ODOT scrambles with federal expansion of National Highway System

ODOT scrambles with federal expansion of National Highway System

“We’ll make the best of it and hope we can find good ways to make this work so it doesn’t present a burden or pose unnecessary impacts on communities.”
— Travis Brouwer, ODOT Federal Affairs

Officials at the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) say they are “scrambling” to comply with a provision in the new federal transportation bill (known as MAP-21) that will add 600 miles of roads in Oregon to the National Highway System (NHS). This expansion of the NHS goes into effect October 1st of this year and includes roads currently managed by both ODOT and cities.

The implications for Portland (and other cities) could be significant, because it would mean several of our local streets — including ones that are crucial for bicycling — would suddenly be required to conform with design standards laid out by the Federal Highway Administration, instead of the more flexible local and state standards used today.

Among the streets that are impacted by the new law are NW Broadway from SE Grand to Burnside, Sandy Blvd from Burnside to NE Columbia Blvd., W Burnside from I-405 to the E. Burnside/Couch couplet (to 14th), SE Calle Cesar Chavez (39th) from NE Sandy to SE Powell, and others. The map below is a screenshot from an online map created by ODOT to help explain the impacts of the changes (the layer I have showing is new NHS roads not managed by the state):

The significance of these roadways becoming part of the National Highway System is that if PBOT engineers want to make any changes that deviate from FHWA design standards for “principal arterials”, they would have to go through a cumbersome process of applying for exceptions. Here’s how the FHWA describes it:

“For projects on the NHS, the criteria related to design speed, lane and shoulder width, bridge width, structural capacity, horizontal and vertical alignment, grade, stopping sight distance, cross slope, superelevation, and horizontal and vertical clearance, are controlling criteria and require formal design exceptions when not met.”

Or, in the words of a source at ODOT, “this designation basically forces state and local governments to treat arterials like major highways… Speed will increase, certain designs, like bulb outs, won’t be allowed without an exception. So on and so on.”

The NHS overlay onto streets like Broadway and Couch could make it much harder for PBOT to come up with innovative solutions to context-specific issues like right hooks, traffic calming, bike lane widening, and so on. They’d have to use design guidelines put out by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), instead of the newer — and less auto-centric — design guidelines published by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).


If the state or cities wanted to do something not in the AASHTO design book, they’d have to ask the FHWA for an exception. That process could take a long time and the FHWA, which is not known as being innovative or particularly bike-friendly, would have the option to reject the application (note how PBOT and the FHWA interacted on the green bike box experiment back in 2008).

“We’ll have to work closely with local governments on this. We’re well aware this could create a mess and we’re trying to figure out what kind of mess and what we can do to mitigate it.”
— Heather King, ODOT

ODOT says they’ve known about the provision for months, but they couldn’t move forward with anything until receiving guidance from the FHWA. That guidance came down just last week, and the October 1 effective date doesn’t give them much time to react.

No one at the Portland Bureau of Transportation — including its Director Tom Miller — was aware of any of this as of two days ago.

Officials at ODOT are still assessing the new law’s impacts. While the expansion goes into effect October 1st, there’s a lot more guidance still to come from the FHWA. “It’s a wait and see,” said Heather King, manager of ODOT’s Road Inventory and Classification Services (RICS) department.

“In meetings I’ve been in in the last couple weeks,” King said, “[it’s become clear] we’ll have to work closely with local governments on this. We’re well aware this could create a mess and we’re trying to figure out what kind of mess and what we can do to mitigate it.”

To try and understand more about the implications, I spoke with ODOT senior federal affairs advisor Travis Brouwer. He too is well aware there could be some negative consequences. “We’re still working through some of these implications and trying to understand how wide-ranging they might be,” he said via phone today.

Brouwer said they’re planning meetings with FHWA and local government officials, “So we can ensure expansion [of the NHS] minimizes any potential negative impacts on communities.”

“We’re hopeful,” continued Brouwer, “that with some of the efforts of ODOT over the years to provide more context-based solutions and the focus within the US DOT on livability and bike/ped infrastructure, we should be able to work through solutions and find ways to introduce flexibility to make sure we’re not preventing cities from building the bike/ped infrastructure they need. That’s going to be our goal.”

Brouwer is fully aware of the issues this federal mandate presents. He wasn’t sure what the underlying motivation was for the Obama Administration to take this step, but he described it as a way to “standardize the National Highway System across the states”. What the law did was to say that all “principal arterials” around the country should be brought under the NHS umbrella. “But what they didn’t realize,” Brouwer says, “is that even within states, principal arterials aren’t standardized.”

For example, there are many roads through Oregon that are currently classified as “principal arterials” but that don’t actually function anything like an arterial at all. The FHWA gave states the chance to reclassify roads so they wouldn’t be caught in the newly expanded NHS net, but reclassification isn’t that simple. It would take changes to Transportation System Plans and there is other process that requires much longer than the two week time-frame.

Brouwer expects to work closely with cities and the FHWA in the coming months to figure this all out. In the meantime, he says, “We’ll make the best of it and hope we can find good ways to make this work so it doesn’t present a burden or pose unnecessary impacts on communities.”

— View an interactive map created by ODOT division that shows which streets are impacted by the new law.

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