A proposal to amend a powerful state transportation planning law would have had chilling effect on the development of bikeways in cities throughout Oregon. But thankfully, because of the swift action by active transportation advocates, the City of Portland, and Metro, the director of the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) decided this week to not only suspend the proposal, but to launch a full “collaborative” review of the existing law.
How this all unfolded is a fascinating (at least to me) look into how influential stakeholders and entrenched institutional power can influence state policy — and how advocates can push back.
The issue revolves around ORS 366.215. That law says there can be “no reduction of vehicle-carrying capacity” on designated freight routes and that freight movement must not be “unreasonably impeded” as new projects are built. The law says trucks must be allowed a “hole-in-the-air” — which is defined by ODOT as, “the entire area (height, width and length) a truck and its load will occupy while traversing a section of roadway.”
It’s important to understand the power that the “hole-in-the-air” provision comes with. Here’s a more thorough definition (taken from an ODOT document):
ORS 366.215 is why it’s virtually impossible for planners or advocates to suggest reconfiguring certain roads (freight routes) to make them more bike friendly.
Back in 2004, when the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) was trying to pressure ODOT into putting bike lanes on the St. Johns Bridge, the Region 1 manager at the time, Matt Garrett (who now leads ODOT) cited ORS 366.215 in a letter to former BTA Executive Director Catherine Ciarlo:
“My interpretation of House Bill 2041 [which created ORS 366.215] leads me to believe that it would be very difficult to reduce the number of travel lanes on the St. Johns Bridge.”
Fast forward to March of 2011.
“It gives freight complete control of the roads, forsaking safety, access issues… all for “the economic good of Oregon’… This puts freight at the top of the design heap.”
On March 17th, 2011, ODOT’s Highway Leadership Team (HLT) adopted a “revised guidance and process document” for how the state implements ORS 366.215. The new guidelines were authored by the Transportation Policy Division within ODOT.
When it was passed in 2003, ORS 366.215 said simply that Oregon could “not permanently reduce vehicle-carrying capacity” on “an identified freight route.” The new guidance, however, would have significantly expanded the scope of the ordinance in several major ways.
ODOT’s Highway Leadership Team and trucking interests (led by the Oregon Trucker Associations), wanted the State to interpret the idea of “reduction of vehicle-carrying capacity” the same way freight stakeholders do. They wanted it to apply to “all projects (regardless of what highway they are on)” and they wanted to have review and veto authority over them as well.
If passed, this would have seriously constrained the ability for cities to make changes to roadways out of fear they might impact freight capacity or “hole-in-the-air” clearances. The addition of bike lanes, by the way, is singled out by ODOT in a FAQ about how to implement ORS 366.215:
“… the addition of bike lanes to an existing state highway is considered a reduction in the hole-in-the-air and needs to go through this review process if there are proposed changes to the existing number, width, and configuration of lanes.”
Now imagine that being applied to every road in Oregon.
Even if a project was nowhere near a major freight route, the proposed guidelines would have mandated that city planners and staff go through a “Freight Stakeholder Project Review” process. If that group didn’t support the project, further review and steps would need to be followed.
By defining much broader terms for maintaining freight vehicle capacity, then proposing that it should apply to all roads, and that all projects must go through freight stakeholder review, the freight and trucking interests would have assumed an extremely powerful position atop the transportation hierarchy. And it would have all been done in the name of “freight mobility.”
Suffice it to say, these proposals raised serious eyebrows both internally at ODOT and among active transportation advocates.
A source close to ODOT emailed me back in April 2011 expressing major concerns with what this policy could mean. “It gives freight complete control of the roads, forsaking safety, access issues (e.g. pedestrian, alt trans, active trans), etc… all for “the economic good of Oregon’… This puts freight at the top of the design heap.”
That was back when the proposal was in its infancy. By the time it began making the rounds of Portland’s active transportation planners and advocates, it was still intact and it drew an immediate response from the City of Portland’s Bicycle Advisory Committee (PBAC), Metro’s powerful Transportation Policy Alternatives Committee (TPAC), the BTA, Upstream Public Health, the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition, and others.
In a letter dated May 12, 2012, Chair of the PBAC Matt Arnold wrote PBOT Director Tom Miller with his concerns. Arnold wrote that his group found the new guidance “poorly written”, “confusing” and “divorced from accepted traffic engineering measures.”
A few days later, Gerik Kransky, the BTA’s lead advocate on policy, wrote the Chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC, the group that sets policy for ODOT) saying that he fears “unintended consequences,” and that the new guidelines, “are an example of an over broad interpretation of statute that prioritizes freight mobility potentially at the cost of community objectives, safety , and bicycle and pedestrian access.”
“The implementation guidelines for ORS 366.215,” wrote Kransky, “are clearly out of sync with an inclusive and diverse approach to multi-modal transportation.”
Yesterday, Kransky shared great news. His concerns were heard by ODOT, and thanks to a lot of behind the scenes work by many people, ODOT has decided to suspend these new guidelines.
In a blog post about the issue, Kransky explains how ODOT Director Matt Garrett — the same person who eight years ago used the statute to thwart bike lanes on the St. Johns Bridge — has now decided to suspend a scheduled vote at the OTC to adopt the new guidelines.
According to Kransky, ODOT will immediately take the proposal off the OTC agenda. And ODOT Director Garrett is even going a few steps further. Garrett says ODOT will remove all reference to non-freight routes in existing ORS 366.215 guidance documents. In addition, Garrett is starting a new rule-making process for the statute where he hopes to work “collaboratively” with all stakeholders.
Kranksy is calling this a “huge win” for bicycling in Oregon.
To say this was a bold decision for Garrett is an understatement. ODOT might be changing under his leadership, but you can bet the power structure at that agency (and the forces that influence it) still revolves around the status quo of seeing roads and highways as nothing more than moving cars and trucks as fast and conveniently as possible.
This was a test of Garrett’s recent promises. So far it looks like he’s passed.
NOTE: This story has been slightly edited since originally posted. The major person at ODOT who spearheaded and proposed these new freight guidelines was Gregg DelPonte, ODOT Motor Carrier Division Administrator (not Highway Division Administrator Paul Mather). I regret any confusion. ANOTHER CORRECTION: Mr. DelPonte did not spearhead these changes. He facilitated the conversation around the newly proposed guidelines. The guidelines were authored by ODOT staff in the Transportation Policy Division. Sorry — JM