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Oregon DOT Chief Under Fire for Claiming Highways Cut Emissions

9:22 AM PST on November 20, 2015

How often do state DOTs lie with numbers to justify building highways?

Oregon DOT Director Matt Garrett could lose his job for being dishonest about emissions projections. Photo: Jonathan Maus, Bike Portland
Oregon DOT Director Matt Garrett could lose his job for misleading the public about the effect of highway building on emissions. Photo: Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland

There's so much funny math buried inside air quality formulas or traffic projections, a better question might be: Do these agencies ever tell the truth?

Here's a case where a dishonest case for highways was flushed out into the open. David Bragdon, former chief of Portland's regional planning organization, recently accused state DOT director Matt Garrett of "incompetence or dishonesty." (Bragdon now directs the nonprofit TransitCenter, based in New York City.) He charged that bogus emissions data from ODOT helped sink a $350 million transportation funding deal in the state legislature.

Michael Andersen at Bike Portland explains:

Oregon Department of Transportation Director Matt Garrett is facing criticism from both sides over the incident, earlier this year, when his office and Gov. Kate Brown’s temporarily claimed that tens of millions of dollars in freeway investments would be part of reducing long-run carbon emissions in Oregon by more than 2 million metric tons.

Garrett was forced to admit in a legislative hearing that this number was way off-base. There is now a revolt against his leadership, Andersen writes:

When Garrett later retreated from that claim at a state Senate subcommittee meeting, it effectively killed a proposed bipartisan compromise that would have hiked state gas taxes by two cents and thrown out a forthcoming low-carbon fuel standard that’s expected to drive up Oregon gas prices but reduce greenhouse emissions per gallon burned.

As we wrote at the time, claims that freeway investments are energy savers usually rely on the false assumption that more free-access lanes reduce idling. That may happen temporarily, but they also tend to induce people to drive more and live further from their destinations.

According to emails acquired by Republican state legislators under the state’s open-records act, Garrett told two of Brown’s own top advisors about possible problems with the greenhouse gas reduction claims two weeks before Garrett finally told legislators that they were bad.

One of those gubernatorial advisors, energy policy advisor Margi Hoffmann, has since been replaced. The other, Karmen Fore, remains Brown’s top transportation advisor.

Even Republican state lawmakers are now pressing for Garrett's resignation. Republican Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli said Garrett's duplicity on emissions data led to the "demise of a critical, bipartisan transportation infrastructure package for Oregonians that would have resulted in real carbon reduction."

It's rare that bogus projections by a state transportation agency get this level of scrutiny. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Seattle Bike Blog shares a video from Elly Blue and Joe Biel about Portland's car-free street parties as a response to gentrification. And Spacing Toronto offers an interpretation of terrorist acts, like the recent attacks in Paris, that strike "geographies of hope."

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