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Election boosts public engagement in politics in Oregon (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)

In this Jan. 9, 2017, file photo, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown delivers her inaugural speech to Oregon legislators in the Capitol House chambers in Salem. Legislators are working on a package of transportation projects throughout the state, but also may be asked to weigh in a proposal to increase the accountability for the Oregon Department of Transportation. 

Albany Rep. Andy Olson is among the lawmakers who's been working for months to craft a transportation package for this year's Legislature to consider. The idea, of course, is to pay for badly needed infrastructure work on the state's roads and bridges. 

Olson knows this is important work, and in fact the transportation package is one of the key tasks facing this session. But he believes another bit of business may need to come first: Along with four other legislators, he's pushing for accompanying legislation to improve accountability for the state's considerable investment in transportation projects.

This accountability effort comes on the heels of a $1 million audit of the Oregon Department of Transportation that was done by McKinsey & Co. for the state Department of Administrative Services. The audit was released after The Oregonian made a records request. (A copy of the full audit is attached to the online version of this editorial.)

In general, the audit concluded that ODOT was doing a reasonably good job, but identified some areas for improvement. Among them:

• "Role clarity" needed to be improved among ODOT, the governor, the Legislature and the Oregon Transportation Commission (the panel of appointees that, in theory, oversees ODOT). In other words, who is responsible for what?

• Develop a five-year operating plan that identifies strategic initiatives.

• Cultivate a stronger culture of continuous performance improvement and accountability.

After talking to a variety of sources and combing through the audit, Olson's committee has crafted four specific suggestions:

• Have the Oregon Transportation Commission, not the governor, appoint the director of ODOT.

• Clarify the authority of the Oregon Transportation Commission. In particular, Olson said, arrange for an independent budget and staff for the commission. In addition, appoint an efficiency and accountability committee with members drawn from the commission, ODOT and the public.

• Create a "declaration of legislative policy" — in other words, Olson said, have the Legislature officially explain what it expects from ODOT. Such a declaration, updated regularly, would clear the way for improved strategic planning. 

• Create a project information website, which would include a "dashboard" listing progress on ODOT projects: Are they on schedule? Are they over budget? Who are the contractors? Such a website in theory could help to address one of the audit's findings, that many of ODOT's smaller projects frequently run over budget. (Of course, this also is true of some of ODOT's bigger projects, such as the effort to rework that stretch of Highway 20 near Pioneer Mountain.) 

Let's be blunt: None of the audit's findings, or the recommendations Olson and his colleagues are pushing, represent startling new insights into ODOT or the state of Oregon. But they do represent a reality of government: Sometimes even the most well-meaning agencies can lose their way in a thicket of competing agendas, mixed messages and bureaucratic infighting. And government agencies left to their own devices tend to become less and less transparent over time: This is one of the great lessons from Oregon's 1973 public records law, which started out as among the nation's best but which has slowly lost its teeth over the decades.

So if the proposal Olson is pushing isn't necessarily revolutionary, it still represents a common-sense set of solutions meant to bolster the confidence of state officials and taxpayers that ODOT is in the best position possible when (and if) it is entrusted by legislators with a fresh transportation package, with a possible price tag in the billions.

Olson sees the proposals as an essential precursor to the transportation package, and is confident that enough time remains to push them through the Legislature this session. But if this first piece of the puzzle runs into trouble with legislators, that could be an early sign that trouble awaits for the entire transportation package. (mm)