SALEM — Gov. Kate Brown wants the Oregon Department of Transportation to hire a consultant to review the agency’s management practices. The review is supposed to reassure lawmakers the agency is doing everything it can to operate efficiently, as the Legislature gears up to pass a transportation funding package in 2017.
Earlier this year, lawmakers called for a performance audit of the agency and wanted to re-purpose some of its budget, as part of a transportation funding plan that ultimately died. One lawmaker who raised concerns was Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who questioned why the state spent thousands of dollars to send a staffer abroad to research alternatives to the gas tax.
Brown asked the Oregon Transportation Commission to oversee the “independent third-party review” during the commission’s meeting in Silverton on Thursday. However, Oregon Department of Transportation employees are handling the process of recruiting consultants to examine the agency’s management. ODOT has asked 16 different firms that conduct this type of work to weigh in on what a review should look like, ahead of an eventual request for proposals.
Tom Fuller, ODOT’s communications manager, said staff will work with the transportation commission to select a consultant over the next couple months. “The (Oregon Transportation Commission) is in the driver’s seat on this study and will receive regular reports and hold the agency accountable for implementing changes it deems appropriate from the study,” Fuller wrote in an email.
Karmen Fore, Brown’s sustainable communities and transportation policy adviser, explained the importance of the management review to transportation commissioners and agency administrators in a briefing before the commission meeting.
“It’s that when we walk in the (capitol) building with an ask, the first question is, ‘Is the agency well run?’” Fore said.
During a break in the meeting, Fore said she could not comment on the record regarding whether it would be a problem for ODOT to be involved in hiring the consultant who will review the agency. Fore referred questions to Brown’s communications staff.
Kristen Grainger, Brown’s communications director, wrote in an email that this is “the reason Governor Brown asked the Commission to play a lead role in it. The Commission’s role and charge include oversight and stewardship of ODOT, so their involvement in the review is critical.”
During the meeting, Brown said transportation is one of her top policy priorities, along with education and affordable housing. Brown and a group of eight lawmakers negotiated a deal during the legislative session that would have raised the state gas tax and vehicle registration fees to generate a total of $202 million annually for state and local roads and repay $400 million in bonds for specific highway projects listed in the bill. However, the proposal died soon after it was unveiled, when ODOT director Matt Garrett said during a hearing the plan would not reduce carbon emissions by the amount initially promised.
This was a key revelation, because Republicans had refused to vote for an increase in the gas tax unless the state’s low-carbon fuel standard was repealed. Democrats were looking for alternatives that would achieve the same carbon reduction.
“Oregon desperately needs a transportation package,” Brown said during the commission meeting Thursday. A funding package should pay for seismic upgrades to bridges and other transportation infrastructure, allow the state and local governments to catch up on long overdue road maintenance and reduce traffic congestion, Brown said. Most drivers dealing with congestion live in the Portland metropolitan area, but Brown said other areas of the state are not immune.
“Over the past five years, Harry & David Corporation has been challenged by freight delays to Portland,” Brown said. Eighty to 100 trucks depart daily from the company’s Medford headquarters during the busy holiday season, but sometimes the company had to divert them to the Port of Oakland due to severe traffic.
“In my mind, this is unacceptable,” Brown said.
Brown spoke about the ODOT review while she was delivering her charge to the transportation commission. The governor said she wants the commission to focus on three things: setting transportation policy, oversight of ODOT and engaging the public.
Susan Morgan, a member of the commission who is also a Douglas County Commissioner, said efficiency must be an ongoing effort.
“I totally agree with you that being able to present a case to the people of Oregon that this is an efficiently run organization, that we make good decisions, that we do it in a good way, is something to never lose sight of,” Morgan said.
Hillary Borrud is a reporter for the EO Media Group/Pamplin Media Group Capital Bureau and Oregon Capital Insider.