Oregon’s transportation agency gets new boss who knows commuters’ woes

Kris Strickler is being promoted to run the Oregon Transportation Department. He has billions to spend and thousands of employees to manage while addressing outside critics. (Claire Withycombe/Oregon Capital Bureau)

SALEM — Oregonians fuming over stalled freeway traffic have a sympathetic person in a powerful spot.

Kris Strickler, a civil engineer who has spent the better part of his career in government service, is the new director of the state Transportation Department — and a car commuter.

“There’s probably nobody more motivated than me to try and solve the congestion problems,” he joked in a recent interview.

In his current post as leader of the department’s highway division, he’s usually driving from his home in Northeast Portland to Salem and to other parts of the state as needed.

If confirmed in his promotion, Strickler will take the wheel of one of the state’s largest and most impactful agencies, overseeing about 8,000 miles of roads, highways and bridges.

The state Transportation Commission chose Strickler over Victoria Sheehan, the director of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.

A third finalist, Randy Iwasaki, the head of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority and a former director of California’s transportation agency, Caltrans, dropped out before the commission’s final decision.

In picking Strickler, the state commission cited his familiarity with Oregon.

“Kris is very familiar with the transportation challenges Oregon faces,” Chair Bob Van Brocklin said in a statement. “As director, he will pursue a range of policies and programs to strengthen our multimodal transportation system in order to improve Oregon’s environment and economy.”

Strickler takes over an agency criticized for funding choices, contracting practices and over-budget and past-due highway projects.

Strickler received a glowing review from the chair of the commission but others involved in transportation issues described him as a “conventional” or “safe” choice.

Others doubted he could take on challenges like climate change, population growth, congestion or the state’s decaying infrastructure.

The state sought opinions about the job candidates from people involved in Oregon transportation issues, and the Oregon Capital Bureau obtained the comment cards through a public records request.

“Self assured,” wrote one commenter. 

“Cross river (WashDOT) relationships – valuable,” wrote another.

“Well versed,” wrote a third. “Knows system. Weak on intermodal. Forward thinking.”

Strickler had his critics.

“Know what the agency is getting w/ an internal employee,” said another commenter. “Candidate is a likable guy but lacks some of the moxie I am looking for in a leader.”

“No ‘top chair’ experience,” wrote Gary Milliman, of the Southwest Area Commission on Transportation. “Comes across as a manager, but not a leader.”

Later, Jillian Detweiler, executive director of The Street Trust, which works to promote and improve walking, biking and transit, called Strickler’s appointment “a huge disappointment.”

She said the transportation system is the state’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, is expensive and bogged down by congestion. She called for more options, such as transit, walking and biking.

“There is nothing in Strickler’s experience that suggests he is prepared to lead this shift,” Detweiler said in a statement.

Strickler may find himself embroiled again in an issue where he was a leader before — the project to replace the Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River, known as the Columbia River Crossing.

The episode became a boondoggle for state government several years ago, after Washington lawmakers withdrew millions in promised funding. Oregon spent more than $100 million on the project before it was canceled in May 2014, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

Strickler led the project for the Oregon agency from 2011 to 2014. He previously worked on the project for the Washington Department of Transportation from 2004 to 2010.

There have been hints of a revival of that project, and Strickler said that he would work with the Washington officials to consider what went wrong last time.

“On a project such as that, if we’re not reflective on those, maybe, bumps in the road that we had previously, we stand a risk of repeating them, and we don’t want to do that,” Strickler said.

For now, he’ll be busy taking over the state’s $5.3 billion transportation program, investing billions raised through new fees and taxes in 2017.

“Everybody’s watching,” Strickler said. “And we want to be seen as the agency that delivers.”

In recent years, legislators, auditors and even the Transportation Commission’s recent chair had insisted on more oversight and tighter management at the transportation agency.

Matt Garrett, who retired this summer after 14 years in charge of the state agency, drew fire from Republican legislators in 2015.

The criticism was triggered by his admission the agency had been too rosy in predicting pollution reductions that would result from pending legislation.

In 2017, an outside audit by McKinsey & Company found ODOT lacked self-criticism that could make it more effective, and found smaller projects took too long and cost too much. For projects costing less than $10 million, the agency ranged from 40 percent under budget to 90 percent over budget, the audit found.

And between 2006 and 2015, per the report, the agency almost never met its goal of completing 80 percent of its construction projects on time.

Strickler says he wants to make the agency more diverse, provide more transportation options and get input from a wider range of Oregonians.

Tom Fuller, agency communications director, asserts officials there have been “undertaking a massive cultural change.”

“It’s all about accountability, breaking down silos within the agency, being more responsive, all that,” Fuller said. “So Kris is coming in at just a perfect time to be even more of a catalyst for that kind of culture and culture change.”

Strickler has been the head of the agency’s highway division since last October.

He has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Washington State University, but said he enjoys the personal aspects of his work the most.

“In some ways, as I kind of started progressing through my career, I found that I really enjoyed that side of the conversation much, much more than the nuts and bolts and the engineering details,” Strickler said.

Before leading the Oregon highway division, Strickler was the southwest region administrator for the Washington state agency.

There, Strickler helped shepherd a pilot program to run public buses on highway shoulders, allowing bus riders to bypass three miles of traffic.

Strickler uses that as an example of how he will use personal skills to work with other agencies to resolve transportation problems like congestion and safety.

But he has a tough job ahead, observers say.

“I would say, going forward, the role of director is a challenging one,” said Rob Zako, the executive director of Better Eugene-Springfield Transportation, adding that the director doesn’t set policy but “has tremendous influence over the direction of ODOT and what they prioritize and what they don’t.”

Zako said Strickler is “objectively” a conventional choice: he’s an engineer, is currently working at the transportation department and has led the highway division.

Though he hopes Strickler will do “great things,” Zako feels concerns about ODOT’s transparency and accountability to Oregonians in the past means it could use fresh eyes.

“It raises the question of whether hiring somebody who has worked for ODOT, is already part of the culture, is necessarily the best leader to bring about that kind of culture change,” Zako said.

“I recognize, certainly, that some would have that opinion about ‘more of the same,’” Strickler said. “I think I would also say, though, that, you know, I’ve been at ODOT less than a year at this point, as I mentioned, and I think as part of some of my interactions both internally and externally, I’ve really tried to hold up the mirror, both to myself but to the agency, and recognize there’s moments and opportunities for us to listen to the public in ways maybe we haven’t in the past.”

Some are impressed with Strickler.

“I just have found Kris to be exceptionally capable and competent,” said Mike Salsgiver, the executive director of the Oregon Columbia Chapter of the Associated General Contractors.

About 20 percent of the association’s members build roads, highways and bridges, and they frequently contract with ODOT, Salsgiver said. They have a vested interest in how the agency functions, Salsgiver said.

“He’s easy to work with,” Salsgiver said. “He’s a very straight shooter and I think he will make an outstanding director for the agency.”

State Rep. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, who met Strickler and the other candidates for the job, said he didn’t hear Strickler address transportation in rural areas compared with the more populous urban areas, which Findley said tend to get more consideration since they serve more people.

“I was hoping to see that, and that just means I’ll work harder to ensure that there’s equitability in that process,” Findley said. “It’s harder to get funded for smaller projects.”

Strickler would be the 12th director of the Transportation Department, with a two-year budget of about $4.5 billion and 4,700 employees.

Strickler said he wants the agency to “demonstrate that we recognize our customer is the public.”

Strickler, 44, is married, with three kids — one each in college, high school and middle school.

A self-described “optimist by nature,” Strickler comes off as affable and avuncular.

During an interview, he used phrases such as “candidly” and “I will tell you.” Here and there, he wrapped up streams of thought by saying “to summarize.”

He seldom veered from the agency’s message, even when discussing his hobbies and interests outside of work. He hikes, bikes and golfs when he can.

“I tend to like to be as active as possible, it helps with some of the stress that comes with the job…and it also keeps things fun,” Strickler said. “There’s less and less time for that these days, and that’s part of the commitment to the job, and to the people of Oregon also.”

Have a story tip? Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148.