One of the most powerful transportation policymakers in the state of Oregon is “skeptical” that actions taken by government can influence peoples’ decisions on how they get around.

Lee Beyer is the newest member of the powerful Oregon Transportation Commission, the five-person board appointed by the governor to oversee and set policy for the Oregon Department of Transportation. That alone makes Beyer a very important voice, but his stature goes well beyond the OTC. As a member of the Oregon House and Senate he served 20 years in the state legislature — and is a former co-chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation. In that capacity, Beyer was one of the main architects of the landmark transportation package known as HB 2017. (He was also a staunch supporter of the infamous Oregon bike tax.)

At a meeting of the Oregon Transportation Commission in Salem on Thursday, Beyer was listening from the dais during the public comment period when environmental advocate Bob Cortright from the nonprofit 350 Salem stepped up to speak. Cortright (not to be confused with his brother Joe, also an notable ODOT watchdog), used his time to make the case that the Oregon Transportation Plan (being released in draft form later this spring) won’t meet its targets unless it does more to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Here’s the exchange (same as audio above):

Bob Cortright:

The draft plan won’t correct this problem, because it’s really silent about the scale of reductions in VMT and mode shift that are needed. Again, we need to double or triple the share of trips that are made by walking, cycling and transit and reduce VMT by 20%. So those should be clearly included in the OTP [Oregon Transportation Plan]. The draft plan won’t correct this. This is a recipe for an OTP that doesn’t make progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So again, I hope you make those changes as you go forward.

Lee Beyer:

Bob, I appreciate your concern. And the dilemma that I always see is, we can make it easier for people to walk or bike or whatever. And we can make it — I don’t know that we can make it easier for them to drive — But the issue is really self determination. I guess I’m a little skeptical. I come to believe that people are going to continue to do what they do what they want to do. And that it’s very hard to make that change. That’s more of a societal attitude issue rather than something that I think the [Oregon] Department [of Transportation] can do directly… We can make it easier… but my comment, or perspective is that I think as we move to less environmentally damaging cars, EVs or whatever, that people will continue to drive, because they like the freedom of personal mobility. That’s the frustration that I have with the system.

To have someone of Beyer’s stature say, essentially, that the state can have little influence on how many people will choose to drive or walk or bike or take transit, is very notable. Keep in mind that the room was full of top ODOT staff (including Director Kris Strickler).

One person I spoke to who was at the meeting said their jaw hit the floor when Beyer made his comments.

I reached out to Cortright after the meeting just to see if he was as surprised at Beyer’s comments as I was.

“I think it’s appropriate to be pretty shocked on several levels,” Cortright shared. “His comment pretty much denies and ignores the fact that public policy over the last 50-75 years has done boatloads to affect people’s transportation choices by the way we’ve built a very car dependent transportation system and then made driving essentially free.”

Beyond the very dubious merits of Beyer’s comment from a policy standpoint, Cortright feels words like that will serve to tamp down enthusiasm among ODOT rank-and-file. “It’s a bit fatalistic, it excuses the OTC and ODOT from any responsibility, and his skepticism sends a powerful message to ODOT staff that the OTC thinks all these efforts to reduce VMT aren’t worth it and what we need to do is just continue to make driving easier.”

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