Cars are seen filling multiple lanes of traffic on a highway or interstate, while more cars cross above them on an overpass.

Traffic on Oregon and Washington highways is nearly back to pre-pandemic volumes.

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Youth organizers from the Sunrise Movement have held rallies in front of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Portland office to protest the agency’s freeway expansion plans. We hear a response from the department and how ODOT plans to prioritize climate change issues. Brendan Finn is the director of ODOT’s Urban Mobility Office. Amanda Pietz is an administrator for the Policy, Data and Analysis Division. They join us with details.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: Yesterday on this show we heard from two young climate activists from the Sunrise Movement. They have been holding rallies every other week in front of the Portland office of the Oregon Department of Transportation. The group has several demands, including a moratorium on freeway expansions in the Portland area. We’re going to get responses today from the agency. Brendan Finn is the director of ODOT’s Urban Mobility Office. Amanda Pietz is an administrator for the Policy, Data and Analysis Division. Welcome to you both. I want to start with a clip from yesterday’s conversation. It’s pretty much an encapsulation of the Youth vs ODOT campaign. Here’s Adah Crandall, a sophomore at Grant High School.

Adah Crandall: ODOT has a choice to make: They can either choose to side with the youth who are fighting for our futures and for climate justice, or they can continue to side with the extractive fossil fuel industry and continue to expand freeways. Really it does feel like right now it is a matter of Youth vs ODOT because ODOT is moving us in the opposite direction that youth know we need to go to fight for a livable future.

Dave Miller: Amanda Pietz, the most basic argument here is that our collective car- and truck-centric society has played an enormous role in the climate crisis and that as a result, we need to make massive societal changes in under a decade. And that’s not only being said by Adah Crandall or other young people in front of your office, it’s the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), it’s the overwhelming policy consensus based on an overwhelming scientific consensus. Do you disagree with that consensus?

Amanda Pietz: No, Dave, not at all. We have a climate crisis that’s in front of us and we know that transportation accounts for around 40% of all emissions, or one of the biggest polluters out there, so we have to fundamentally change the way that we do business. The old way doesn’t work. In response our agency set up a climate office in 2020. I was the inaugural director of that climate office, and now oversee that and many other programs. [We’re] really acknowledging there’s a problem and we need to do something to address it.

Dave Miller: What are examples of how your agency is fundamentally changing the way you do business?

Amanda Pietz: We have to look at a pretty diversified approach. So, our core mission is making sure that we’re connecting people and doing that in a safe and efficient way and now a clean way. That’s the change that we’re trying to put on it. To get there we need to take a diversified approach. We’re investing more in low and no emission modes. Just over the last couple of years we’ve nearly doubled the amount of funding that we’re putting in biking, walking, and public transportation, But we also recognize that there are people [who] for whatever reason cannot bike, walk, or take a bus. We need to find ways to make sure that every single mile driven is clean. So, we’re doing a lot around transportation electrification. In the next five years we’ll be putting in around $50 million toward EV (electric vehicle) charging stations. And that’s not only about cars; we’re looking a lot at electric bikes and other potential, which really provides more access to a greater range of people for the way that they travel and increases the range they can travel by these modes.

Dave Miller: Brendan Finn, a couple years ago. Oh dot projected that by the end of this decade, only about 3% of Oregon’s cars would be electric. Has that changed or is that still the agency’s estimate, that despite electrification hopes and dreams were still looking at a tiny percentage of Oregonian’s cars actually being EVs?

Brendan Finn: Thanks Dave. I will defer back to my colleague Amanda because she’s the expert in our agency on that. Amanda, I’ll let you address that question.

Amanda Pietz: Often the projections that you’ll see out there are from our statewide revenue forecasts and that looks at how things have trended thus far. So, if trends continue the way they are, you’re correct, there will be a fairly small number of electric vehicles out there.

What we’ve done a lot of work around is looking at intervening steps that we can take to change that. We know that we need to create these interventions to change that curve and to really get towards electrification. We’re seeing the signs from industry with folks going all electric like GM. We’re trying to put in a lot of investments towards electric vehicle charging in a way that builds confidence in the marketplace, in addition to other state agencies, like DEQ, putting incentives out there. We’re really trying to do a lot of intervention in order to change that curve.

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Dave Miller: So, to go back to your line – you said you don’t disagree with the IPCC, and that we need to fundamentally change the way we do business. How [is] expanding a freeway in a currently congested part of the center of Portland an example of fundamentally changing the way you do business? If the business of ODOT has been building highways for cars and trucks, if that’s what it’s been for decades – it used to be called the Department of Transportation – how is expanding a freeway any different than the fundamental long-standing business?

Amanda Pietz: I think there will be locations that we’ll still need to address safety issues or severe congestion that’s impacting freight, that’s impacting people’s personal lives and ability to get to school or critical services, in ways like the big projects that you’re mentioning here, but those need to be very few and far between. Over the last 20 years, we’ve only expanded roadways on the state system less than 1%. It’s a very small number that we’re talking about in total. But we recognize, I think now different than before, that these projects might impact how people travel. We need to find these interventions to change that. Brendan might be able to speak a little bit more to congestion pricing as a way that when we’re doing these projects for other reasons and they’re deemed critical – local jurisdictions, legislators, and others have identified them – how do we mitigate the emissions that may come from them through tools like congestion pricing?

Dave Miller: Brendan Finn, this is something that we have talked about before. One of the arguments when your agency brings up congestion pricing as one of the tools in your toolbox, people have said why not start with that, see if it works, see to what extent it can actually solve the problems you’ve identified before you add more lanes. What’s your response to that in December of 2021?

Brendan Finn: I appreciate that, Dave. It’s obviously complicated by some of the issues that Amanda brought up, where [we] really have to look at some of the safety issues that are happening. And I know Rose Quarter is a bit of a red herring around this issue and I’ll just step right into that one. I think when it was originally conceived, there really wasn’t a lot of forethought into how the system would work. It’s the most narrow portion of our interstate in our largest urban area, compounded by the fact that there’s two other interstates that intersect there. That’s why it’s the most dangerous stretch of interstate on our system.

Dave Miller: How do you rank danger? What do you mean when you say the most dangerous? Is it that the most people are dying there?

Brendan Finn: Sorry, the most crashes happen on that stretch of road, so as Amanda was saying, how do we mitigate that? If we make those safety improvements, obviously, we’re taking this region-wide approach towards congestion pricing that no one has ever attempted to do before. It’s kind of known as the world’s best practice to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. We feel that if we take care of that bottleneck and safety issue at the Rose Quarter it will have an ultimate benefit to air quality and the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Dave Miller: We don’t have the time to get into the many arguments against that. Suffice to say that we’ve talked about in this show a number of times and a lot of economists say that this would be the first highway expansion in history that people can point to that would overall lead to a decrease in vehicle miles traveled and lead to a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. They say that you’re alone in arguing that this would be the highway expansion that doesn’t lead more people to drive. But I want to focus on a new critique that I’m sure you’re aware of. It came about a week and a half ago from the frequent ODOT critic Joe Cortright, the economist. He put out a report digging into the agency’s estimates given to financial markets about expected gasoline tax revenues through the end of this decade. This was his summary: “What ODOT official revenue forecasts are telling us is that the agency fully expects us to be generating just as much greenhouse gasses from driving in 2030 as we are today. Indeed,” he wrote, “the agency is counting on it to pay its bills.” Amanda Pietz, how do you explain this?

Amanda Pietz: I think it goes back to the earlier statement I was making. When we do our revenue forecasts it’s often looking back at the trends then and projecting those forward without necessarily seeing some of the interventions take hold and create those changes.

Dave Miller: I’m slightly confused by that, and that jibes with what an ODOT spokesman said when there was an article about it this week in Willamette Week. But aren’t you supposed to give bond markets a projection that is as accurate as possible? If the whole point is [to say] “trust us, we’ve got revenue coming in, we can back these bonds and here’s our estimate for how the money is going to be coming in,” why don’t you factor in all the things you say you’re going to be doing so economic markets can know to trust you?

Amanda Pietz: Part of what is done when we look at things is [that] we have to rely on something very solid – a clear policy change, a solidified investment that’s been amended into our investment strategy in a way that’s very clear, it’s solid. I think what you’re seeing is an agency that’s recognized that we’re a contributor to the problem in the last year and [is] starting to make some changes and modifications. Now when those take hold and the degree to which they’re solidified [so] that we can roll them into our financial assumptions, my guess is another six months to a year before you start to see some of those. Another key example of that is DEQ has its Climate Protection program which will set limits on fuel sales that will have a big impact on that revenue forecast. That’s in draft form, not finalized. When that’s finalized, becomes implemented, and there’s clarity around what that looks like, that’s when it gets rolled into the financial assumptions. Similar things for us, too. I mentioned we’re investing over $50 million dollars in transportation electrification. We should see fuel sales drop as a result of that. Until we figure out exactly where we’re placing that, how we’re going to leverage with our private partners to put those in the right locations, [that’s when] we can factor that into our revenue forecast.

Dave Miller: How confident are you right now that you can actually meet Governor Brown’s climate emergency order ordering state agencies including yours to develop plans to reduce emissions to 45% below 1990 levels by 2035? The revenue estimates that you gave to potential investors are nowhere close to that. You’re saying, “trust us because there’s other stuff in the works that will help us achieve our goals.” I guess I’m still focused on this disconnect. How likely is it, do you think, that you’ll actually meet those goals?

Amanda Pietz: It’s going to take a significant shift in the way we do business. It’s going to take significant resource changes to get there. Am I 100% certain? No, I think we all need to be working together to solve this problem, and we’re trying to identify [the] best ways to do it in a way that we can identify what’s feasible and how we get there. So am I 100% confident we’ll get all the way there? No, but we’re going to try the hardest we can to push on all fronts that we can. Back to your earlier question on certain projects still moving forward, our commitment overall across all our investments is to lower our carbon footprint and keep reducing it. So, we have an eye on that in a way that we’re going to start tracking it. We’ll have a website that will show and account for how we’re doing in terms of reducing emissions and what things we need to do to change that curve.

Dave Miller: Brendan Finn, what goes to your mind when you see these young people week after week in the cold or in the rain or in the sun protesting you and the people you work with and other state bureaucrats saying, “you’re messing up our future”?

Brendan Finn: I don’t think you could be a human being and not be affected by that. I know the work that we’re doing. It’s been such a difficult time these past two years to really engage meaningfully, and I know everyone’s suffered through that. Their passion rings through. I think we agree that there is a climate crisis and as Amanda said, we all need to come together to try to address it. I did go out there once and I talked to Chris Smith from No More Freeways. I don’t work at that office all that much but we want to be more engaged with that group and the youth, and I think that point is very well taken by the agency.

Dave Miller: Brendan Finn and Amanda Pietz, thank you for your time today.

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