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Transportation funding plan hits ODOT performance review roadblock

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Plans for a comprehensive transportation funding package could be stalled by a delayed ODOT performance audit.SALEM — State officials have yet to launch a performance review of the Oregon Department of Transportation, nearly five months after Gov. Kate Brown called for the inquiry.

The delay could hamper efforts in the Legislature to pass a major transportation funding package in 2017, because some lawmakers are only willing to approve higher taxes and fees on drivers if the Department of Transportation can demonstrate it is operating efficiently.

EO MEDIA GROUPTammy Baney, chairwoman of the Oregon Transportation Commission, said during a meeting in Salem on Tuesday that the state could begin soliciting contractors to conduct the review in the next few weeks.

“The oversight committee has met,” said Baney, who is also a Deschutes County commissioner. “They have looked at and refined the scope of work. And they are currently looking to draft to send out.”

It was unclear what oversight committee Baney was referring to, and staff at the Oregon Department of Transportation and the governor’s office were unable to identify the committee Tuesday afternoon. Baney said a contractor might complete the review by December, although she added that “we may need to buy a bit more time.”

The Oregon Department of Transportation estimated last year the review could cost $300,000 to $500,000.

Brown asked the Oregon Transportation Commission in November to launch the performance review, with the goal of reassuring lawmakers about ODOT’s capabilities as the Legislature prepares to negotiate a transportation funding package in 2017. That legislation could send hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding to the agency.

Lawmakers raise questions

Concerns about ODOT’s management were in the spotlight last year, as Brown and a group of eight lawmakers negotiated a deal that would have raised the state gas tax and vehicle registration fees. The legislation would have generated a total of $202 million annually for state and local roads and repaid $400 million in bonds for specific highway projects listed in the bill.

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.

Lawmakers had raised concerns about the agency’s management even before that hearing, and the 2015 funding package would have required a performance audit of ODOT by the secretary of state’s office.

The Legislature questioned some of the agency’s spending decisions, such as $65,000 spent since 2003 to send a staffer to Washington, D.C., Brussels, Barcelona, Singapore and the Gold Coast of Australia to research alternatives to the gas tax, as reported by Willamette Week. The state shared the tab for some of those trips with conference sponsors.

Out of time

State Sen. Betsy JohnsonState Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, was at the meeting Tuesday, where a panel discussed transportation spending and funding ideas for 2017. Johnson said the management review would address concerns she frequently hears from businesses and lawmakers.

“It was, what are you buying with the money, and do we have the capacity to deliver?” Johnson said.

Johnson said that given the current pace of contracting for the review, the finished product might arrive too late for lawmakers.

“I’m not being disparaging, but it’s a complicated undertaking,” Johnson said of the management review. “(Lawmakers) come back in February and the package needs to start moving on the first day ... We’re damn near out of time.”

State Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, agreed it is important to finish the review in order for a transportation funding package to proceed.

“That’s really important to get done hopefully by the start of the legislative session in February, and I think you’re pushing it,” Beyer said.

Both Beyer and Johnson were in the group of lawmakers who negotiated the 2015 transportation package with Brown.

The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group. Hillary Borrud can be reached at 503-364-4431 or hborrud@eomediagroup.com.