COLUMBIA RIVER CROSSROADS
Can Progressive Eco-Warriors and Conservative Budget-Hawks Combine Forces to Stop the ’Build-Baby-Build’ Democrats?
by Hart Noecker
Ever have one of those nightmares you awake from gasping for breathe, pouring sweat, heart racing – only to look around and realize you haven’t woken at all, that the nightmare is still surrounding you, terrifying you, menacing your very existence? That’s how I feel every time I read about supposedly climate-conscious Oregon Democrats pushing the 10-12 lane, $4.2 billion dollar, miles upon miles long mega-freeway expansion infamously known as the Columbia River Crossing (CRC).
I moved to Portland over seven years ago during the first week of hurricane Katrina, a disaster which cost thousands of human and animal lives. It remains the second deadliest hurricane in American history, and it marked the beginning of the end for those denying the effects of burning fossil fuels. Shortly after, USA Today at long last ran an above-the-fold front page headline declaring: ‘The Debate Is Over: Globe Is Warming‘. Undeniably we had turned a corner from which there was no turning back.
Or so I’d thought.
Portland was a place I wanted to call home because, nation-wide, it was known as a “livable community“, a “green city“, a “place worth caring about” full of small, interconnected dwellings where people could live close to where they worked and shopped, and the idea of knowing your neighbor was still commonplace. These were dwindling American values I’d grown to cherish.
Sadly, these were values our nation threw in the garbage when we overlaid urban streets with rural road designs. Inner-city kids can no longer play in the street, our elders can no longer cross the street, and half our workforce is laboring for pennies a minute along soul-crushing highways serving up chemical-laden junk food and ringing-up plastic Chinese-made consumer trinkets.
Portland’s draw was being a city that bucked this trend, or had at least altered course away from the hazards of urban spaces dominated by a sea of automobiles.
The defeat of the Mt. Hood Freeway, the removal of Harbor Drive, the creation of Pioneer Courthouse Square and the adoption of a downtown revitalization plan spurred by incentivizing public transit were all game-changing victories in the battle for a grander city built for people. This history isn’t as well known as it should be, despite a rise in local media drawing connections between the unneeded, unwanted Mt Hood Freeway some 40 years ago and the politically controversial CRC of today.
For the last ten years, CRC planners and the corporate, political, and trade union backers who will profit from the expansion have been spreading propaganda. They collectively claim that the cure for congestion along the current bridge is to add more lanes – an argument that responsible traffic engineers and urban planners know is not only untrue, but is recklessly the total opposite of fact – more lanes incentivize more trips being taken by cars, not less.
The day the CRC opens it will fill to its new capacity, more congested than ever, with Washington and Oregon’s transportation budgets and taxpayers now slaves to maintaining this colossal mega-freeway for generations to come. So if this transportation truth is known by those who study such things, how is it that our elected officials persist in pushing mode-share myths from the 1950s? Like so many cases of questionable politics, the answer is simple: follow the money.
It’s no secret that trade unions view the CRC as a much needed source of jobs. The economic collapse was predicated upon a housing market that encouraged building bigger houses far from urban centers. Banks issued predatory mortgages to families that were told they’d have no trouble affording McMansion exurban homes miles from the nearest grocery store or doctors office in places that demand ownership of an automobile to get absolutely everywhere.
A quick look at where sprawl has taken place in our region alarmingly shows this trend ran rampant north of Vancouver in Clark county, where lax land use laws allowed realtors to rake in profits selling cheap land deep in what used to be the countryside. These same realtors and housing lobbyists are major backers of the CRC; they know the bridge will only push more car dependent communities into the lots where they will make the most suburban profit.
The ‘measles map’, truly a disease.
The irony here is two-fold. The multi-modal Common Sense Alternative (CSA), a plan that has been totally rejected by paid project planners David Evans and Associates (despite being significantly cheaper than the CRC) would provide more jobs than the current freeway expansion. Did you hear that, Unions? Additionally, the realtors and developers who are still pushing auto-centric sprawl are missing out on potentially hundreds of millions in profits by ignoring the sudden boom of young urbanites searching for low/no-car housing options and the surge of city-centric developers pursuing this cultural shift.
When faced with the facts that Americans are driving less miles, that current traffic on the current I-5 bridge has decreased over the last decade, and that recent polling found an astounding 77% of drivers may abandon the bridge altogether to avoid new tolling, CRC proponents often retreat into their last corner and pull the safety card: Earthquakes.
Nobody will argue that the current I-5 bridge would fare well in a large seismic event. Regardless, the current bridge still has a solid 50-60 years left in its natural life span (a fact that was quietly removed from ODOT’s website this summer). It has been projected that solving the earthquake problem alone could be done for a mere $50 million dollars. In a year where we’re being told tightening our austerity belt is so crucial, it is extremely dubious that these facts would be suppressed.
Recently, conservative budget-hawks have stepped up their game, citing reasoned, logical arguments backed by sound data (no joke) to propose adopting a policy of no new bridge construction of any kind. Some are calling for an audit of the project following allegations of “contracting irregularities, double payments, cost overruns, and violations of the Open Public Meetings Act”. While many in Clark county oppose the project based on the required light-rail component of the current design alone, it’s worth appreciating that if they’re willing to kill the entire freeway expansion in the process, who are we active-transit wonks to argue?
Streets were made for people.
While the number of deep ecology and livability arguments against the CRC are too numerous to list here, they seem to play well primarily in Portland’s bubble of tree-planting, pavement-removing, Derrick Jensen readers. This needs to change, but the economic arguments for killing the project are taking center stage in the media, and that’s a good thing – especially now that crunch time is here.
On December 3rd, 2012, governor John Kitzhaber and several other state Democratic leaders including incoming Oregon house speaker Tina Kotek and Washington senator Patty Murry spoke at the 10th annual Oregon Leadership Summit. Most noted by the media was their united support for the CRC. Kitzhaber promised swift action, “I met with legislative leadership last week and they agreed to prioritize this project in 2013″, adding, “it’s important to get this done by March 1st.” Kitzhaber went on to assure the crowd that his counterparts in Washington would do the same. Via recorded video statement, Patty Murray concurred, “You have my word that we’ll keep fighting to make this a reality.” The union leaders watching probably had a hard time sitting still.
I support the unions, I support prevailing wages for working families, and I support democracy in the work place. But what we have here in Oregon is an alliance between trade unions and the Democrats who win races by only 2-3% margins; Democrats who are terrified of losing races without union support if they fail to push projects that often serve only short term labor interests, and that consequently pass the economic and ecological buck on to future generations.
There is, naturally, dissent within the rank and file. As one lifelong union worker angered by the CRC and coal exports recently asked me, “What good are jobs that poison our children?!” The answer, seemingly, is that jobs that poison our children and contribute to our collective climate crisis are good for Democrats who will do anything to guarantee themselves labor support.
John Kitzhaber proclaimed upon leaving his 2nd term in office that our state is “ungovernable“. Apparently, he decided our state, at least for him, is quite profitable.
The governor has come under heavy fire of late for a shotgun legislative session to push through a tax give-away to NIKE, a corporation of ill moral repute who threatened Oregon with packing up and skipping town if they weren’t pampered with a fixed 40 year tax rate. It has also been publicized that Kitzhaber’s CRC adviser directly profits from the project by working for its largest contractor, the afore-mentioned David Evans and Associates, who have already gobbled up $27 million dollars planning and pushing the freeway expansion, the largest single sum of all involved contractors.
Greed + insanity.
Revealing these conflicts of interest and money-following has served to piss off the public and turn sentiments against the project, but it hasn’t deterred the leadership in Oregon and Washington, (despite the telling absence of any recommended CRC funding in outgoing Wash. governor Christie Gregoire’s proposed budget). How’s that for a diss?
Some say the Dems are bluffing, they know what a nightmare the project is, it will never get fully funded, and they are only pushing the project to appease labor. Maybe, but likely they’ve staked that 2-3% margin of victory on the CRC and the accompanying labor ground game needed each election cycle.
Just like with his December NIKE deal, Kitzhaber expects the legislature to do his bidding this very next session and pony up our states’ share of hundreds of millions in project dollars. ”The time to build this bridge is now,” he insisted on Dec. 3rd. Oregon and Washington must have cash ‘in hand’ to qualify for federal matching funds. Kitzhaber knows that post-fiscal cliff, getting federal dollars for the CRC will be his own never-ending nightmare.
So what do we do? Kitzhaber, Tina Kotek and the other outspoken reps who attended the business “Leadership” summit aren’t likely to budge. However, there are a many key state reps who may be on the fence, who know that selling their constituents on likely increased taxes for a project hundreds of miles away could well be political suicide.
So what we do is this: we contact our state legislators, and we tell them en masse that as bad as the CRC sounds now, if built, the Columbia River Crossing will be an infrastructural embarrassment by orders of magnitude. Long after the politicians who voted to fund it are gone or perhaps pursuing higher office, the people will still be asking, “What idiot thought this was a good idea in 2012?”
Do they really want a twelve-lane freeway expansion to be their 21st century legacy project? Please, ask your representatives this question. They may soon be scheduling appointments with $500-dollar-an-hour corporate lobbyists at their Salem offices, but nothing speaks louder than large numbers of angry voters.
Email them if you can, or call them during business hours, but best of all: write a hand-written letter, as this will garner the most attention. We are at a critical juncture to stop the Democratic party’s freeway onslaught, but it’s going to take progressive tree-and-sea huggers adopting some of the arguments from our adversaries across the Columbia and from Oregon’s conservative districts. We were making too many Vantucky and Clackabama jokes as it was.
We are at a crossroads, this is urgent. Our next Oregon legislative session begins February 2013, so the time to make your voice heard is right now.
We can stop the Columbia River Crossing. We can make sure the people tasked with making decisions on our behalf make the right ones regarding transportation in our region. We can continue our city’s tradition of being breathable, walkable, and bikeable – a city where kids get excited about exercising on their way to school, where block parties and Sunday Parkways thrive, and where tourists will still be lured here by NYTimes blogs about the livable streets ‘utopia’ that is Portland.
We must finally wake up from this CRC nightmare being perpetuated by the elected leaders of our state. To contact your respective state legislators, please click HERE.
See you in the streets. •••
Pictured above: various forms of protest.