Introducing your Oregon Transportation Commission

A few months ago, Portland Transport did an article on the TriMet board of directors, the not-very-conspicuous septet which oversee Oregon’s largest transit agency, and to whom GM Neil McFarlane reports. Today, we turn to arguably five of the most powerful transportation officials in the state, the Oregon Transportation Commission. Bike Portland did a similar article in 2009, but many of the faces on the commission have changed since then, so it’s time for a refresher.

So who are the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC), and what exactly do they do?
Who are the OTC?

According to the commission’s website:

The Oregon Transportation Commission establishes state transportation policy. The commission also guides the planning, development and management of a statewide integrated transportation network that provides efficient access, is safe, and enhances Oregon’s economy and livability. The commission meets monthly to oversee Department of Transportation activities relating to highways, public transportation, rail, transportation safety, motor carrier transportation, and drivers and motor vehicles.

The governor appoints five commissioners, ensuring that different geographic regions of the state are represented. One member must live east of the Cascade Range; no more than three can belong to one political party.

The commission is defined by law in ORS 184.612-613:

184.612 Oregon Transportation Commission; confirmation; qualifications; term; compensation and expenses. (1) There is established the Oregon Transportation Commission consisting of five members appointed by the Governor, subject to confirmation by the Senate pursuant to section 4, Article III, Oregon Constitution. The Governor shall appoint members of the commission in compliance with all of the following:
(a) Members shall be appointed with consideration of the different geographic regions of the state with one member being a resident of the area east of the Cascade Range.
(b) Not more than three members shall belong to one political party. Party affiliation shall be determined by the appropriate entry on official election registration cards.
(2) The term of office of each member is four years. Before the expiration of the term of a member, the Governor shall appoint a successor whose term begins on July 1 next following. A member is eligible for reappointment. In case of a vacancy for any cause, the Governor shall appoint a person to fill the office for the unexpired term.
(3) A member of the commission is entitled to compensation and expenses as provided by ORS 292.495. [1973 c.249 §3; 1981 c.545 §3; 1983 c.428 §1]

184.613 Officers; quorum; meetings; effect of vacancy; seal. (1) The Governor shall appoint one of the commissioners as chairperson, and another as vice chairperson. The chairperson and vice chairperson shall have such terms, duties and powers as the Oregon Transportation Commission determines are necessary for the performance of such offices.
(2) A majority of the members of the commission constitutes a quorum for the transaction of business.
(3) The commission shall meet at least once a month, at a time and place determined by the commission. The commission shall also meet at such other times and places as are specified by the call of the chairperson or of a majority of the commission.
(4) No vacancy shall impair the right of the remaining commissioners to exercise all the powers of the commission, except that three members of the commission must agree in the selection, vacation or abandonment of state highways, and in case the commissioners are unable to agree the Governor shall have the right to vote as a member of the commission.
(5) The commission may provide an official seal. [1973 c.249 §§4,9; 1979 c.293 §1]

Unlike the TriMet board of directors, whose members serve at the Governor’s pleasure and may be fired, transportation commissioners once duly appointed are entitled to serve out their terms.

The current commission

Currently, four of the five seats on the Commission are filled. Official biographies of the commissioners can be found here. The chair of the commission is Gail Achterman, who has a background in environmental law and economics. Her term ends in 2012; she has served three terms on the commission already. The vice-chair is Michael Nelson, who has a professional career in real estate, and has previously served in the Oregon Legislature (from north-central Oregon). Nelson’s term expires this June. The third commissioner is David Lohman, an attorney with a public policy background. Lohman’s term is up in 2013. Finally, Mary Olson is an accountant who runs a financial services firm, and who until recently also served as a commissioner for the Port of Portland. Her term expires in 2013. The fifth commissioner was Alan Brown, a tire dealer who previously served in the legislature and chaired the House Committee on Transportation, as well as previously serving on the Port of Newport board of commissioners; Brown resigned his commission in March and a replacement has not yet been named.

Is this the right mix?

The Oregon Transportation Commission is important because they essentially oversee ODOT–the Oregon Department of Transportation. While the ODOT Director is a gubernatorial appointee (one who serves at the governor’s pleasure), his/her duties are limited to an administrative role–major policy decisions are the responsibility of the Commission. The commission is designed (with staggered terms, the requirement for at least one Central/Easteron Oregon representative, and limits on political party membership) to be somewhat resistant to partisan politics.

One thing that isn’t required, however, is knowledge about land use or transportation. Some of the current commisioners have practical experience in land use and transportation (beyond serving on other boards or commissions), but several of them do not. Some of the professional backgrounds currently or previously on the commission could suggest a bias towards automobile-based transport and/or low-density land uses.

Governor Kitzhaber has the opportunity to appoint two new members to the commission in the next several months, as Vice-Chair Nelson’s term expires next month, and one seat is vacant. Nelson is a Democrat, and Brown was a Republican, so at least one of the new appointees cannot be from the Democratic Party (and the state legislature would probably not approve any minor-party candidates–tempting as it might be to circumnavigate the bipartisan requirement by nominating a Green, for instance). Who–or what kind of candidate–should be appointed to fill these two posts?

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