Friday, May 31, 2013

Op-Ed: Transforming ODOT

Wait a minute. The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is changing its transportation planning focus from a highway-centric to an integrated intermodal approach? It’s about time a state DOT is attempting to get with the times and more need to follow suit. ODOT is shaking things up by retooling its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) and has formed the Intermodal Oregon Initiative to re-energize the agency with a multi-modal transformation.

Allow me to set the tone first as being hopefully skeptic. State DOT’s can be applauded for being black-holes of bureaucracy. I’ve learned from experience that squeaky wheels aren’t enough to get ODOT’s attention. There needs to be an impending sense of doom and disaster for ODOT to as much as glance in any direction other than highways. Hopefully for the sake of our infrastructure, this decision to “evolve” will bring it back to the squeaky wheels getting the grease.

Let’s face it, ODOT and many other public agencies are facing challenges. I think we all recognize that funding is increasingly constrained, but many transportation agencies seem to think it will be back to business as usual once people start driving more again. All the talk about shifting economic, demographic, and transportation trends gets pooh-poohed by transportation officials who blame the recession and think that Millennials will change their transportation habits when they reach middle age. NHTS Travel Trend studies are used to support this argument, showing that peak driving occurs during middle-age where people drive their kids around or travel for business. The jury is still out on which trend will prevail. I would argue that travel trends won’t return back to normal and ODOT seems agree. The driving boom era is either over, or we’ll see a new and different driving boom era about to begin.

ODOT has historically been narrow-minded about multi-modalism and has been opposed to doing anything more than just highways. Multimodalism and active transportation safety have not been a major concern. ODOT’s rehab of the Ross Island Bridge left the sidewalk unimproved during renovations in 2000-2001. They passed on the opportunity to add bicycle lanes to the 2005 rehabilitation of the St. Johns Bridge. This was even despite traffic-flow consultants’ bike-friendly alternative showed that freight traffic wouldn’t be impacted.

The issue isn’t just in Oregon either. State DOTs across the country are plagued with “Orphan Highways”, neglected state managed streets that bisect cities and towns. These streets were abandoned and left to minimal maintenance by DOT’s in favor of Interstate System. The unsuccessful “Orphan Highway Act”, introduced in 2003 and 2009, would have provided funding to state DOTs to improve roads like N. Lombard, SW Barbur, or SE Powell. Highway congestion was the only problem and increased highway capacity was the only solution.

All of those issues are starting to change for ODOT by breaking apart the proverbial department silos for each mode. The recently retooled STIP is no longer a collection of programs tied to specific pools of funding dedicated to specific transportation modes. Instead, the program is divided into two broad categories “Fix-It” and “Enhance”. The two categories allow for the broadest set of solutions to be considered and provide a maximum degree of flexibility to use limited funds.

The new STIP process was the first sign that ODOT was making changes. Then comes along the Intermodal Oregon Initiative which is working to rebuild the departmental silos into something new. The initiative created the Intermodal Leadership Team which brings together the leaders in each of ODOT’s departments into a new venue for intermodal discussion. The idea is to provide better opportunities to coordinate discussion and decisions so as to meet the state's changing transportation needs and to evolve towards a “solution oriented transportation system rather than focusing primarily on highways”.

These changes toward a more multi-modal management system are kind of a big deal. Oregon is making a big step in chartering a new direction for a state DOT. It's one that focuses on more than primarily highways and looks to integrate all modes of transportation. Let's hope they continue to head in the right direction. Other state DOTs would do well to pay attention to Oregon’s efforts and learn how to build on it to create something more than a lumbering highway building machine.  

1 comment:

  1. It will be interesting to see if ODOT pulls this off in a way that really works. I've got my fingers crossed that this will be a "good example" to the other DOTs.


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