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

Posted by on May 22nd, 2013 at 2:56 pm

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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  • Evan Manvel May 22, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    As Joe Biden says, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

    Don’t want to be cynical, but I don’t really care how they’re structured, I care what they build (and don’t build).

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  • 9watts May 22, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    I look forward to actions following these nice sounding words.
    Barbur road diet? ODOT are you listening?

    Is it too much to expect a transportation agency to lead on these fronts, rather than admit that they’ve been caught with their parameters down?

    How come transportation departments in other countries give the impression of being much more flexible ideologically, open to celebrating bikes as solutions to the climate crisis, building the infrastructure to match the rhetoric, adopting policies that make driving less convenient?

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    • Chris Anderson May 22, 2013 at 3:16 pm

      Would live to see “discouraging automobile use” as part of the ODOT charter.

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      • Hugh Johnson May 22, 2013 at 5:49 pm

        If only our public transit was up to the task. Not everyone wants to be on a bike all the time.

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        • 9watts May 23, 2013 at 8:50 am

          Not everyone wants to be on a bus all the time. Why couldn’t we have both? Between all the non-car modes we know of I think we’d be pretty set. Besides with the waning of the automobile, ridership has to increase on our bus lines which (unless Trimet gums up the works) should translate into better service.

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      • spare_wheel May 22, 2013 at 6:04 pm

        Hear, hear.

        Slow down or eliminate motor-vehicles and the need for expensive separation disappears…

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  • Anne Hawley
    Anne Hawley May 22, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    Thanks for this great summary, Jonathan. The changes do seem to be meaningful, and accumulating pretty quickly. I’m sure you noticed the word “multimodal” being used at least once in Foxx’s confirmation hearing today, too.

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  • 9watts May 22, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    “Unfortunately, due to the 2009 Jobs & Transportation Act, ODOT is required by law to build dozens of new highway projects in the coming years.”

    Wouldn’t this be an interesting test of their sincerity to see how much they push back against this, work within the guidelines to do everything they can to put multimodal money where their multimodal mouth is? I don’t see in that language anywhere that the money can’t be spent in ways that benefit not just those sitting in cars. At least at the general level of the text at the link you supplied it says:

    House Bill 2001, also known as the Oregon Jobs and Transportation Act, is the transportation funding plan adopted by the 2009 Legislature. Three core themes emerged from the legislation:

    accountability, innovation and environmental stewardship;
    highway, road and street funding; and
    multimodal funding.

    Of course in the next paragraph: Where does the money go? it all goes to hell.
    -> $70 million/year goes to bond repayment
    -> $21.5 million/year goes to highway modernization (congestion reduction, traffic systems, etc.)
    -> $24 million per year to a program for highway projects and related planning activities.

    What happened to environmental stewardship, innovation, multimodal funding again?

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    • Spiffy May 22, 2013 at 4:13 pm

      I agree, a highway project could be a reduction in motor-vehicle traffic in order to accommodate other modes…

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      • 9watts May 22, 2013 at 4:26 pm

        Congestion reduction, for that matter, could involve a road diet. Ha. Induced demand can work both ways. Take away lanes, congestion goes down.

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        • Nick Falbo May 22, 2013 at 4:56 pm
          • 9watts May 22, 2013 at 5:04 pm

            Nice. Thanks for posting.
            And whaddya know – the European Union is all over that:

            …The European Commission is one of the first agencies to formally recognize and demonstrate this phenomenon in their 2004 report: Reclaiming city streets for people — Chaos or quality of life?

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            • gutterbunny May 22, 2013 at 6:34 pm

              Statistically more highway only increases motor use. “If you build it they will come” applies more roads than cornfield surrounded baseball fields.

              That’s the biggest problem with the Columbia crossing, more lanes doen’t improve congestion, it’ll just make more people suffer in the congestion.

              In fact I can’t think of a single highway project “EVER or ANYWHERE” that eased congestion or traffic. But I’m admittingly only a hobbiest on the topic, so I very well might be wrong. Feel free to correct me if that is the case.

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              • 9watts May 22, 2013 at 7:18 pm

                No, you’re not wrong.
                And what’s worse, ODOT knows it–has to know it.

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  • Garlynn Woodsong May 22, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    I don’t see specific mention of bicycles, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and it seems to make sense: If we want a network of Class I bicycle trails criss-crossing our state and providing the same level of bicycle inter-city connectivity that cars receive from the highway system — who better to build it than ODOT? They have the engineers and experience with the geology of this state to pull it off better than anybody else could. I say, let’s start with completing a Class I trail from Portland to Hood River, allowing bicyclists near-sea-level access from the east to the west side of the Cascades and back again, on a pleasant trail that mostly separates bicyclists from the emissions & safety hazards posed by immediate proximity to high-speed auto and truck traffic!

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    • q`Tzal May 22, 2013 at 3:53 pm

      ODOT blew up a whale, they can do anything!

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  • Spiffy May 22, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    I thought that the 2009 Jobs & Transportation Act just secured the funding and didn’t require them to actually use it…

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  • Andrew K May 22, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    Wow, very interesting. I can’t say I saw this one coming.

    I just wrote a letter to ODOT letting them know I applaud their recognition that changes need to be made and that I’ll be watching to make sure their actions back up their words (in a friendly way of course). I would encourage others to do the same.

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    • AndyC of Linnton May 23, 2013 at 9:14 am

      Yeah. Didn’t see this coming at all. I also wrote a letter commending and criticizing, in a respectful manner. Here’s hoping this pushes things forward.

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  • Rebecca May 23, 2013 at 10:12 am

    In my very limited experience of working with ODOT’s Region 1 on a class project, I’ve found them to be tremendously supportive and open to changes that would improve intermodal transportation on one of their state highways. Their statement seems sincere to me and I think that gives us all reason to be optimistic about Barbur, Lombard, Powell, etc.

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  • dwainedibbly May 23, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    Unfortunately, they’re moving towards a CRC-centric approach. The “away from a highway-centric approach” comes because there won’t be any State or Federal money for anything else if the CRC happens.

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    • wsbob May 24, 2013 at 12:12 am

      Tonight’s incident of the section of the I-5 Skagit River falling down, will no doubt intensify attention to real and imagined problems with the CRC, and support the arguments of people in favor of building a new crossing.

      I want to believe transportation departments in Oregon will draw back from highway/freeway, plain old ‘highway’, and general road and street projects intended for the most part to enable moving greater numbers of motor vehicles, faster, but at least for my area, Washington County, I’m skeptical about that happening.

      Even while ODOT officials are speaking in appealing, idealistic terms, it seems that here in Washington County, efficient inter-community travel over roads by motor vehicle continues to be very much a priority. As backed up traffic on old country roads, swept over by new housing development, intensifies…the same old solution seems invariably brought to fore: widen that road, add turn lanes. Oh…and sure…paint off 4’5′ of the shoulder for a multi-service-emergency lane-bike lane.

      There is some good bike lane related news recently in Washington County. bikeportland forum members mentioned this week about new buffered bike lanes near Ronler Acres: http://bikeportland.org/forum/showthread.php?goto=newpost&t=4363

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  • baycityroller1 May 25, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    Half of Americans drive and half don’t. That’s the bottom line. So why is it, then, that 10 times more public money is spent on roads than on public transportation and pedestrian and bicycling uses?

    At the very least, just half of public money should be spent on roads, but if you want to get down to brass tacks, then no public money, whatsoever, should be spent on the roads that serve private motorists, and all public money used by transportation agencies should be spent on public transportation.

    It’s a no-brainer.

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