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ODOT launches initiative to move away from “highway-centric” approach

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The Intermodalists: ODOT Highway Division Administrator
Paul Mather and Transportation Development Division
Administrator Jerri Bohard.
(Photo: ODOT)

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has announced another shift in their approach to transportation planning and it couldn’t come at a better time. As recent national research and major news headlines continue to reflect a move away from automobile use among major swaths of the American public, and as highway funding levels nosedive, smart transportation agencies are beginning to adapt.

To respond to these changes, ODOT has announced “Intermodal Oregon” a new initiative that will help the agency “move away from a siloed and highway-centric approach to business.” Here’s how ODOT describes the transition they’re going through (emphases mine):

Like all public agencies, ODOT is facing challenges and changing expectations from the public. Funding is increasingly constrained, and because our footprint as an agency is not financially sustainable, we need to be more efficient. At the same time, economic and demographic trends are shifting the public’s transportation needs and behaviors, driving a need for more transportation options.

These forces all point toward the need for ODOT to evolve as an agency, moving away from a siloed and highway-centric approach to business. While ODOT began life as the Oregon Highway Department a century ago, today we are much more. While highways will long remain the core of our portfolio, today we have extensive involvement in rail, freight, public transportation, active transportation, and interfaces with aviation and maritime resources. Governor Kitzhaber has challenged ODOT and the state’s transportation leadership to reenergize this multimodal transformation.

You can think what you want about ODOT; but these are pretty big words coming from a large public agency. What’s even more encouraging about this announcement is that it continues a trend and fulfills recent promises made by ODOT Director Matt Garrett.

It started in July 2011 when Garrett announced the formation of a Active Transportation Section within the agency. That news led to talk of a new era at ODOT and a palpable sense of excitement from close observers and active transportation advocates.

Then in April 2012, Garrett said he’d scrub the term “Highway” from the agency. He changed the formal name of the “Highway Division” to “Transportation Division” and said it was part of his effort to “provide transportation options” and to “create an organization that can speak with a holistic transportation voice.” Evidence of that “holistic” voice came a few weeks later when Garrett announced ODOT would combine the agency’s two largest pots of active transportation funding into one in order to fund better projects.

The Intermodal Oregon announcement continues the trend at ODOT toward thinking about transportation in terms of how to solve problems with the best tools available, instead of simply defaulting toward more — and wider— highways. (Unfortunately, due to the 2009 Jobs & Transportation Act, ODOT is required by law to build dozens of new highway projects in the coming years.)

Today’s announcement was made by ODOT’s Transportation Development Division Administrator Jerri Bohard and Highway Division Administrator Paul Mather. In a joint statement published on the ODOT website, they wrote, “In the future, ODOT will be shaped by its functions and multimodal decision making will be integrated throughout the agency… As we continue this journey of agency evolution, the voices of our stakeholders will be critical to ensuring that we have the right end in sight and chart the best course to get there.”

ODOT won’t change overnight; but this continued evolution is very promising. Stay tuned.

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