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Eugene Weekly : News : 3.12.08




Stiffed on Stimulus

ODOT diverts cash from local, green projects

by Alan Pittman 

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has stiffed the local unemployed and the environment on federal stimulus money.

Out of $133 million of federal stimulus divvied up by ODOT so far, only about $2.4 million will be spent in Lane County. 

And at a time when everyone from Barack Obama to Gov. Ted Kulongoski to Mayor Kitty Piercy is calling for big steps to reduce oil addiction and global warming, ODOT will dedicate more than 90 percent of the stimulus money to highways.

ODOT did not dedicate any of the stimulus money for public transit. The state gave pedestrian and bike facilities only about 8 percent of the funds.

Lane County has about 9 percent of the state’s population, but ODOT allocated less than 2 percent of the stimulus money for locals. The county’s January unemployment rate of 11.9 percent exceeds the state rate of 10.9 percent.

The two local stimulus projects funded through ODOT include $2.2 million for a city of Eugene Delta Ponds bike path and bridge project and $180,000 for sidewalk and lighting work at the Eugene train station. The projects are scheduled to start in the next three months. That $2.2 million came from federal “transportation enhancement” stimulus money legally dedicated to non-road projects. 

Environmentalists had hoped that ODOT would allocate a much bigger part of the federal stimulus money to greener transportation. A coalition of nine environmental groups delivered a letter and 1,300 petitions to the five-member Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) calling for spending the flexible stimulus on a long list of bike, pedestrian and transit projects.

But OTC and ODOT apparently ignored the environmental lobbying. Bob Stacey, director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, said the decision was very disappointing. He said the environmental groups were “waiving their arms” trying to attract ODOT to ready-to-go green transportation projects. But he said the agency and governor’s office got “heavy pressure” from trucking and construction lobbyists and conservative legislators to use the money for highways. 

Another obstacle was ODOT’s almost exclusive internal focus on building highways rather than greener transportation systems, according to Stacey. “The Oregon Department of Transportation knows one job,” he said.

The OTC voted Feb. 27 to spend 90 percent on highways — about $64 million on paving, safety and enhancement projects and $41 million on road widening for more traffic.

The vote caused some blog commenters on BikePortland.org to accuse Gov. Kulongoski, who appoints the OTC members, of “greenwash.” Kulongoski has proclaimed soaring goals of reducing global warming, but has taken few concrete actions to actually reduce carbon emissions.

In a speech last year Kulongoski said, “I want Oregon to lead the nation in cutting greenhouse gases.”

But after his OTC voted zero stimulus for transit without a public hearing, the governor proclaimed, "I applaud the speed at which the Oregon Transportation Commission and the Department of Transportation moved … This is exactly the intent of the federal stimulus dollars.”

Other states devoted a large share of their stimulus money to environmentally friendly transit projects rather than polluting highways. Maryland, for example, devoted 39 percent of its stimulus money to transit.

The OTC plans to vote March 18 on how to spend the remaining $100 million in federal stimulus that it controls. 

Oregon counties and cities will also share about another $100 million in transportation stimulus money and decide how to spend it. The state allocated the local share of this money, $6.6 million, to the Lane Council of Governments to divvy up. 

LCOG staff recommended that none of the money go to transit projects and only 5 percent of the money go to bike and pedestrian projects. Eugene got $3 million for road preservation projects, while Springfield got $1.7 million. That split gives Springfield about 50 percent more stimulus money per resident than Eugene. 

The local Metropolitan Policy Committee is scheduled to approve the LCOG recommendation March 12. In contrast to LCOG, Portland Metro allocated about a third of the stimulus money it controlled to bike, pedestrian and transit projects.

Separate from the stimulus money allocated by ODOT and LCOG, LTD may get $6.5 million to preserve existing bus service from budget cuts and Amtrak may get money to preserve or enhance rail service to Portland.  

In another big blow to Oregon global warming last month, ODOT, Kulongoski and Portland Mayor Sam Adams have ignored environmentalists and lined up behind a $4 billion project to widen I-5 over the Columbia River to 12 lanes. Stacey, predicted a court battle over the environmental impact statement. “It’s clear there will be an EIS challenge.”

Stacey said he hopes to get a few tens of millions for green transportation projects in the governor’s $500 million transportation bill. 

There’s a danger that all the global warming rhetoric won’t amount to real transportation budget changes, he said. If the state doesn’t actually act on climate change, Stacey says, “there’s going to be a rebellion.”