BikePortland

Oregon Senate confirms ODOT director who says freeway widening is a climate change strategy


Director Strickler.

It’s official.

Kristopher “Kris” Strickler was confirmed by the Oregon Senate last month to become the leader of the Oregon Department of Transportation. Strickler was picked and vetted for the position by the Oregon Transportation Commission, (the Governor-appointed body that oversees ODOT) who offered him the director position back in September.

Beyond activist circles, Strickler — a fan of freeway expansions who once managed the failed Columbia River Crossing project for Washington’s DOT — was anything but a controversial pick. His confirmation was a formality. Even so, given the importance of his position, I thought it worthwhile to share his confirmation hearing — in particular an exchange with a legislator around how ODOT will address climate change.

On November 19th, Strickler sat down in front of the five-member Senate Interim Committee On Rules and Executive Appointments.

Here’s what he said in his prepared remarks (emphases mine and edited for brevity):

…I’ve got a little over 20 years in the transportation industry. I am a civil engineer, although I ask you not to hold that against me. I’ve worked for other state departments of transportation both in the consulting realm as well as directly as a state employee, so I have background in the public administration roles.

I’m excited to be considered. And I think part of my consideration has to do with my delivery background. I have a background in delivering both projects and policy at the department of transportation and other areas where I’ve worked. And I come from a background of partnerships. I have a core belief that the public really doesn’t care whose system they are on, what they care about is their trip and their ability to get there and their having choices within those trips that they need to make so that they can make the one that’s most convenient for them.

My background also has sort of a common sense approach to delivering improvements and projects, rather than a standards-based approached that you often hear about. So my approach going forward and my goal for the agency is to continue that effort and really expand upon those efforts within the Oregon Department of Transportation. 

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I have an eye toward diversity and equity and workforce development. I believe we have opportunities in front of us to operate the system and the underutilized capacity within the system, and we need to embrace technology as we do that and move forward. I also feel as though we need to deliver on our promises and I think the agency has done that and will continue to. What I mean by that, specifically, is addressing the congestion issues associated with more of our urban centers, as well as other areas across the state.

House Bill 2017 put a charge in front of us to deliver, and that is our target. And we have to deliver on other priorities as well, which includes embracing our environmental impact, embracing the work we have in front of us specific to the Statewide Transportation Strategy.

Senators then made comments and asked Strickler questions.

Senator Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) asked him about “pedestrian safety, particularly where state roads go into local roads,” and how he’ll use his position to “battle the ravages of climate change”.

Strickler on climate change:

“It’s clear that about 40% of the greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector, so it’s an important aspect to the work we do. I believe there’s no silver bullet. There is no single answer to being able to address the greenhouse gas emissions overnight. And it’s something that we have on our task list and our to-do list as we go forward. It’s a priority for us as an agency and we need to attack it on multiple avenues.

One is clearly through design decisions that we can make that can help free up and move congested areas. Because we know that, cars sitting in traffic, emitting the emissions is not necessarily the best way to manage greenhouse gas reductions. The other is element is around electrification of the fleet and other statewide priority-based decisions that are coming forward and that you’ve been discussing for the past two sessions. And so all of those things really do contribute to the overall strategy and we want to do our part in helping support that. As well as being leaders as a state across the country to the extent that we can.”

Strickler on safety:

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“For safety, that’s a really important topic for me because, as I mentioned before, the public really doesn’t have an opinion most of the time about which system they are on, what they really care about is what choices do I have available to me. So that includes multimodal choices, that includes active transportation, are we making communities walkable, those types of things. They don’t care necessarily whether or not it’s a city street or a county road or a state facility, they care about their ability to get there. That becomes very important as we start to work with our partner agencies. I’m a partnership based and a relationally based individual and it’s really important we foster those partnerships because those are the inflection points of where safety – especially pedestrian safety – come into play. We have to prioritize the ability of our pedestrian community to access the facilities and the land uses we have around transportation facilities. And again that’s regardless of whose system they are on.

Last thing I’d say is we’ve seen an uptick in the construction industry for the number of intrusions in the work zones and things like that. And while I wouldn’t necessarily categorize that as a pedestrian safety element, it’s certainly one of those safety lenses I would bring forward as part of this discussion. Any time you have a 70 mph vehicle moving next to an individual who is unprotected and within close proximity you have a safety issue. All of those factors are part of our safety efforts as we go forward. And candidly, as an agency, it’s something we take as our number one priority.”

Then Dembrow asked him about the I-5 Rose Quarter project (which is near his district). “I’ve been hearing concerns from constituents about the middle school that’s located just adjacent there, the Tubman School, and how we can make sure we’re mitigating impacts on those young people. I’m wondering what sorts of conversations you’ve been having — or you would commit to have — with Portland Public Schools about how to overcome that challenge?

Strickler replied that ODOT is already having conversations with PPS and will continue to do so. “What you have in that area is a population or community that has historically been disadvantaged by some of the transportation decisions, and other government-based decisions in the area as you well know,” he added. “Those conversations will be ongoing. We don’t have necessarily all of the answers for each of those today, but we want to have continued conversation.”

According to the PPS Board, those “conversations” aren’t going too well. They passed a resolution this week saying, “Neither ODOT nor the City meaningfully engaged with PPS during the planning process to assess the potential impacts, either short- or long-term, on the health of students and staff from environmental hazards of the freeway,” and that despite five meetings (where these “conversations” took place) they’ve, “Made no substantial progress to substantially address issues raised by Portland Public Schools… or offer alternatives to the current project plan.”

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Then Strickler once again shared his belief that widening I-5 with new lanes would reduce emissions. “We have traffic stopped there for several hours out of the day and when the traffic is stopped there we are increasing the emissions, or at least the localized emissions, in that area,” he said. “So the efforts that we’re putting forward as part of the [I-5 Rose Quarter] project to get the traffic moving a little bit better will actually help to improve that.”

Strickler’s confidence that getting traffic “moving a little bit better” will lead to emission reductions is surprising given that research on the topic gives reason to believe otherwise. A 2012 study published in the journal Transportation Research, found that simply reducing congestion will not lead to reduced emissions. “In the long run, capacity-based congestion reductions within certain speed intervals (e.g. 30–40 mph) can be expected to increase emissions… through increased vehicle travel volume,” the study’s authors noted. “Applying hypothetical level-of-service improvements [increasing vehicle throughput] reveals that large percentage speed increases lead to comparatively small or non-existent net reductions in emissions… Comparing these capacity-based mitigation strategies with alternative approaches indicates that the same or more emissions benefits can be achieved by demand or vehicle based emissions reduction strategies.” (Strickler’s belief about idling was “debunked” as an “urban myth” by City Observatory in 2017.)

Senator Brian Boquist – a Republican who made national headlines for threatening violence on Oregon State Troopers during a walkout over a climate change bill last session – lavished praise on Strickler. “I think Kris is the right person and the right change agent for the right time.”

Strickler was confirmed 5-0 in a block vote for dozens of other positions.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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