Chris Warner has left his post as the director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, a position he has held since May 2019. Warner has taken a job with new Oregon Governor Tina Kotek and will serve as her deputy chief of staff of public administration. In an email to PBOT staff this morning newly named PBOT Commissioner Mingus Mapps said this was “an unexpected transition” but that he’s “thrilled” for Warner’s new role.
In her announcement, Gov. Kotek said Warner will, “coordinate activities and oversee the new office’s efforts to better align the Governor’s office management and oversight of agencies and the policies they manage.”
Warner was named PBOT director in May 2019 and was interim director for about one year prior to that. This change isn’t all that surprising given that PBOT has a new commissioner-in-charge (Mingus Mapps) and because the City of Portland is just two years away from a massive overhaul of its form of government that is likely to bring sweeping changes to how bureaus are run.
Salem political circles will be familiar territory for Warner. His wife, Barbara Smith Warner served as an Oregon State Representative (for district 45) from 2014 to 2022. Prior to his job at PBOT, Chris Warner was a policy advisory for Governor Ted Kulongoski, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio, and most recently he was chief of staff for former Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick.
PBOT Deputy Director Tara Wasiak will step into an interim role while a national search is conducted for Warner’s replacement. Wasiak was in charge of PBOT’s Maintenance Operations group before she became deputy director.
It’s unclear whether the City of Portland will launch an immediate search for a new PBOT director given the lame duck status of our current government. The fact that we’re less than two years away from implementing the changes brought on by charter reform, we might see an extended run from Wasiak while the dust settles at City Hall.
Warner’s tenure as PBOT leader was defined by the racial justice protests and the COVID-19 pandemic. Warner once said equity was PBOT’s “north star” and in June 2020 in the heat of protest and outcry over the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, he vowed to make the agency more inclusive and “anti-racist.” That commitment led to PBOT staff trainings, a re-evaluation of all policies, a plan to “assess and address infrastructure priorities with Black-serving organizations, and other promises.
When Warner had the opportunity to influence a project on the commercial section of SE Hawthorne Boulevard in May 2021, he surprised many Portlanders by pushing through a design option that favored wider driving lanes and crossing improvements instead of bike lanes. Warner and PBOT (in a decision set in motion by former City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly) claimed the addition of bike lanes would be bad for climate change and racial equity because it would slow down bus service and require more driving trips from Black and other people of color who live in east Portland. That decision was “disappointing” to PBOT’s own Bicycle Advisory Committee, was called a “huge missed opportunity” by a notable member of the Portland Planning Commission, and was part of the rationale for a pending lawsuit against the City of Portland that alleges they have not complied with a state law that requires bicycle lanes on major road projects.
The rate of bicycle ridership in Portland continued to stagnate and fall during Warner’s tenure at PBOT, while the number of cars and drivers on our roads has increased. In March 2021 the Portland Planning Commission wrote a letter to Warner outlining their concerns that PBOT wasn’t doing enough to boost bicycling and limit car use. As more drivers have hit the roads and PBOT has failed to bolster enforcement capabilities, the number of fatal collisions is at all-time highs and the perception of safety on our streets is at all-time lows.
In February 2021 Warner dissolved the city’s Vision Zero Task Force and promised a new multi-pronged engagement plan that would include a “BIPOC-centered education and outreach” strategy, collaboration with Metro and Multnomah County, an outreach and marketing plan for automated enforcement, and a new informational dashboard to help inform the public on progress. The dashboard was released two months later.
In May 2021, former PBOT Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty shocked PBOT Bicycle Advisory Committee members when she revealed at a monthly meeting that she wasn’t aware of the Bicycle Plan for 2030 and that no one in PBOT leadership had briefed her on it.
Warner’s most significant legacy might be the development of the Healthy Business program, which awards permits to businesses to use more street space and public-right-of-way for outdoor dining. That program emerged in May 2020 as an emergency measure to keep businesses afloat when COVID-19 health restrictions prevented indoor dining and it grew to include street plazas as well. PBOT has since made it a permanent policy and it will lead to more carfree spaces citywide.
UPDATE, 12:43 pm: Here’s the announcement from Commissioner Mapps sent to all PBOT staff this morning via email (it also appears to be his first communication with them since taking over the bureau):
Greetings, Portland Bureau of Transportation staff; my name is Mingus Mapps, as you have likely heard I am the new Commissioner-in-Charge of PBOT. I am honored to serve with you and continue the great work that PBOT has been doing. As PBOT Commissioner, I look forward to improving livability throughout the city, increasing the safety and accessibility of our transportation system, and furthering climate change initiatives while addressing the bureau’s structural budget challenges.
With the shift towards building a Public Works department with Environmental Services and Water, there are new opportunities to elevate the innovative efforts from the three bureaus in the areas of procurement, asset and data management, equity and more. We can do big things together and by working in concert with our regional partners this year.
Last night, Governor Kotek announced that she will be appointing Director Chris Warner to her administration as Deputy Chief of Staff of Public Administration. It’s fantastic news for the future of state service delivery to have such an experienced leader in this new role.
This is certainly an unexpected transition and I am sad to see Director Warner leave PBOT and the City of Portland, but at the same time I am thrilled that he will be joining Governor Kotek’s team. In the immediate term, I am appointing PBOT’s deputy director Tara Wasiak as the interim director while we conduct a competitive process to select a permanent director this year. I and PBOT leadership are committed to a smooth transition and ensuring a stable environment for employees.
One of my regular practices as Commissioner-in-Charge is to host employee town halls so that I can engage with bureau staff directly. My kickoff town hall is not yet scheduled, but when it is you will be the first to know. I hope to meet many of you there.
Thank you for your service to our community. I look forward to working with you!