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Advocates help push back alarming freight power grab in Salem

Posted by on June 14th, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Policymakers Ride-37

(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

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

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

  • OregonBicyclist June 14, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Good to see.

    I wonder if the existing Oregon state law prevents cities from switching around existing capacity into a safer design? I’ve always thought riding on bicycles in any Oregon city would be safer if we adopted the Dutch junction design: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlApbxLz6pA

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  • oskarbannks June 14, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    I caught wind to this weeks ago while talking with someone who is very well informed on the matter. I was taken aback to say the least, it really shocked me.

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    • 9watts June 14, 2012 at 1:31 pm

      I think some of these groups have a Hole-in-the-Head. Does anyone in the Oregon Trucker Associations look to the future, plan for the Empty-Hole-in-the-Ground that used to produce such plentiful oil? How about a more Hole-istic-View of the transportation challenges, freight-folks, rather than white-knuckled turf wars about road inches?

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      • oskarbannks June 14, 2012 at 2:14 pm

        Hole-E Cow, your right!

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      • Art Fuldodger June 14, 2012 at 2:22 pm

        well, they were going hole hog, hogging all the holes.

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  • wsbob June 14, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    Interesting. The entire premise by which the freight carrying capacity of roads is argued for using the ‘hole in the air’ metaphor, is misapplied. Reducing individual lane widths a bit to create space for bike lanes wouldn’t appreciably reduce the ability of freight to traverse a section of roadway.

    Semi’s and other freight trucks would still be able to get down the road…if most of the road’s carrying capacity weren’t occupied by commuters in personal cars. Excessive, inefficient use of personal cars is what has strangled freight’s ability to move.

    I imagine most of the people in freight are reasonably intelligent, and know all of this. So perhaps those among them, backing this bill amendment were simply of a variety that hoped to use the ‘hole in the air’ provision to cut public spending by getting rid of public spending on bike lanes.

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    • Chris I June 14, 2012 at 3:14 pm

      But they all get to work by car (or most likely, pickup truck), so they fail to realize this truth.

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  • El Biciclero June 14, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    “Huge win”? Sounds more like narrowly averting a “huge loss” to preserve what little we already had.

    I also wonder whether the term “vehicle-carrying capacity” includes (as is discussed at length in this BP article) bikes as vehicles. Could it not be argued that adding bike lanes or other “amenities” (barf) would increase “vehicle-carrying capacity”?

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  • Joe June 14, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Jonathan – really a huge thank you for this blog. There are things like this that the average “Joe” would never hear about. I’m grateful that you keep us abreast of so many things going on in the state. Kudos!

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    • oskarbannks June 14, 2012 at 5:18 pm

      I second your praise as well, This is the type of information that (to me) seems to never surface clearly or readily to the public.

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  • Joe June 14, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Jonathan – really a huge thank you for this blog. There are things like this that the average “Joe” would never hear about. I’m grateful that you keep us abreast of so many things going on in the state. Kudos!
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    dude u calling me average? haha 😉

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  • Joe June 14, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    what timing to get that photo 🙂

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  • CaptainKarma June 14, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    Why can’t more freight “Go By Train”?

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    • Chris I June 14, 2012 at 3:19 pm

      Rail transport in this country is privately owned, so it is self-sustaining, and pay taxes on its right-of-way. Truck transportation is subsidized by the federal and state governments, and provides much quicker, door to door travel. So even though rail is much more efficient, many companies choose trucks.

      Contrast this to Europe, where rail lines, much like our highways here, are government owned, but operated by private companies. Fuel prices are also higher, so rail freight is more desirable.

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      • oskarbannks June 14, 2012 at 4:47 pm

        Which (correct me if I am wrong) is part of the major push for years by Republicans to kill Amtrak, and get it out of the way of freight trains.

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      • jimbobpdx June 15, 2012 at 11:49 am

        Chris – there are states that tax RR Right of Way, but Oregon is not one of them. Further, RR’s in this country historically, and up to the current moment, do get significant amounts of direct public funding for infrastructure. Locally, ODOT’s Connect Oregon Grant Program is full of RR projects. Then there are the less direct subsidies like the premium that AMTRAK and local commuter rail services pay to use RR tracks.

        The RR lines in this country are some hard-nosed characters and they don’t give away a thing without being very handsomely reimbursed.

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  • peejay June 14, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    Considering all the cargobikes in town, perhaps this law could be used to force construction of safe bike infrastructure on all freight routes.

    I’m only partly kidding.

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  • El Biciclero June 14, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    It is interesting that we must maintain a hole-in-the-air that does not reduce “vehicle-carrying capacity” on designated freight routes, but a similar principle doesn’t apply to designated bike routes. Broadway bridge pole placement? Only moved after a big stink. Wasn’t there also a flap over Lovejoy and streetcar tracks? Was it because Lovejoy used to be a designated “bike route”, but isn’t any longer because the hole-in-the-air for bicycles had a couple of treacherous grooves carved into it?

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson June 14, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    The so-called “freight community” needs to look at the data: the obstacle to moving freight whether on Swan Island, across the Columbia River or wherever is too many people driving alone in cars during the peak hours.
    Ever wonder why the rebuilt Naito Parkway has such wide lanes and so much pavement…worse than it was in my view? Take note of the Portland Freight Commttee, staffed by PBOT, that has virtual veto power over projects in Portland or at least works to insure PBOT’s timidity in making public rights of way serve everyone. They meet the 1st Thursday every month at 7:30am in City Hall. Check this use of PBOT funds out!
    The Swan Island TMA has achieved better freight movement by “creating and promoting transportation options for Swan Island’s 10,000 employees.” For every two employees who choose to bike, use transit or share the ride to Swan Island, we make room for a full size tractor-trailer. Or as I like to say “I can be in my car in front of you or on my bike in the bike lane next to you. Take your pick.”

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  • i ride my bike June 14, 2012 at 5:54 pm


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  • dwainedibbly June 14, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. These things are usually “model laws” and get put on the agendas of a lot of States at the same time. Warn your friends in other places to be on the lookout for similar moves.

    2. Could this “hole in the air” approach be used to kill off safe passing laws, where they exist? Would a 3-foot passing law conflict with a power grab like this (where it gets enacted), leading to 3-foot laws getting overturned, or not enforced against freight vehicles?

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  • Kevin Wagoner June 14, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    Good story, thanks for sharing. Good work and many thanks to the activist involved in stake holding for safety.

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  • Joe June 14, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    human power!

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  • Rol June 14, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    Top 5 reasons “hole in the air” is one of the stupidest terms I’ve ever heard:

    5) It’s poorly defined.

    4) It makes you sound like Slim Pickens.

    3) There are other, better ways to say it, like “horizontal and vertical clearance.”

    2) It sounds like a scam (which it is).

    1) What’s the “hole in the air” filled with? AIR. That’s right, the only holes in the air are when objects displace it, like, I dunno, kittens. Or, bridge abutments. Now I KNOW you don’t want to drive your truck through a kitten or a bridge abutment! You want to drive through the AIR part.

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    • Ron June 15, 2012 at 12:27 pm

      Ha! Brilliant!

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  • Pete Sandrock June 14, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    Your report is an example of exceptional journalism. Thanks.

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  • Daniel R. Miller June 14, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    The irony of the St. Johns bridge is that if it were reconfigured to one automotive lane in each direction, plus a buffered bike lane in each direction, the auto/truck lane could be significantly wider (a bigger, uh, “hole in the air”) than the current lanes.

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  • WillB June 14, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    Probably the best piece of journalism I’ve read all week. Thanks Jonathan.

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  • John R. June 14, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    Thank you for covering this. Is it possible that the BTA has been given more credit for this victory than is actually deserved?

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  • Pat Franz June 14, 2012 at 11:42 pm

    Hmmm. All this talk of holes in the air that can never get smaller, and no talk about how large interstate trucks might be inappropriate and inherently unsafe on all the streets and bridges that were never designed for them.

    I realize it’s efficient for freight haulers to use the biggest trucks they can end to end, but while we all might benefit from some of this efficiency, we all pay for having too big, too heavy, and too difficult to maneuver safely vehicles on the roads. Big trucks cause road construction and maintenance costs to rise exponentially, and create many accident situations, particularly in cities and around pedestrians and cyclists. We all pay for that, but the cost benefits mostly accrue to trucking company owners.

    Apparently they use some of that to pay lobbyists. Thanks to everyone that changed the outcome this time.

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  • Grandpa June 15, 2012 at 6:53 am

    Who among us remember the cracked bridge crisis in Oregon about 10 years ago? The trucking industry lobbiests had convinced state legislators to increase bridge load ratings based on the notion that excess strength built into the bridges as a safety factor could be utilized. The heavier loads cracked the bridges resulting in the need to build hundreds of new bridges throughout the state. Some of these new bridges are still under construction. The cost of the bridges, paid for by taxpayers, is in effect another (but grossly inefficient) subsidy to the trucking industry which saves a few bucks by being able to run with heavier loads.

    Just say’n that the trucking industry does not have the best interests of Oregon general public as a high priority.

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  • Dave June 15, 2012 at 9:49 am

    All I have to say is THANK YOU SO MUCH to everyone who had a hand in stopping this. That might have been the most major disaster to happen in the last 50 years, had it gone through. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!

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  • craig June 15, 2012 at 10:09 am

    This is the type of story I enjoy reading.

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  • bikesalot June 16, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    To appreciate the impact (yes) of heavy trucks on infrastructure, just spend a few years riding the Nehalem River loop from Vernonia and watch the repaving and bridge replacement where the heavy forest product trucks travel. One has to wonder if what they pay comes anywhere close to repairing the damage.

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    • Aaron June 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm

      The amount they pay doesn’t even come CLOSE to paying for the damage they do. The difference in road wear between an 18 wheeler and a car is similar to a car and a bike.

      Heavy trucks aren’t taxed proportionally because it’s widely believed (and I share this belief) that the economic benefit makes up for it.

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