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BTA at a crossroads with Columbia River Crossing project

“Moreso than any other project I can think of, this project has had the most divergent set of opinions within the BTA in a long time… We are still having a hard time stating our positions.”
BTA executive director Scott Bricker

After a year of working in good faith with the staff of the Columbia River Crossing project, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance finds themselves at a crossroads.

Despite the project’s contentious details, its potential ramifications for regional environmental impacts and massive funding implications, the BTA has remained on the sidelines of growing concerns about the project. Instead of opposing it, they have remained a supportive part of the massive planning effort that has been likened to “a train that no one wants to step in front of”.

When the BTA held a forum on the CRC last month they featured presentations from supporters of the project (one was a CRC project staffer and the other was BTA co-founder and Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder — who’s support of the project is the focus of a cover story in the Willamette Week).

The forum’s one-sided tone caused one former BTA Board Member, Steve Guttman, to fire off a letter to executive director Scott Bricker.

Guttman implored Bricker and the BTA to not support the CRC project. In the letter, he wrote that if the BTA continues to support the project they would not be able to, “maintain credibility as an advocate for sustainable transportation” and added that, “Portland deserves better, and BTA members deserve to hear the full story.”

When the BTA published an official position on the project (which laid out a series of “recommendations”) at the end of April, it drew criticisms from the community.

Matt Picio, a BTA member and the executive director of local non-profit riding club, Exchange Cycle Tours wrote in to say that,

“I object to the BTA’s official stated position and encourage the Executive Director and the Board of Directors to closely examine the mission and purpose of the BTA and how they relate to the CRC project. I don’t believe that supporting an expensive, unsustainable and ultimately unnecessary expansion of current capacity is in the best interest of the BTA or its membership.”

Lenny Anderson, a well-known veteran transportation activist and the head of the Swan Island Transportation Management Association commented that, “In the age of Global Warming I hate to see the BTA hitch its wagon the the CRC dinosaur, even if BTA’s surrender is conditional.”

” I don’t believe that supporting an expensive, unsustainable and ultimately unnecessary expansion of current capacity is in the best interest of the BTA or its membership.”
a comment from Matt Picio on the BTA Blog

Bricker acknowledges that the CRC has been a complicated issue for his organization. “Moreso than any other project I can think of, this project has had the most divergent set of opinions within the BTA in a long time… We are still having a hard time stating our positions,” he said.

The CRC reached an important milestone earlier this month with the release of its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The DEIS analyzes the five bridge design alternatives (including a “no-build” option) still under consideration and opens up a 60 day comment period for the $4.2 billion project (comment period ends July 1st).

Missing from those alternatives are several key components of the project that the BTA has pushed for for eight hours a week for the past year (a significant commitment of resources for a non-profit their size) as a member of the PBAC. Bricker has maintained from the start that the BTA insists that any new bridge has a “world-class” bike facility.

“Improving the Portland-Vancouver connection for bikes is a major priority for us. It’s on our Blueprint for Better Biking.”

Among the things the BTA hoped to accomplish in the committee was to have the CRC staff consider a 20-foot wide bike lane on both sides of the bridge (the DEIS offers nothing even close to that), to have them take a closer look at an 8-lane span (a 12-lane bridge is still strongly favored), and have them offer assurances that increased traffic would not spill into North Portland streets and that the $4.2 billion price tag would not divert funds from other projects (no such assurances have been made).

In recent months, as criticisms and hard questions have been leveled at the project from environmental advocacy groups like the Coalition for a Livable Future and SmaterBridge.org, the BTA has found themselves in a tricky position: do they continue to be part of the process, being neutral (if not supportive) of the project?; or do they become a vocal critic and risk losing a seat at the table?

Bricker admits that there was a wide range of feelings about the project within the BTA, but he decided to take a gamble and continue to try and work from within to get what they wanted.

Before the DEIS came out, a conflicted Bricker told me, “I’m not sure if we’ve played this right, but we’ve tried to lay an infrastructure [of relationships with CRC staff]…and now we’ll have power once the DEIS comes out.”

Bricker’s thinking was that by remaining neutral and supportive of the process, the BTA would have every right to raise questions about the project once the DEIS came out.

Now that the DEIS is out, it’s clear that the CRC project staff have not addressed the BTA’s recommendations. Bricker says as a result, he plans to increase the BTA’s advocacy around the issue.

According Bricker, he and his staff are working on a new advocacy strategy. “We will continue working for our recommendations, but we’re taking more of an advocacy approach to make sure people get engaged.” In addition to getting more vocal about the DEIS and encouraging the community to submit comments, Bricker said he plans to sign onto a petition filed by the Coalition for a Livable Future that requests a 60-day extension of the public comment period.

“Having 60 days to review a 9,000 page document…that’s really challenging. We want to make sure no one rushes to a decision on this.”

Even with increased advocacy around the project from the BTA in the months to come, questions remain.

Has the BTA’s tacit support of the project and reluctance to rock the boat made it easier for the CRC to seriously consider “world-class” bicycle facilities on the bridge? Would more pointed opposition from the BTA help add strength to other groups hoping to force a wholesale re-analysis of the project?

And now, with the release of the DEIS being far from what the BTA wanted, is it too late in the process to make major changes?

Hopefully we’ll get some answers to these questions as the debate sharpens in the coming weeks and months.

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— BTA founder (and now Metro Councilor) Rex Burkholder has been very supportive of the CRC project. For more on that, read this article published today by Nigel Jaquiss of the Willamette Week.

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