As I begin writing this, Saturday night, June 29th, 2013, news of the death of the Columbia River Crossing freeway mega-expansion has just been published. Just hours ago the Portland Tribune broke the story: CRC champion and Oregon governor John Kitzhaber had admitted defeat, declaring the decade long project that has already wasted $170 million dollars as officially dead. Not only would there be no money for construction, but the Washington state senate refused to pass a transportation package with any planning funds for the CRC whatsoever. Shortly after the Tribune article came out, The Columbian updated that the CRC planning office in Vancouver will be closing shortly. I don’t think anyone had realized how close this thing was to total death until just now.
I began writing about the CRC freeway boondoggle with my very first post for Mismanaging Perception entitled Slaughter the Freeways: A Radical Livable Streets Movement. In that debut article, I referenced livable streets activists of generations past, and asked the question, “Where did these activists of the 60s and 70s go? Did they forget to teach future generations what they’d learned in their fight? Or did they try, only to fail to keep pace with the influx of young urbanites eager to enjoy the fruits of their labor, yet ignorant of how and why Portland had been transformed into a place worth caring about?” As was highlighted in coverage on BikePortland.org, my own answer was, “Where are the slayers of the Mt. Hood Freeway? They are right here, and they are us.”
Ironically, it was only a day later that Kitzhaber announced ”Now is the time to build this [10 lane freeway expansion and] bridge,” at the annual Oregon Leadership Summit. Environmental and livable streets activists went into full on panic mode, realizing that with a new Democratic majority in both Oregon’s house and senate, Kitzhaber wasn’t fucking around.
Despite making previous statements condemning sprawl-centric freeway expansions, the governor was ready to put everything into the CRC he could. As with his greased emergency legislative session to pass a tax giveaway to the hyper-rich NIKE, Kitzhaber managed in just a matter of weeks to ram through passage of a bill that would put Oregon $450 million in debt bonding out our state’s ‘share’ of the projected $4 billion CRC price tag.
Like most people who’d been following the lumbering saga of the CRC, I believed the project was close to dead until Kitzhaber effectively sounded the alarm. An ad-hoc grassroots team was thrown together. I personally sat in on conference calls, I helped plan and host community events, I ran the OMG CRC WTF?! Facebook page, I biked over 100 miles in one day with the #CRCbikebloc to witness public testimony in Salem, and I wrote about a dozen or so articles for MMP and Blue Oregon focused on the CRC. Most rewarding, however, was witnessing so many amazing people generously donate their time and energy towards stopping this nightmare. Fortunately, or perhaps not so fortunately, I also learned more about the corruption of politics in the last 6 months than in my entire life.
While many organizations like OLCV and Bicycle Transportation Alliance chickened out and chose not to fight the CRC at all, other groups like the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods and Coalition for A Livable Future went public with their stated opposition to the CRC, and actively organized communities to urge their legislators to condemn the regressive freeway project. It didn’t take much digging to find that on the BTA’s board sat four individuals from private sector corporations also listed on the CRC supporters page.
While this victory against the CRC should definitely be celebrated by livable streets and environmental activists, it’s important to also recognize and thank the budget-hawks on the other end of the political spectrum that hammered the nails in the CRC coffin. I learned a lot from talking with the more conservative side of our grassroots coalition. While there were a host of reasons to oppose the project, much of their loathing was focused on the light rail component. Putting aside the fact that the majority of the funds for the CRC were allocated for the 10 lanes of freeway, much of the right-wing criticism of LRT in this case made sense. Light rail is efficient in dense transit arteries where it can carry say 30,000-50,000 daily riders. But currently, C-TRAN buses over the existing I-5 bridge only carry about 1,600 people per day. Hardly enough to justify hundreds of millions to continue the MAX yellow line over the Columbia.
This experience has definitely taught me to look past party affiliations when judging the authenticity of politicians’ plans. It’s taught me to challenge authority, especially when the authorities try to pull false left-right paradigm arguments designed to make us mistrust one another simply because we may not agree on all other issues. It’s taught me to finally understand what the term ‘tax and spend Democrat’ really means. And it’s taught me that true people-powered politics that unify us across a spectrum of ideologies and values brings out the best in all of us.
To those that said we needed this project for jobs regardless of how poorly it was designed, I say to you this: there will be more projects, there will be better projects, there will be truly multimodal, jobs-rich projects – just not this project. The CRC was estimated to increase air pollution in North Portland by 32%. It would have increased traffic congestion, not reduced it. It would have limited navigation of watercraft on the Columbia river. It would have forced commuters to be tolled about ten dollars a day to use the bridge. And it would have robbed desperately needed transit dollars from projects across the state at a time when we have infrastructure literally falling apart.
Portland has a proud tradition of blocking and tearing down unneeded freeways. We did it with Harbor drive. We did it with the Mt. Hood Freeway. And now we’ve done it with the Columbia River Crossing.
Today is a day that should be remembered and celebrated as a day Portland and her neighbors northward said NO to wasteful spending and auto-centric mega-projects out of line with our values living past peak-oil and peak-car use. What role I played was minimal at best in comparison to some of the people pulling strings behind the scenes. Never the less, I feel honored and privileged to have met and to have worked along side many of them. Like the slayers of the Mt. Hood freeway, they are an inspiration to me and my continued activism here in Rebel Portland. Our city has dodged a major bullet, and certainly there will be other battles we’ll need to fight down the road. Yet for now, I revel in this victory. The Columbia River Crossing is finally and completely dead.
Pictured above: John Kitzhaber haunted by the ghost of Jane Jacobs.