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Subscriber opinion: Governor Brown should lose ODOT leadership to win reelection

Posted by on October 11th, 2018 at 9:49 am

What is Kate Brown’s transportation vision?
(Photo: ODOT)

This post comes from BikePortland subscriber and contributor Kiel Johnson. He previously wrote about his grassroots effort to garner neighborhood support for the Lloyd to Woodlawn Neighborhood Greenway project.

In the latest Oregon Governor’s race poll Kate Brown is ahead by 4% with a margin of error of 5%. There have been alarms going off that Governor Brown is in trouble and many commentators are pointing to a lack of a compelling vision. Last year she helped push through HB 2017, one of the largest transportation budgets in Oregon’s history. Yet this additional money is not doing her many favors for saving her job. She has hardly mentioned her victory on the campaign trail. As people who spend time reading about the importance of transportation, it is crucial for us to figure out why transportation is not a topic of interest in this race.

I encourage you to leave your ideas in the comments below. Here are a few of my thoughts:

To get such a large transportation budget passed the Governor had to rely on her helmsmen at the Oregon Department of Transportation who do not have a relevant vision for transportation. One of the biggest parts of the plan is the Rose Quarter I-5 expansion that no one really seems to want and has raised significant pollution concerns for the urban voters she needs. And I-5 at the Rose Quarter is one of several major freeway widening projects funded by the bill. ODOT is moving full steam ahead with a plan to add lanes to I-205 and Highway 217.

The ODOT managers Governor Brown oversees have yet to realize it is not 1950 and wider freeways will not solve our transportation issues.

This bill focused too much on automobile infrastructure and not enough on the cheaper and more useful solutions that people in urban areas know work. If she had used a large portion of the money and rebuilt all the ODOT orphan highways to be thriving, human-scaled corridors Portlander’s would be lining up for their “Kate Brown for Govenor” signs. She would also have a compelling success story. Instead she relied on the out-of-touch leadership at ODOT to help her pass a bill with too much freeway spending that does not get at the heart of our transportation problem: There are too many cars in our cities.

Her bill also largely left out the cheapest and best way to get people around, bicycles. Instead, it taxed them. London spends $22 per person per year on cycling infrastructure as they race to catch up to the rest of Europe. What does Portland spend? The replacement value of Portland’s bicycling infrastructure was $60 million in 2008 when we plateaued our 7% bicycle mode share. With Brown’s transportation bill we could have replicated Portland’s bike infrastructure 88 times.

Kate Brown has let the same 1950s leadership that failed on the Columbia River Crossing continue to dominate her transportation department. The current leaders of ODOT apparently only know how to pour cement for automobiles. She could have had a compelling transportation story to tell on the fence urban voters who will decide whether she gets to keep the job. Instead one of her greatest achievements has not helped her. Whichever candidate wins in November if they want to make transportation a winning story they will need to clean house at ODOT first.

— Kiel Johnson, @go_by_bike on Twitter

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  • Wylie Dulmage October 11, 2018 at 11:07 am

    I have often found myself bewildered by how unpopular ODOT has made themselves.
    Sometimes it feels as though they are deliberately spurning urban transportation needs through some sort of contempt for us city dwellers. Not even the cagers are happy! I remember the bus ad campaign a few weeks back where ODOT was insisting the transit disruptions were necessary and for our own good. That felt particularly scornful. How are Portlanders going to get what they need from their state?

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  • dwk October 11, 2018 at 11:07 am

    Not to disagree entirely that Brown has not been great on Transportation, however I could not even find what Buehler’s position is….He apparently does not have one.
    He did vote no on increasing penalties for distracted driving, no on raising the minimum wage, no on increasing medicare funding, etc..
    Since he has no position on transportation except to apparently support cell phone use in cars, I don’t think this is a tough vote.

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    • Dave October 11, 2018 at 11:46 am

      I don’t live in Oregon but if I did Buehler’s voting against increasing distracted driving penalties would kill it for me–I hope he does not end up as your governor!!

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    • Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
      Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike) October 11, 2018 at 12:07 pm

      I think if she had shown what a progressive transportation policy looks like she could use that to show how democrats are different than republicans on transportation, instead it is pretty hard to tell how either would be different.

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      • dwk October 11, 2018 at 1:16 pm

        Both parties the same on transportation? Again Bueller does not even have a position and on the issue of transportation (which is all about climate change, really) the Democrat and Republican parties could not be further apart….
        While Brown is only minimally supportive of climate change in policy, we know what the Trump administration is doing, which is to exacerbate the problem.
        We need Blue state governors to stand up to Trump on transportation and environmental policies. Until and only if there is a change in congress, they are the only block we have.

        Buehler will never buck his party on this issue, this where all their funding comes form.

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        • 9watts October 12, 2018 at 7:21 am

          “Buehler will never buck his party”

          You’re missing the larger point here. Kate Brown doesn’t risk anything, stand for anything. Kiel is right; it is inexcusable and depressing.

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          • dwk October 12, 2018 at 8:35 am

            In all your comments on this thread, you fail to even mention an alternative…
            It is Brown or Beuhler, there is not a realistic this choice.
            What does Beuhler stand for?

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            • 9watts October 12, 2018 at 9:18 am

              I’m not exactly sure what you are driving at.
              Brown is a big disappointment, and Buehler is a dope who stands for everything I don’t. Is there a third candidate we could get behind?

              Can we have instant runoff voting, please?

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              • Middle of the Road Guy October 12, 2018 at 3:11 pm

                We agree!

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        • Middle of the Road Guy October 12, 2018 at 3:10 pm

          Transportation if more frequently considered an economic issue than a climate issue.

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    • B. Carfree October 11, 2018 at 12:31 pm

      In our highly polarized political environment, elections are won and lost based more on bringing out one’s base rather than getting the mushy middle to decide in one’s favor. (The most popular vote in the 2016 election was “decline to participate”.) I think the point here is that Governor Brown hasn’t given the public enough to inspire marginal voters to bother filling in their ballot, particularly in the transportation realm.

      In fairness to her, the transportation package debacle was led by her party, so if she cuts it loose in any way she is going to upset many inside players. On the other side, this is what happens when you aren’t leading and allow the awfulness of ODOT to guide you.

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    • Kate Johnson October 11, 2018 at 1:49 pm

      I don’t think it’s about a tough vote. For me, it’s about having to vote for someone based on my party knowing that person could be better. It’s hard to have a two party system sometimes for this very reason. Will I vote for Kate, certainly. Do I feel like she is working to her utmost potential? Absolutely not.

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      • 9watts October 12, 2018 at 7:23 am

        And she is counting on exactly that. This is the current playbook.
        They stick their necks out if at all only so far that they can scrape together 50.1% of the votes they need to win. But we lose every time.

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        • dwk October 12, 2018 at 9:58 am

          We do not lose every time if we vote and vote for the right party….
          There is a HUGE difference between what Obama did on climate (the Paris accords) versus what the Trump administration is doing (pulling out of the accord, dismantling environmental regs, etc.).
          If you cannot see that, it is hard to even know what your position is besides advocating for pie in the sky solutions.

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          • soren October 12, 2018 at 11:09 am

            The Paris accords are a complete farce. They are voluntary “committments” developed by each government and almost every nation is failing to live up to even these BS “committments”.

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          • 9watts October 12, 2018 at 2:17 pm

            “We do not lose every time if we vote and vote for the right party….”

            I guess that depends on one’s perspective. In my view we have one truly awful party, and one that is consistently a huge disappointment.

            “There is a HUGE difference between what Obama did on climate (the Paris accords) versus what the Trump administration is doing (pulling out of the accord, dismantling environmental regs, etc.).”

            I agree that there are tremendous symbolic differences, but in the end neither of them were championing anything close to what was/is going to necessary to avert catastrophe.

            “If you cannot see that, it is hard to even know what your position is besides advocating for pie in the sky solutions.”

            I make my perspective pretty clear here. You may think of what I’m advocating as pie in the sky, but just because our political system won’t deliver on these fronts, and we, collectively, are allergic to acknowledging constraints, doesn’t mean we won’t soon enough regret our follies.

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            • dwk October 12, 2018 at 3:05 pm

              So, just modifying what we can do is just doing nothing at all in your opinion….
              I would call you more of a nihilist than anything else. Your solutions are never going to be realistically attempted by any advanced culture, just not going to happen so you are content to eat popcorn from the cheap seats and just watch the ship go down with you in it.
              I think a better approach is to push for what we can achieve, move in the right direction.

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              • 9watts October 12, 2018 at 5:48 pm

                You may call me whatever you want.

                “Your solutions are never going to be realistically attempted by any advanced culture”

                That is your opinion. I don’t think you know enough to say ‘never,’ but either way I see no value in pretending that we don’t know what will be necessary as we go down this path, keep in focus how what we may be doing compared with that.
                This is a dynamic situation, and as the noose tightens we may be surprised how willing folks may turn out to be. In the meantime we can and will engage in modest gestures that bear little relationship to the magnitude of the problem, and you and I may disagree about the value of doing this. My chief concern is that those modest gestures are often represented as adequate, with no attempt to communicate hownfar short they fall. I see no value in obscuring this.

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  • David October 11, 2018 at 11:29 am

    I think there is a simpler argument to be made here: HB2017 is toxic. It managed to contain something to upset just about everyone.

    If you’re a cyclist you lament the bike tax and general lack of infrastructure funding. If you walk there really isn’t too much in there beyond the Safe Routes to Schools funding which is embarrassing if you compare that to any of the large projects that make ODOT drool. If you take transit, the payroll tax will definitely help bolster funding but it’s hard to see how much of an impact that will have as TriMet, for the Portland area, is moving slowly with enhancements. If you drive there is congestion/value based pricing to raise your blood pressure, which likely won’t be alleviated by the promise of highway spending.

    In short HB2017 managed to solve a problem by throwing a massive amount of money at a problem without fixing anything. Further, because the people allocating those funds were doing so based on fiercely held opinions, rather than goals centered around climate change (carbon neutrality), efficient movement of people, and the actual welfare of Oregonians (rather than perceptions based on aforementioned opinions), the funding is not going to the places where is could make the largest impact generally speaking.

    Sure, The Street Trust can tout the many wins in HB 2017, but it’s entirely countered and then some by the weight of what they don’t mention. That matters.

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  • John Liu October 11, 2018 at 11:51 am

    Transportation policy is complicated, hard to make into a campaign soundbite. The more you simplify the soundbite, the more vulnerable to charges of misleading.

    I think a candidate will lose more votes than they’d gain by being associated with a “war on cars”, especially among the voters who are leaning toward Buehler.

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    • Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
      Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike) October 11, 2018 at 12:04 pm

      I just don’t see anyone getting very excited about this funding, especially the freeway stuff. She briefly mentioned the public transit investment in her first debate when she was talking about climate change.

      I disagree about losing voters. I think if ODOT had a progressive stance that showed real leadership it would excite a lot of people. I would definitely be out campaigning for her right now if just instead of building more car stuff we were building human scale stuff.

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      • Let’s Active October 11, 2018 at 12:22 pm

        Kiel, you may not see the support for these big projects, but it is out there in the form of businesses, freight, and commuters across the region (and on the business side, across the state). The legislators have heard support for it, and the Governor’s Vision Panel, which formulated much of HB2017, Is behind it. Don’t get me wrong: I am not arguing against the reasons you don’t like the bill, but you are mistaken if you don’t think there is support for it.

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      • John Liu October 11, 2018 at 10:19 pm

        1. You represent a very small part of the Oregon electorate. What is the bike modeshare in Portland, in Multnomah County, in Oregon? 6%, 2%, 0.1%?

        2. You can’t get perfect, so you reject good? Reminds me of the folks who didn’t vote for Hillary because she wasn’t Bernie, and gave us Trump. Good job.

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        • 9watts October 12, 2018 at 7:27 am

          Not that simple, John.

          We know full well that monied interests hold plenty of influence in politics, but to suggest or imply that the rest, those of us who want and deserve a better ODOT leadership is only 6% or 0.1% is absurd. Why twist things that way?

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          • John Liu October 13, 2018 at 11:20 pm

            Here’s my logic. What is bike modeshare in Oregon as a whole? If it is 6% in Portland pop 600,000, it is probably around 1% statewide in Oregon pop 4.4MM. Then figure that in many or most Oregon towns and cities, the complaints that bike modeusers have are probably not as linked to ODOT as in Portland, where ODOT seems to control an awful lot of our local streets. And while auto modeusers surely have their complaints about ODOT too, what they would like to see is typically more lanes and less auto congestion – not really what bike modeusers want. Finally, what percent of voters are significantly influenced by transportation policy as opposed to being already committed to one candidate or another based on other issues like healthcare, gun control, etc? I’d guess very small. So, I think the percent of Oregonians who would vote for Brown over Buehler due to Gov Brown emphasizing her HB2017 accomplishments is very small.

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    • Greg Spencer October 11, 2018 at 1:38 pm

      All public policy is complicated — it’s a politician’s job to have a vision and sell it. Oregonians won’t buy a war on cars, but they might go for a transport vision that gives them better air, safer streets, reduced commute times, etc. Look at the way Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan sold New Yorkers on the pedestrianization of Times Squares: Opponents said it was anti-car, but the vision of a more livable Manhattan and faster commute times won the day. It was clever, well-planned politicking in the service of something good.

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  • Another Engineer October 11, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    Disclaimer: I work for ODOT.

    ODOT doesn’t represent Portland well because many of the assets are either interstates, rural highways and suburban arterials, the Agency would be best to just maintain these types of roadways. I think Kiel is right to identify orphan highways as a problem and HB2017 should have mandated jurisdictional transfers, instead of just study for jurisdictional transfers, of these roadways including funding to bring them to standards.

    Let PBOT build on their active transportation momentum, ODOT is unlikely to change quickly so just pass the funding through. In the meantime, ODOT can focus on congestion pricing of interstates and arterial efficiency. Both of which would reduce fuel consumption.

    Making PBOT the owner operator of most city streets would lead to easier conversations about deploying BRT and improved bus service to Portland, the east side in particular.

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    • Peter W October 12, 2018 at 6:16 pm

      > because many of the assets are either interstates, rural highways and suburban arterials, the Agency would be best to just maintain these types of roadways

      Apparently contrary to popular belief, ODOT is not in fact, the Oregon Highway Department. Why does ODOT spend most of its money and efforts on highways? Perhaps they didn’t get the name-change memo in 1969.

      ODOT needs to serve more than just highways – and more than just automobiles. Yes, let the locals control the state highways which the agency has neglected for years and which are currently killing Portland’s pedestrians. But that shouldn’t free ODOT to just focus on highways.

      Any modern agency claiming to cover an entire state’s transport needs ought to consider things like regional or statewide bicycle routes, bus service, and commuter and long distance rail. Yet as to rail – ODOT appears to have all of approximately 3 people* working on rail (and you might not even believe that, based on how slowly the agency has advanced the needs for non-car owners trying to get to Seattle, Eugene, San Fran, or Vancouver).

      * see

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  • nuovorecord October 11, 2018 at 2:18 pm

    “…why transportation is not a topic of interest in this race”

    I think outside of the denziens of message boards at Bike Portland, O Live, and maybe a couple other venues, the general public just doesn’t think or care about the inner workings of the state DOT, if they’re even aware of ODOT’s existence and function in the first place. Transportation isn’t a big issue in most elections at the state or federal level and doesn’t motivate people to vote one way or another.

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    • John Liu October 11, 2018 at 9:28 pm

      BP is an echo chamber.

      It is a comfortable one because, whatever our disagreements, we all ride bikes and generally believe in a bike-centric future.

      This echo chamber represents maybe 5% of the electorate.

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      • 9watts October 12, 2018 at 7:29 am

        That is a hopelessly static analysis. Why not invert this, imagine how much of the electorate could come to see this as important and work toward that (something I see bikeportland striving for). Approach this as a dynamic issue that could shift the conversation.

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  • redhippie October 11, 2018 at 3:28 pm

    Unfortunately, Gov. Brown has not been running on the basis of her record or vision. Rather she has been blowing the traditional dog whistles of reproductive rights and Trump is bad. Even her “environmental Insurance” announcement was really empty and hollow since there is are no effort to repeal or defund the clean water or air acts. Meanwhile, Knute is running on the issues of homelessness, education, health care and anti-corruption. The Govornor’s advisors definitely gave bad advice here.

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    • 9watts October 12, 2018 at 7:32 am

      “dog whistles”

      That phrase means something different than how you use it.

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      • soren October 12, 2018 at 11:13 am

        your lack of empathy for the immense discrimination faced by white dudes is noted.

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        • Middle of the Road Guy October 12, 2018 at 3:14 pm

          Soren, it’s been my observation over time that most of the things you advocate for on behalf of others also benefits you.

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  • Sam Churchill October 12, 2018 at 7:47 am

    Five things Brown could do for transportation in Oregon:

    1. Promote Neighborhood Bike Sharing:

    2. Propose High Speed Rail:

    3. Tunnels:

    4. Flying Cars:

    5. 5G Infrastructure for Autonomy:

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  • Jim Lee October 12, 2018 at 8:27 am

    Nice piece, Kiel.

    Ten years ago I testified at City Council that it was necessary to sack the head of ODOT if anything were to be accomplished.

    That view has not changed.

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  • paikiala October 12, 2018 at 10:33 am

    I thought the Oregon Transportation Commission set transportation policy:

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  • Jim Lee October 12, 2018 at 1:05 pm

    I am voting for Patrick Starnes, in hope of improving my skills at woodworking…if only it were Roy Underhill!

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  • Middle of the Road Guy October 12, 2018 at 3:10 pm


    I really wish there was an edit funtion.

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  • Middle of the Road Guy October 12, 2018 at 3:11 pm


    dang it.

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