GOP leader demands ODOT chief's resignation
SALEM Oregon Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, on Wednesday called for the states top transportation official to resign.
Ferrioli accused Oregon Department of Transportation director Matthew Garrett and advisers to Gov. Kate Brown of withholding key carbon emissions information from Democratic and Republican lawmakers who were negotiating a transportation funding package earlier this year. Ferrioli cited public records released by ODOT and the Governors Office.
Lawmakers gave up on the transportation funding proposal after Garrett revealed during the first public hearing June 24 that the plan would result in a smaller carbon emissions reduction than originally projected. ODOT staff had predicted smaller carbon reductions more than two weeks before the hearing, but did not pass that figure to lawmakers, according to emails released by Ferriolis office.
Lawmakers have continued to question the transportation agencys management in recent months, and Brown acknowledged last week that ODOT needs to reassure lawmakers it is operating efficiently in order to build support for a possible 2017 transportation funding package.
The emissions calculations were a critical component of the 2015 transportation negotiations. Republicans had said they would only support an increase in the gas tax if Democrats agreed to repeal the states low-carbon fuel standard, which takes effect in January and is supposed to reduce carbon emissions from transportation by up to 10 percent 7.7 million metric tons over the next decade.
Democrats said they would only consider replacing the fuel standard with a plan that would result in at least an equal reduction in carbon emissions. ODOT staff provided estimates that the state could achieve that through a package of alternative fuel incentives and spending to improve public transit and reduce traffic congestion.
One part of the plan in particular resulted in immediate skepticism by environmentalists: proposed technological improvements in traffic flows that were supposed to cut carbon emissions by 2.02 million metric tons over a decade. Together with other components of the plan, these improvements were supposed to reduce carbon emissions by as much as 9.1 million to 11.22 million metric tons over a decade. Garrett said on June 24 the technological improvements would yield roughly 20 percent of the amount calculated originally for the bipartisan group, which meant the transportation package would no longer achieve the same amount of carbon reductions predicted from the low-carbon fuel standard.
Ferrioli revealed on Wednesday that he had also asked the governor to seek Garretts resignation soon after the hearing.
In June, following the implosion of transportation negotiations, I demanded Gov. Brown immediately request the resignation of Director Garrett due to gross incompetency at best and dishonest manipulation at worst, Ferrioli said in a written statement. Whether Director Garrett knew the numbers ODOT provided the workgroup were wrong or he simply failed to provide the updated numbers in his possession, his decision to surprise workgroup members with new numbers in a public hearing without any advance warning led to the demise of a critical, bipartisan transportation infrastructure package for Oregonians that would have resulted in real carbon reduction.
Records obtained by Ferriolis office showed as early as June 8, Garrett and Browns sustainable communities and transportation policy adviser Karmen Fore received emails from ODOT staff with lower carbon reduction estimates. Amanda Pietz, manager of ODOTs transportation planning unit, wrote in the email that a computer model had predicted that $400 million in technological improvements to improve traffic flow could reduce carbon emissions by 2.02 million metric tons over a decade.
Nonetheless, transportation officials continued to provide documents to the bipartisan group of lawmakers negotiating the transportation package known as the Gang of Eight that showed the state could achieve the same 2.02 million metric ton reduction in carbon emissions at half the price, $200 million over a decade.
The ODOT estimates continued to sink lower, with Garrett passing along an updated prediction of 0.87 million metric tons in carbon reduction from $200 million in transportation improvements in a June 10 email to Fore and Browns energy policy adviser Margi Hoffman. However, ODOT and the governors advisers continued to tell lawmakers in updated briefing documents that they could achieve 2.02 million metric tons in carbon reductions for $200 million.
On the eve of the legislative hearing on the transportation package, Garrett asked his staff to double-check the numbers. Angela Crowley-Koch, legislative director for the Oregon Environmental Council, also questioned the calculations in an email to ODOT assistant director Travis Brouwer that evening.
Can we please see the ODOT models for the carbon reductions from transit and transportation operation? Crowley-Koch wrote. Ill admit surprise at the high level of carbon reductions from just $20 mil (annual) investment in transportation operations!
Chris Pair, a press secretary for Brown, attributed the failure to pass along updated information to lawmakers to the fast pace in the waning hours of session and the complexity of the legislation. That said, Governor Brown has asked the Oregon Transportation Commission to oversee a third-party review of (ODOTs) management practices, Pair wrote in an email.
Brown did not address her advisors handling of the information in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon.
If we are to ask Oregonians to step up and provide additional resources for our transportation system, they must first be confident that the resources currently available are being used responsibly, Brown said in a statement.
Hillary Borrud is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.