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ODOT scrambles with federal expansion of National Highway System

Posted by on September 13th, 2012 at 3:25 pm

“We’ll make the best of it and hope we can find good ways to make this work so it doesn’t present a burden or pose unnecessary impacts on communities.”
— Travis Brouwer, ODOT Federal Affairs

Officials at the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) say they are “scrambling” to comply with a provision in the new federal transportation bill (known as MAP-21) that will add 600 miles of roads in Oregon to the National Highway System (NHS). This expansion of the NHS goes into effect October 1st of this year and includes roads currently managed by both ODOT and cities.

The implications for Portland (and other cities) could be significant, because it would mean several of our local streets — including ones that are crucial for bicycling — would suddenly be required to conform with design standards laid out by the Federal Highway Administration, instead of the more flexible local and state standards used today.

Among the streets that are impacted by the new law are NW Broadway from SE Grand to Burnside, Sandy Blvd from Burnside to NE Columbia Blvd., W Burnside from I-405 to the E. Burnside/Couch couplet (to 14th), SE Calle Cesar Chavez (39th) from NE Sandy to SE Powell, and others. The map below is a screenshot from an online map created by ODOT to help explain the impacts of the changes (the layer I have showing is new NHS roads not managed by the state):

The significance of these roadways becoming part of the National Highway System is that if PBOT engineers want to make any changes that deviate from FHWA design standards for “principal arterials”, they would have to go through a cumbersome process of applying for exceptions. Here’s how the FHWA describes it:

“For projects on the NHS, the criteria related to design speed, lane and shoulder width, bridge width, structural capacity, horizontal and vertical alignment, grade, stopping sight distance, cross slope, superelevation, and horizontal and vertical clearance, are controlling criteria and require formal design exceptions when not met.”

Or, in the words of a source at ODOT, “this designation basically forces state and local governments to treat arterials like major highways… Speed will increase, certain designs, like bulb outs, won’t be allowed without an exception. So on and so on.”

The NHS overlay onto streets like Broadway and Couch could make it much harder for PBOT to come up with innovative solutions to context-specific issues like right hooks, traffic calming, bike lane widening, and so on. They’d have to use design guidelines put out by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), instead of the newer — and less auto-centric — design guidelines published by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).

If the state or cities wanted to do something not in the AASHTO design book, they’d have to ask the FHWA for an exception. That process could take a long time and the FHWA, which is not known as being innovative or particularly bike-friendly, would have the option to reject the application (note how PBOT and the FHWA interacted on the green bike box experiment back in 2008).

“We’ll have to work closely with local governments on this. We’re well aware this could create a mess and we’re trying to figure out what kind of mess and what we can do to mitigate it.”
— Heather King, ODOT

ODOT says they’ve known about the provision for months, but they couldn’t move forward with anything until receiving guidance from the FHWA. That guidance came down just last week, and the October 1 effective date doesn’t give them much time to react.

No one at the Portland Bureau of Transportation — including its Director Tom Miller — was aware of any of this as of two days ago.

Officials at ODOT are still assessing the new law’s impacts. While the expansion goes into effect October 1st, there’s a lot more guidance still to come from the FHWA. “It’s a wait and see,” said Heather King, manager of ODOT’s Road Inventory and Classification Services (RICS) department.

“In meetings I’ve been in in the last couple weeks,” King said, “[it’s become clear] we’ll have to work closely with local governments on this. We’re well aware this could create a mess and we’re trying to figure out what kind of mess and what we can do to mitigate it.”

To try and understand more about the implications, I spoke with ODOT senior federal affairs advisor Travis Brouwer. He too is well aware there could be some negative consequences. “We’re still working through some of these implications and trying to understand how wide-ranging they might be,” he said via phone today.

Brouwer said they’re planning meetings with FHWA and local government officials, “So we can ensure expansion [of the NHS] minimizes any potential negative impacts on communities.”

“We’re hopeful,” continued Brouwer, “that with some of the efforts of ODOT over the years to provide more context-based solutions and the focus within the US DOT on livability and bike/ped infrastructure, we should be able to work through solutions and find ways to introduce flexibility to make sure we’re not preventing cities from building the bike/ped infrastructure they need. That’s going to be our goal.”

Brouwer is fully aware of the issues this federal mandate presents. He wasn’t sure what the underlying motivation was for the Obama Administration to take this step, but he described it as a way to “standardize the National Highway System across the states”. What the law did was to say that all “principal arterials” around the country should be brought under the NHS umbrella. “But what they didn’t realize,” Brouwer says, “is that even within states, principal arterials aren’t standardized.”

For example, there are many roads through Oregon that are currently classified as “principal arterials” but that don’t actually function anything like an arterial at all. The FHWA gave states the chance to reclassify roads so they wouldn’t be caught in the newly expanded NHS net, but reclassification isn’t that simple. It would take changes to Transportation System Plans and there is other process that requires much longer than the two week time-frame.

Brouwer expects to work closely with cities and the FHWA in the coming months to figure this all out. In the meantime, he says, “We’ll make the best of it and hope we can find good ways to make this work so it doesn’t present a burden or pose unnecessary impacts on communities.”

— View an interactive map created by ODOT division that shows which streets are impacted by the new law.

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

  • Patrick H. Croasdaile September 13, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    This is a nice dose of poop on a stick for us all.

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  • Gerik September 13, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Oy! MAP-21 is the gift that keeps on giving.

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  • Brian Willson September 13, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    Our policies continue to promote living as if automobiles are part of our future, despite the fact that (1) we know there are but finite supplies of petroleum in the near future, (2) we need to immediately begin dramatic reduction in emission of carbon molecules into the atmosphere as an emergency measure, and (3) non-polluting bicycling is an available alternative for the past 100 years. It is quite astounding how foolish our modern species is, how suicidal we seem to be, acting as if we possess a severe mental illness. Well maybe we act this way because we ARE insane.

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    • Rol September 13, 2012 at 4:32 pm

      Your “we” may need to be broken into an “us” and a “them.” The whole species doesn’t act insane, just one particular group of numbskulls. A fairly small group at that. Fairly mind-boggling that they continue to have so much power.

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    • Spiffy September 13, 2012 at 4:58 pm

      cars will be around long after petroleum-powered engines are gone… but a lot fewer people will be using them…

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  • Alex Reed September 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Wait, wasn’t this bill forced through by Republicans in Congress? Why, then, does it reduce state and local control over local issues, apparently replacing local control with heavy-handed federal regulations?

    Just sayin’ 🙂

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    • Chris I September 13, 2012 at 4:21 pm

      Transportation mandates are fine, as long as they mandate auto-dependency…

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    • KillMoto September 15, 2012 at 8:25 pm

      Because the south lost the “War For States Rights” back in the 1860’s…

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  • toddistic September 13, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    The federal govt, the gift that keeps on taking.

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  • Spiffy September 13, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    or we could tell the feds to keep their money and just continue doing the right thing…

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  • dwainedibbly September 13, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    I guess this means we’ll be getting a huge pile of Federal money, right?

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    • rain bike September 14, 2012 at 9:01 am

      Congressman DeFazio’s website says, “…Oregon will receive a total of $483.2 million in federal-aid highway funds in FY 2013 and $487.4 million in FY 2014 for highways. Oregon will also receive $93.6 million in transit formula funding in FY 2013 and $94.9 million in FY 2014.” It goes on to say that with respect to federal highway dollars, Oregon now receives more than it pays into the federal highway system. Oregon is a donee state, rather than a donor state.

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  • Terry D September 13, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    There goes there idea of making the outside lane of Sandy bikes and buses only…..

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  • Kevin Wagoner September 13, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    $44,000,000 and they couldn’t afford to make it safe. That seems disingenuous at best.

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    • Vance Longwell September 14, 2012 at 10:37 am

      Yeah, sorta like citing a safety issue of any sort, in Portland, OR. Puh-leeze.

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  • Kevin Wagoner September 13, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    Humm…don’t see a way to delete that comment. Sorry, was having trouble posting on another story and the comment ended up here.

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  • Ben B. September 14, 2012 at 8:34 am

    Where is the separation of powers?

    The road doesn’t go across the state.

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  • kittens September 14, 2012 at 10:15 am

    Just a wild guess… this provision was pushed through by some large construction contractors which will be the primary beneficiary. Gross.

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    • rain bike September 14, 2012 at 10:32 am

      Assuming this is true (which it may or may not be), secondary and tertiary beneficiaries could include construction workers and their kids. Or, we could just continue to extend unemployment benefits indefinitely and/or expand welfare. I’m not sure which option is most gross. The focus is on job creation, if you haven’t been listening. If you have better ideas about how to accomplish that, call your representative in congress.

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      • rain bike September 14, 2012 at 11:14 am

        kittens: That last part reads more snotty than was intended. I’m sorry about that.

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        • kittens September 14, 2012 at 11:20 am

          A job is a job, true. But we need to be constructing the future, not the past.

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          • rain bike September 14, 2012 at 11:43 am

            I agree. Maybe it’s time for a 21st century WPA or CCC, focusing on renewable energy alternatives and rehabilitating brownfields or reclaiming waterfronts. Those programs may have had their problems too, but they seem to have been the source of some beautiful and lasting things.

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  • Sigma September 14, 2012 at 10:33 am

    “Among the streets that are impacted by the new are NW Broadway from SE Grand to Burnside”

    That doesn’t make any sense.

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  • Owen Walz September 14, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Oh this is a bummer.

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  • Owen Walz September 14, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    Anyone know if this will impact infrastructure that’s already in place? Like all the newer stuff around the Burnside Couch couplet? I have to hope everything will be grandfathered in.

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  • Ted Buehler September 14, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Highways change hands sometimes, seems like every decade or so there’s a shift one way or another.

    But this is kinda strange, since PBOT and ODOT completed negotiations a couple years back to shift MLK and NE Sandy from ODOT to PBOT. Now they get shifted back.

    Some side benefits —
    * N/NE Columbia looks like its in the lineup to get some love.
    * Portland is an innovator in putting bicycle infrastructure on challengin streets. So it will be relatively easy for Portland to get FHA approval to put bicycle infrastructure on these streets, which will set a positive precedent for other cities trying to do the same.
    * What’s up with the 1930s-era “ramps” on an off MLK between Columbia and Marine, they’re getting official status now. I wonder if they’ll try to do something to modernize them. As it is, they’re kind of dicey for both cars and bikes, but dumping a bunch of $ to turn them into modern freeway ramps would make it hellish for bikes.

    Thanks for covering this, Jonathan.

    Ted Buehler

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  • michweek September 15, 2012 at 8:29 am

    I wish we’d just go rogue already. ‘No we will not jeopardize equal, safe acess for all on account of your outdated standards’. Get a backbone Oregon!

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    • Marid September 16, 2012 at 5:23 pm

      Go rogue? How exactly is that supposed to help? We’re much stronger united despite what many standing on soap boxes might think.

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  • Doug September 20, 2012 at 12:43 am

    Having struggled to get some highways transfered from ODOT to PBOT to avoid more car-centric ODOT standards, we now find that the Feds want to impose their standards on non-ODOT owned roads within the city as well. “Arterials” all across the country! They are even mandating what local street signs look like, in more attempts to remove all trace of local differences or control. Does Earl Blumenauer know about this?

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  • Oliver September 24, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Could an upside be that states with terrible infrastructure end up with some federally mandated highways with far better bike facilities than they currently have?

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  • Tom Murphy January 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    Any further information? What is the reasoning for this ‘enhancement’? Who/what lobbied for it? Does this restrict local initiatives?

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