Is the Governor Serious About Transportation?

The legislature is going big on transportation infrastructure improvements, hopefully before it goes home. The Joint Committee On Transportation Preservation and Modernization has released the broad outline of a ten-year plan to relieve congestion across the Beaver State, which is now no longer just a Portland Metro problem.

This package of around $8 billion in spending on many needed projects, like the widening of HW 217, is an ambitious effort by the chairs and ranking members of both chambers’ transportation committees: Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Eugene, Rep. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay, Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas and Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, but can Oregon’s executive branch execute on this level? Secretary of State Dennis Richardson campaigned on the risks that the Oregon Department of Transportation cannot. An audit of our key transportation agency by his office found that ODOT does not proactively deal with unbalanced bid items, hazarding greater exposure to post-bid cost overruns than necessary.

It’s not clear Governor Brown shares the same concern. I don’t recall her making this the major campaign issue it deserved to be, but last September she did quietly direct the Department of Administrative Services to contract with McKinsey & Co., at a cost of $1 million, to study the problem. If she didn’t know how to handle it herself, I suppose studying the problem made sense for her last fall.

But her response to the study’s results, released more than two months ago, is puzzling. Strangely unable to immediately implement the recommendations of this expensive study, the Governor didn’t deploy her own staff to tackle this serious obstacle to effective transportation policy in our state. Instead, she asked DAS to study the study. The results of this second-hand study were officially made public the first week of April. It recommended more studies, with timelines stretching out through 2018.

The McKinsey & Co. report echoed the Secretary of State’s audit, finding troubling procurement practices and leadership problems, but Governor Brown seems satisfied with a March 1, 2018 deadline to establish “role clarity in the ODOT procurement department.” This prompted Oregon Republican Party Chair Bill Currier to remark: “These basics of good governance should not have to wait yet another year. Oregon’s transportation policy problems are real and have been mounting for decades. Given the amount of potholes on the I-5 between Portland and Salem, we’d think there would be a sense of crisis in our state’s capital.”

This does not seem to be a partisan issue. Democrats in the legislature have a sense of urgency and bite their tounges in bipartisan frustration that our Governor does not appear to share it.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change.