BikePortland

Time to tell ODOT how they should spend $1.2 billion


Crossing a street in The Dalles.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Here we go.

This morning the Oregon Department of Transportation announced the first step in a process to decide how to spend the $1.2 billion federal largesse headed our way thanks to the Biden infrastructure package, or what is technically referred to as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

With Oregon’s transportation priorities and the institutional culture of ODOT the focus of more criticism and attention than ever due to their stubborn allegiance to projects that expand freeways and driving capacity, how the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) decides to spend this funding will be a key indicator of whether or not our state is ready to begin a new chapter. It’s clear the status quo isn’t an option. The questions that face us are: How far beyond it can we push? And how fast we can get there?

ODOT needs our help to answer these questions, and a webinar planned for December 7th will your first opportunity to influence them.

To refresh, there is a lot at stake here because 1) there’s a lot of money on the table and 2) the timeline to get it “out the door” is relatively very short.

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ODOT infographic.

Beyond the usual flexibility ODOT (and cities) will have in how they spend federal funds, the IIJA has a “huge amount” (ODOT’s own words) of discretionary grant programs. ODOT Finance Director Travis Brouwer has told us he expects Oregon to win an additional $200 million per year from a program that will be managed by US DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg. That’s in addition to the 38% and 35% increases in “highway” and transit funding (respectively) already in the bill.

As for the timeframe, Brouwer said there’s about $150 million in funds that will have to be obligated within the next four months. That is lightning fast compared to the typical, multi-year process.

Speaking of process, you can expect to hear a lot from ODOT about the allocation of $2.2 billion for their Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) back in December 2020. ODOT staff have been touting that process a lot because they believe it shows their commitment to go beyond the car-centric investments of the past. The 2024-2027 STIP process was the first ever that scored the various funding proposals against climate and equity metrics. With that new lens, combined with a lot of public pressure, the OTC ended up funding the “non-highway” pot at $255 million, a 60% increase from the previous STIP, but still a small amount compared to the $865 million that went to traditional “highway” projects. (Keep in mind “highway” projects very often include bicycling, walking and transit elements.)

Note that in in their email this morning about the IIJA webinar, ODOT asked (emphasis mine), “Given the investments already made in the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program and the federal infrastructure bill, how should the OTC allocate flexible funding to best advance the OTC/ODOT Strategic Action Plan and the state’s transportation goals?”

There are many ways one could read that emphasis on the STIP in that sentence. Is ODOT trying to say, “We began a movement toward non-highway that we want to continue,” or are they saying, “We’ve already set aside a record amount of non-highway funding, so please be reasonable and let us use this money for more freeway expansions.”

Watch ODOT’s framing very carefully because they are masters at stacking the deck for their preferred outcome.

The other question ODOT wants you to answer is: “What are the specific priorities for investment of funds in public and active transportation?”

Three main priorities of ODOT’s current Strategic Action Plan.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the OTC/ODOT Strategic Action Plan includes “equity” and “multimodal transportation system to serve all Oregonians,” as two of its three main priorities.

So it’s time to organize your friends and your arguments and give ODOT an earful of good ideas and quality feedback.

Here’s how to do it:

Webinar: 12/7 from 9:00 to 10:30 am – Zoom meeting link

Public comment at webinar: Email chloe.craft@odot.state.or.us to get your spot. Each person will get up to three minutes to speak.

Written comment: ODOT is also accepting written feedback to share with OTC members and ODOT senior staff. You can submit comments online here.

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