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Advice for State DOTs Looking for More Money: Spend Smarter

The Oregon Department of Transportation is in a tough spot after it tried to justify highway expansion projects by saying they would cut greenhouse gas emissions. ODOT’s bogus claims helped sink a $350 million transportation funding package in the state legislature, and even some of the state’s Republican lawmakers are calling for agency director Matt Garrett’s head. What’s a beleaguered state DOT to do?

David Bragdon, formerly a leading planning official in Portland, has been pushing for systemic reforms at ODOT. Photo: Wikipedia

David Bragdon has been pushing for systemic reforms at ODOT. Photo: Wikipedia

David Bragdon, former head of Portland’s regional planning agency, Metro (he now runs the New York-based nonprofit TransitCenter), has some suggestions, and they’re relevant to other state DOTs too.

In a recent opinion piece in the Statesman Journal, Bragdon said voters and elected officials shouldn’t cave to the DOT’s pleas for more funding until its “transportation governance and management problem” gets fixed. Nor, says Bragdon, should the state DOT be allowed to direct the inquiry into its own flaws, which he says would be like “asking the board of United Airlines to report on why United Airlines performs poorly.”

Instead, he proposes two key reforms. First, give more authority over roads and bridges to the most local level of government that is practical. In other words, let cities decide for themselves how to spend transportation funds. And in a related idea, he says Oregon should abolish its arbitrary transportation funding split — in which the state keeps 50 percent of funding, 30 percent goes to county governments, and another 20 percent goes to local governments:

Oregon can develop a new, rational funding allocation method that discards the current non-strategic distribution based on outdated agency entitlements, and replace it with one based on spending money where it brings the highest return for Oregonians, regardless of what level of government is spending it. The current conflict of interest of allowing the state highway division to be simultaneously both a competitor with local government for federal funds and an arbiter of where federal funds go must also be ended.

Simply replacing the top people, or locating a new source of funding won’t fix what’s broken and restore public trust, Bragdon writes:

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Portland Suburb: To Fight Climate Change, Expand Highways!

Is more of this the way to beat congestion in the Portland region? Photo: Bike Portland

Is more of this the way to reduce carbon emissions in the Portland region? Photo: Bike Portland

Clackamas County, outside of Portland, has some opinions about the region’s plan to address climate change. According to Michael Andersen at Bike Portland, county commissioners have drafted a letter to regional planners saying the right way to control carbon emissions is to build more highways.

Scratching your head? Well, the misguided belief that building more roads reduces congestion, and thus emissions, is still deeply entrenched in American transportation bureaucracies.

Clackamas County wants more roads to be included in the climate plan from Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency. But get this — Metro’s plan already has a lot of road work in the name of reducing emissions, Andersen reports:

Metro’s draft version of that plan (PDF) calls for the region to dedicate 58 percent of related funding over the next 20 years — about $20 billion — to roads, even though the report says that “adding lane miles to relieve congestion … will not solve congestion on its own.”

Metro’s draft plan calls for $12.4 billion to be spent on transit, which it rates as enough to achieve a 16 to 20 percent cut in per-capita carbon emissions. The plan calls for $2 billion to go to improving biking and walking, which it rates as enough for a 3 to 6 percent reduction.

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Could the Strava App Provide the Biking and Walking Data Cities Crave?

This ##Strava map shows that people run and ride bikes all over the Twin Cities area.

This Strava map shows that people run and ride bikes all over the Twin Cities area.

Strava may be making the leap from feel-good gadget for hard core exercise buffs to serious planning tool for cities looking to improve active transportation.

Strava is a mobile app that runners and cyclists use to record their activities, track their progress, and see their stats and personal records. Its website shows a bunch of young, fit, white people in performance gear, riding 12-ounce racing bikes in an aggressive position or running through woods with their feet never touching the ground. “Prove it,” seems to be their motto.

Rather than proving bragging rights about your latest personal record, Strava might be able to prove the need for safe cycling infrastructure on a heavily ridden route, or the increase in use since a protected bike lane was installed.

In addition to showing users the maps of their own routes, Strava is now releasing its global data online, creating heat maps of where people run and bike — or at least, where they run and bike with Strava tracking their movements. Users can separate out running and biking — the maps in this article only show biking.

... while this ## map## highlights the east-west divide in DC's active transportation.

… while this Strava map highlights the east-west divide in DC’s active transportation.

Oregon DOT has caught on to the utility of this information and has become the first state transportation agency to pay Strava for its data. Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland reported yesterday that ODOT has paid $20,000 for a “one-year license of a dataset that includes the activities of about 17,700 riders and 400,000 individual bicycle trips totaling 5 million BMT (bicycle miles traveled) logged on Strava in 2013.”

This data matters, Maus says:
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Oregon DOT Asked State Residents to Drive Less, and They Did

In a small but symbolically important step for a state transportation agency, the Oregon DOT held a “Drive Less Challenge” from late October through November 1. Events like this one are held regularly in cities around the country, but it’s the first time a statewide department of transportation has hosted one, according to ODOT.

Oregon challenged its residents to drive less and they came through. Image: ## Drive Less Connect##

Oregon challenged its residents to drive less — and they came through. Image: Drive Less Connect

The people of Oregon did not disappoint. Motorists reported driving 913,664 fewer miles during the 12-day challenge. That total far exceeded the DOT’s goal of half a million miles. The program resulted in a reduction of about 659,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions and $225,000 worth of gas. Not too shabby!

The largest share of avoided car trips — 22,000 — were made by bike, followed by 13,000 carpooling trips, and 10,000 trips taken by bus.

Oregon plans to host the event annually.

“We think the broad involvement really shows how practical transportation options can be in saving families money, improving community health and preserving our high quality of life here in Oregon,” said ODOT Director Matt Garrett, in a statement.

This program fits within the state of Oregon’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by the year 2050, compared to 1990 levels.


Ten Questions (and Answers) About Oregon’s New VMT Charge

This summer, Oregon’s legislature passed a bill creating a vehicle-miles-traveled fee. For those who recognize the shortcomings of the gas tax for charging for road use, it was a big victory. But the program authorized by the state is a modest one, creating a voluntary program for just 5,000 drivers of high-efficiency vehicles.

Jim Whitty reads a mileage transponder in Oregon. Photo: NPR

ODOT’s Jim Whitty, the architect of the program, has been on a whirlwind tour, responding to requests from states for more information about what they’re doing in Oregon and how they’re pulling it off. Last week he came to Washington, DC, to speak with members of Congress, key Senate committee aides, White House staff — and this reporter. I got answers to these 10 questions I had about the new plan.

How did Oregon get past privacy concerns? They bagged the idea of requiring any kind of GPS tracker. “You can’t mandate GPS and get this done,” Whitty said. “You’ve got to give people options that don’t involve GPS.” Though a GPS tracker isn’t really more of a violation of privacy than your cell phone or E-ZPass, the issue has been an obstacle to rational discussion about the pros and cons of a VMT system. In Oregon’s first pilot VMT program, they gave out trackers, but people didn’t like having government surveillance devices in their cars. For the second pilot, this past winter, people could pick their own device from the marketplace, and they found that more comfortable. Plus, there’s an option to just report mileage from the odometer.

Was it hard to convince the ACLU? Actually, “the negotiations were really easy,” Whitty said. With just a few meetings, they worked out a way to meet the privacy requirements of the ACLU and the operability requirements of ODOT. What they came up with became Section 9 of the bill, which limits who has access to the data and requires those who have access — including private sector vendors — to protect it. And then the data is destroyed 30 days after it’s required for payment processing or dispute resolution.

Is this another pilot? Technically, no — it’s a permanent program. But it’s a severely curtailed one. Aside from the limitations inherent in a system that doesn’t mandate GPS tracking, it’s also designed as a voluntary program for just 5,000 users. That’s not how permanent programs are designed. If this works, it will only make sense for it to someday be universal — at least for some vehicle types.

Will gas guzzlers ever be part of a VMT pricing scheme? Probably not. It would be a net revenue loser for the state, since those vehicles pay more in fuel taxes than they ever would in VMT fees. And drivers of fuel-efficient vehicles bristle at the idea that people who pollute more would get a better deal. The fact is, what sold the Oregon legislature on the VMT fee was the idea that it promotes fairness and requires all drivers — even those with electric cars — to pay for the infrastructure they use.

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Washington, Colorado, and Oregon Win Top Bike-Friendly State Honors

The League of American Bicyclists' annual bike friendly state rankings.

Congratulations are due to Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Minnesota; those four states took home top rankings this year in the League of American Bicyclists’ annual Bicycle Friendly States appraisal. The winners were announced this morning.

Washington has held the top position for six years running. But there were a few shake-ups further down the list.

Delaware was one of the main up-and-comers, jumping from number ten to number 5. The Bike League’s blog praised Governor Jack Markell, along with the state legislature and advocacy organizations.

“The benefits of biking are countless, and that’s why I’m proud to support dedicated federal funding for biking and walking infrastructure,” U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) told the Bike League.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, meanwhile, said his state is not satisfied with second place.

“An important part of making Colorado the healthiest state is encouraging people to be more active in their everyday routines,” Hickenlooper said. “We’re proud that our bicycle-friendly policies have skyrocketed Colorado’s rank up 20 places in just five years, and we are committed to being No. 1 in the near future.”

Among the other most-improved states were Illinois and Arizona.

Michael Sanders, the Arizona Department of Transportation bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, said his state has been studying bike collisions and developing ways to reduce them.

These testimonies from high-ranking political officials prove how effective the Bicycle Friendly State program is at incentivizing a little good-natured competition to make cycling easier, safer, and more convenient for everyone. 

Here’s a preview of the top 15:

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Will MAP-21 Require Thousands More Dangerous Stroads?

Shown in red are some of the arterial roads the Oregon Department of Transportation thinks will need to be upgraded to comply with MAP-21. Photo: Bike Portland

An obscure provision of the new federal transportation bill is sparking concerns that it could erode walkability and bikeability in communities around the country. The so-called “Enhanced National Highway System” provision would require all major arterial roads to be folded into the national highway system. That could provide greater pressure for local entities to comply with AASHTO’s often highway-inspired standards, like wide lanes and shoulders that encourage car capacity at the expense of pedestrian safety.

The provision will result in a near doubling of the number of roads that will be part of the national highway system. But what will it mean for livable streets? There are lots of different opinions out there.

Jonathan Maus, at Bike Portland, who broke this story, said:

The significance of these roadways becoming part of the National Highway System is that if PBOT engineers want to make any changes that deviate from FHWA design standards for “principal arterials”, they would have to go through a cumbersome process of applying for exceptions.

In the words of a source at ODOT, “this designation basically forces state and local governments to treat arterials like major highways… Speed will increase, certain designs, like bulb outs, won’t be allowed without an exception. So on and so on.”

Travis Brouwer, senior federal affairs adviser for the Oregon Department of Transportation, echoed those concerns to some extent. Brouwer said the state was racing to reclassify its major arterials, up to 600 miles of road, by October 1, when the new law goes into effect.

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Oregon Takes the Next Step in Moving Beyond the Gas Tax

Rep. Earl Blumenauer likes to say that Oregon was the first state to adopt a gas tax and it will be the first state to get rid of it. In 2006-2007, the state conducted a pilot study of alternative revenue collection methods, with an eye toward moving to a better system. This fall, they’ll do another pilot, fine-tuning their process for replacing the gas tax with a vehicle-miles-traveled fee.

Oregon's VMT fee can be collected through odometer readings, but the system works best if people use more high-tech means of tracking miles driven. Photo: Fun with Num3ers

A legislature-appointed task force looked into two dozen methods of funding transportation and settled on VMT as the best one. With electric cars and hybrids growing in popularity, especially in eco-minded Oregon, tax collections at the pump don’t bring in enough to maintain the state’s transportation infrastructure.

During the first pilot, people raised some familiar concerns about privacy. They didn’t like having a government-installed GPS receiver in their car, tracking their movements. As it turns out, a lot of the resistance can be overcome if people can choose their own technology from the marketplace. They can just use their own smart phone, GPS unit, or OnStar device. After all, we’re already wired to the teeth with technology that tracks our every move. We just need to let those devices calculate the miles we drive.

“The government will not be a provider of devices,” said James Whitty, who manages Oregon DOT’s Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding. “We just won’t be. We can’t be. It stops the discussion of this. People don’t want the government to have anything to do with providing their technologies.”

Oregon DOT found that people were also more comfortable letting the private sector collect the data and process the payments.

While some would prefer a VMT fee based solely on odometer readings, that wouldn’t allow for dynamic pricing based on congestion and other conditions. But more importantly, especially when we’re talking about state tax collection, it doesn’t differentiate between miles driven in the state of Oregon, for which the driver owes taxes to Oregon, versus miles driven in Washington or California or Idaho.

Ironically, the people most vehement in their opposition to government tracking will have to deal with the government the most. For those who reject the technological approach — even with devices of their own choosing, and even with no transmitter of information out of the device – the state has been forced to come up with other options. But since they don’t involve private-sector technology, they won’t involve private-sector accounting, either.

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