Shifting gears: ODOT seeks input after release of climate change plans and policies
Big things are afoot in Oregon’s transportation system. But changing how we do things is hard. If we don’t intervene, we risk spending too much money on the wrong transportation projects, climate pollution worsens, and people’s needs aren’t met.
Transportation is critically important to the lives of Oregonians. The governor’s executive order on climate change—and the related state agency proposals to implement protections—will provide multiple opportunities for families, neighborhood groups, students, businesses, and all others to participate in shaping the way transportation projects will protect our climate with bold policies that meet our needs.
Transportation is how we access the jobs, education, goods and services we need to survive and thrive. Unfortunately, our current transportation system is fundamentally failing us. Not only does it produce nearly 40% of Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions and pollute our air, but the system doesn’t even do well at meeting our needs. It only works well for people who can drive and have access to a vehicle and money for fuel, maintenance and insurance, and it traps many of us into being dependent on an expensive, dirty mode of transportation.
Shifting gears on priorities for ODOT projects
Thankfully, we have an opportunity right now to change the way Oregon’s transportation system works. The Oregon Climate Action Plan (Executive Order 20-04) signed by Gov. Kate Brown last March includes many important directives for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and other state agencies that could pave the way for a cleaner, safer and more equitable transportation system in Oregon.
Under the Oregon Climate Action Plan (OCAP), the transportation department is directed to help achieve the state’s goal to reduce climate pollution by at least 45% below 1990 levels by 2035, and at least 80% by 2050. The agency is also directed to:
- Assess how to provide sufficient charging stations for electric vehicles throughout the entire state.
- Develop and apply a process to evaluate the pollution impacts of projects.
- Work with other agencies on specific steps to implement the Statewide Transportation Strategy (a plan to cut climate pollution) that was adopted into the Oregon Transportation Plan in 2018. The state has fallen way behind on this plan.
ODOT recently released two preliminary reports proposing actions and timelines to implement climate directives. The department has created a new Climate Office that will lead the implementation of the OCAP and the transportation strategy.
Oregon Environmental Council and our partners are tracking this work closely, and here’s our HOT take on what we’ve seen so far!
ODOT’s two reports show potential. The proposals will cut into transportation’s 40 percent slice of the state’s pollution pie, but the agency timelines are not nearly bold or fast enough.
We need to see more urgency. Critically, the reports don’t establish strong commitments to greenhouse gas emission reductions and equity benefits across the agencies’ investments, policies and programs. Oregon will not meaningfully reduce transportation emissions until we meaningfully change the way we approach transportation. Small actions around the edges are not enough. ODOT needs to shift from its antiquated identity as an agency that builds roads to accomodate an ever-increasing number of vehicles to an agency that sustainably and equitably supports the movement of people and goods.
This is very important because ODOT has big opportunities to shift course with some major decision points this year. The Oregon Transportation Commission, which directs ODOT, will lead the agency to:
- Establish strategic priorities.
- Update the Strategic Investment Plan that directs how money will be spent over the next decade.
- Begin narrowing the list of projects for the 2024 – 2027 Statewide Transportation Program.
- Update the Oregon Transportation Plan and Oregon Highway Plan.
- Continue work on variable tolling in the Portland metro area.
- Continue work on expensive projects in the Portland metro area, including the Interstate 5 bridge replacement.
ODOT staff will also be working with other agencies on several rulemaking processes to implement the OCAP, and OEC will be tracking and participating in those to make sure the rules are as strong as possible.
As agency leaders head into making these big decisions, we need to be vigilant to make sure that they are prioritizing climate and equity in the way they frame up and finalize their decisions. There’s good reason to think that ODOT may not yet be completely committed to reducing emissions. The reports set up an imagined tension between climate-friendly transportation and a thriving economy.
For example, one report indicates that “The Agency will strive to support investments that reduce or do not increase emissions when possible, balancing other important goals like safety and the economy.” This approach assumes that climate benefits are inherently in conflict with other goals.
In fact, reshaping a transportation system that supports climate and equity outcomes is likely to offer substantial benefits by maintaining existing roads, freeing up road space for freight movement, supporting compact mixed-use communities, reducing air toxics, and redirecting money away from land acquisition for new roads to bike, pedestrian and transit projects that provide more jobs for the money spent.
Your time to help helps us all
The work done by ODOT and other state agencies over the next two years could result in meaningful reductions to climate emissions in the sector, but now begins the real work of holding the agencies accountable to doing this right. OEC and our partners call on ODOT, the state Department of Environmental Quality, state Department of Energy, and Department of Land Conservation and Development to move more quickly and comprehensively toward meaningful climate action.
We expect improvements that benefit all families and businesses, especially those most vulnerable to climate impacts. We can make big changes, but we can’t afford to fail in our ambition or urgency.
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