I am disappointed in him for that.

12 years ago

He seemed not inclined to volunteer info regarding reasons for the freight industry’s apparent preference for the SJB’s four mail travel lane configuration that doesn’t provide bike lanes. The opportunity for him to do so was there, so why he didn’t offer a few reasons the freight industry apparently opposed something like a two main lane-two bike lane deck configuration, is intriguing.

Also not encouraged with things he touched on regarding the CRC. Sounds as though he’s trying to gloss over tough issues, such as how an enhanced capacity replacement bridge might affect urban/suburban sprawl and accompanying traffic congestion.

Jeff Butts
Jeff Butts
12 years ago

He says, “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.” That about sums it up for me. I don’t think he gets that it’s his organization’s responsibility to provide adequate infrastructure. I was critical of the sharrows, at first, but I guess it’s a step (though a lame one that I’m still conflicted about).

Terry Nobbe
11 years ago

This looks like politics pure and obvious. The best definition of politics I’ve ever heard is that it’s a system by which it’s determined who gets what when. It’s a power thing – BIG power.