Gov. Kate Brown's first major initiative since taking office in February, a sweeping $344 million transportation package, blew up today after a state agency acknowledged it had miscalculated the numbers on which that initiative was built.

The package's prospects for success relied on two things: repealing the low-carbon fuel standard Brown signed into law in March, and replacing it with a package of highway and transit projects that promised to cut emissions even more.

The key to getting reluctant environmentalists to agree to the repeal of their top legislative priority—and their biggest political victory in years—was for Brown and lawmakers to offer them something demonstrably better.

Brown and the group of lawmakers who've been working on a transportation package attempted to do so yesterday in the first and only meeting of the Senate Special Committee On Sustainable Transportation, a panel of senior lawmakers handpicked to spirit Brown's package through the Legislature.

The moment in the hearing on House Bill 2281B that turned Brown’s play into a political dumpster fire came two hours and 22 minutes in, when Oregon Department of Transportation director Matthew Garrett made an embarrassing admission: The largest new source of carbon-emission reductions in the proposed transportation package was an illusion.
 
The proposal Brown and her allies presented projected that if ODOT spent $20 million on traffic and safety improvements, the state could reduce emissions by more than 2 million tons a year. That amounted to 20 percent of the package's proposed reduction.

Garrett testified yesterday, however, the underlying calculations his agency had provided were wrong—they’d be only about one-quarter of the published figure.

He explained that rather than a reduction of 2.02 million metric tons, the reduction would be just 430,000 metric tons.

“We have to correct a mistake,” Garrett said.

Here's the crucial moment:




Sen. Doug Whitsett (R-Klamath Falls) questioned Garrett on how the figures could be off so much. 

"There must have been a humongous change in assumptions," Whitsett said.

Garrett told Whitsett that ODOT’s â€œnationally recognized” traffic modelers had erred.

“It was just a mistake,” Garrett said. 

ODOT's modeling has unraveled under legislative scrutiny before.

Under Garrett's leadership, the agency provided projections for traffic volume and tolling revenues for the proposed $3.2 billion Columbia River Crossing project that did not stand up to independent scrutiny. That mistake contributed to lawmakers' refusal in 2014 to continue the project after nearly a decade and $170 million spent on planning.

Brown's last-minute attempt to swap the low-carbon fuel standard for a transportation package was always going to be a long shot, given strong opposition among House Democrats. But opponents say Garrett's testimony yesterday amounted to a kill shot.  

Doug Moore, the executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, a leading proponent of the low-carbon fuel standard, says Garrett's testimony showed Brown and her allies were trying to move too fast and hadn't done a proper vetting of their facts.   

 

Environmentalists noted that some of the proposed new carbon reductions came from money already allocated elsewhere, such as a re-use of the public purpose charge collected from utility customers.

And the second biggest new reduction, 1.5 million metric tons, came from increased transit use—funded by $80 million in new payroll taxes. That was a a stretch because lawmakers could propose a payroll tax at anytime irrespective of negotiations around the low-carbon fuel standard.