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?

9 responses to “Introducing your Oregon Transportation Commission”

  1. Well, we have one entrepreneur—-and four professionals. Since professionals do not directly produce anything of value ( please do not give me an argument of what they “indirectly” produce) and since the educational lobby places high value on training more of them, does this mean that the path to sustainable professional employment in this state also means hosting a large army of people who actually do produce concrete value? I.e is this board going to favor policies that facilitate and encourage rapid population growth? It will take a lot of low paid “producers” to make the material goods that high paid professionals seem to want to buy. We still have a pyramidal society of lots of worker ants supporting the high paid professional classes.

    If we were able to export those professional services that would be a different story. Or have a short term, insourcing of professional services, e.g. education of foreign students. However, we still have a pyramidal society of lots of worker ants supporting the high paid professional classes.

    And that means a lot of people living in less expensive housing somewhere. In the past that has been the cheapo suburban communities, inner city ghettos and rural area redneck and tweaker havens.

    So…..I’m just trying to get at what the underlying philosophies of these board members are. Do they support a “new urbanist” vision for the other major cities and towns in the state? And if various modes of transportation, presently used, each become far more expensive, how will they handle the painful decisions of which to promote?

    Growth will make this state less livable, will drive up the costs of nearly everything, make community planning an endless series of headaches and distract our citizens from the more worthwhile pursuits that have made Oregon a good place to live and Oregonians great citizens.

  2. Of course the real tug of war here is between those who believe that the state should plan people’s lives for them as opposed to those who believe the state should provide an atmosphere where people can live as they please as long as they are willing to pay for it.

    In transportation terms, should DOT place transportation assets (LRT, transit) to “encourage” a certain lifestyle (car free, high density) or place assets to accommodate people’s choices of where to live and how to travel, without any motives to change “behavior”.

    Think of it this way: should the government or YOU decide what to put in your body, who you marry, where you live or other element of YOUR lifestyle. (If you answer government, be sure to happily accept dictates from the right as well as the left. And future whims of both.)


  3. JK,

    I choose to walk but I cannot do so safely and conveniently in my neighborhood due to its auto based design.

  4. JK,

    To quote a song lyric from the libertarian-leaning (and generally excellent) band Rush (further evidence of just how old I am), “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”.

    The notion that ODOT (or any government authority) is engaging in “social engineering” when it builds or deploys public transit, but is not doing so when it builds highways, is flat-out BS. Either way, the built environment is being affected in ways which impact everyone who lives nearby, and influence behaviors. When a government builds highways and passes zoning laws prohibiting the construction of apartments and other high-density housing, it is “planning people’s lives” every bit as much as if it builds transit lines and upzones. Pretending that one of these is the natural state of affairs (which would arise organically without government interference), and that the other only happens when planning forces it to happen, is nonsense.

  5. Until people are given a true choice of built environments within a metro area with all costs associated with transportation modes, we will not know what people truly want. Someone who lives in Washington County due to job circumstances but likes urbanism is not exactly choosing to live by their car.

    I think most of the pro-car arguments come from people who live in suburbia and cannot get around without their cars due to their built environment and ultimately ally with that form of transportation for that reason alone.

    That’s not to say that the anti-car bicycle zealots don’t understand that the automobile truly is a good form of transportation for people. It’s just silly to rely on this form for all trips.

    I’ve always argued somewhere in the middle of the bike-car spectrum. We need options available to people, and I think people would willingly choose a variety of those options, not just one.

  6. Before the UGB and zoning on steroids (as opposed to just keeping the pig farm out of town), people did have a true choice of where to live. That choice was exhibited by what they bought, not some manipulated survey or charrette/charade.


  7. Before the UGB and zoning on steroids … people did have a true choice of where to live.

    Tell that to the Native Americans.

    But that’s all completely off topic. The topic is the Oregon Transportation Commission.

    This is a pro-transit, pro-planning blog. That’s the baseline for conversation, as you were told just last week, and the week before that, and the week before that.

    Occasional challenges to basic assumptions are healthy and fine, but your constant repetition is off-topic. And your constant over-the-top ascribing of ill-motives to those who favor different policies than you (“those who believe that the state should plan people’s lives for them”) is unwelcome. Drop it.

  8. I have a choice were I can live, and so do you. There’s plenty of downtown highrise condos, suburban mcMansions, Orenco townhouses, pre-UGB quasi-rural homes on half acre lots, trailer parks, two-bedroom woodframe apartments, farmhouses, and SE Portland bungalows available.

    Now, some of these things you might not be able to get at a price you might like. And some of them (such as the category “quasi-rural homes on half acre lots”) one won’t find much new construction of, given that land-use laws these days discourage half-acre zonings. (While builders could, in theory, build fewer homes in a subdivision than the zoning permits–they make more money by building as many as they can get away with. Structure size matters greatly in pricing real estate; lot size, not so much).

    But there are many properties for sale of all different sorts, JK.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *