Monday, November 30, 2015

David Bragdon's Reforms for ODOT and our Transportation System

In yesterday's post "Former government official blasts ODOT" it was probably a mistake to start with David Bragdon's observations about the defeat of the Cherriots measure.

As a localizing introduction for the SJ to materials first written for a statewide audience and first given in Portland, they were wrapper, throw-away wrapper even, and represented very minor details. They weren't important to the argument and they weren't worth considering in detail. They were meant to draw in Salem readers.

The Cherriots intro was misleading perhaps
But they did that too well and Cherriots, not ODOT, is what folks have responded to. The comments on the Cherriots measure stoked continuing outrage about our disinvestment in transit and about foes of transit who ran an icky campaign. And while Cherriots and the Chamber is much easier emotionally to connect to than drier reflections on administrative dysfunction at ODOT and the Legislature, our transit mess wasn't the main target of Bragdon's analysis.

So let's see if we can redirect conversation to the meat of the matter. Here's the bulk of his policy recommendations (read the article for full context and analysis, and if that goes away behind the paywall, Bragdon's previous blog post duplicates most of the material):
Put reform ahead of dollars

[Other, better managed] states did not put more dollars into existing governance structures. Reform came first, with several key elements:

•Devolution: Significant authority was devolved from the state to local governments, which are accountable and attuned to the needs of their communities.

•Investing in outcomes: Some states have developed criteria to prioritize investments that have economic and social impact, not claims of “traffic reduction.” Some use measures of technical merit to break the expensive habit of composing wish lists of big projects designed to win the votes of selected individual legislators rather than serve public needs.

•Re-defining need: Some places have also ended the practice of agencies estimating their own “needs” without meaningful fiduciary oversight. Such independent verification could have averted the forecasting “mistake” that Oregon managers belatedly confessed to in 2015, an episode echoing the same management’s discredited traffic and finance forecasts for their Columbia River Crossing plan. [And the Salem River Crossing!]...

•The muddled layers of government defy accountability. The state, counties and cities all own assorted highways, roads, streets and bridges in overlapping rather than adjoining geographies....

•The formula of allocating most revenue, consisting of gas tax and other sources, is totally arbitrary: roughly 50 percent state government, 30 percent county governments, 20 percent city governments....

•The state government is both a contestant and a judge in the distribution of funds, an untenable conflict of interest. A state agency can be a regulator of local government (like DEQ is relative to sewage treatment plants) or a state can be a funder of local government (as Oregon is with K-12) but it can’t legitimately be those things and simultaneously be a competitor with local government, for example in both seeking and distributing federal dollars....
Reform No. 1

Rationalize street, road, highway and bridge ownership:

All streets, roads and highways are owned by the tax-paying public. The history of which agency first built a stretch of road should be declared just that: history. Responsibility for streets, roads, highways and bridges should be re-assigned to the levels of government whose geographic footprint and expertise best fits that type of asset.

The principle is, “decisions should be made at the lowest level of government that is capable of solving the problem.” Local agencies should control streets, highways and bridges in their territory, exactly like they control sewer and water pipes.

The state government has little expertise or accountability in managing roads and highways in an urban area, where most of the interconnected network is already owned and managed by local government and most trips are short. Local governments already possess authority over the land use decisions that are the primary influence on transportation demand, and they are directly accountable to the community.

This division of responsibilities would assign the state government the job it is best equipped to do: maintain long-distance corridors linking different regions of the state. By any objective measures of balance sheet, asset mix and employee headcount, the agency known as the Oregon Department of Transportation already is primarily the state Highway Department. This reform would acknowledge that reality and allow the agency to focus on its core competency, long-distance rural highways, including interstates, outside of urban areas.

Reform No. 2

Allocate funding based on return on investment:

We don’t say the state government should get 50 percent of criminal justice dollars to run the penitentiaries while counties get 30 percent to run jails and cities get 20 percent to run police departments. We don’t say the state government should get 50 percent of education dollars to run universities, that community colleges should get 30 percent and K-12 should get 20 percent.

But that’s exactly how arbitrary Oregon is with transportation dollars, “because it’s always been that way” — not a very persuasive rationale in the 21st century of limited resources.

We also wouldn’t assume the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections knows more about crime than police chiefs in Medford and La Grande do, or that his fiscal needs are automatically superior to theirs. But a corollary unwarranted assumption underpins the transportation regime.

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.
And again the conclusion:
While other states move ahead, Oregon has stuck with a balkanized and irrational transportation governance model. Glowing danger signals like chronically flawed forecasts, under-maintenance of core assets and increasing debt should alarm anyone concerned with Oregon’s competitiveness.

Systemic mismanagement is a sign there is something wrong with the system, not just with management. Oregon will only get back on the road when bold leaders recognize that governance reform is the only way to optimize the public’s investment in transportation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He also posted the SJ version on the blog -