“We can see a return on our investment tomorrow that far exceeds our investment today… This can be our ‘great bridge’.”
— Rep. Tobias Read
By a vote of 45-11, the Oregon House of Representatives voted this morning in support of HB 2800. There was not much debate about the bill, and except for an extremely critical take-down of the project by northeast Portland Democrat Lew Frederick, it sailed through with glowing praise.
Only two Democrats in the entire Oregon House — Reps Lew Frederick (NE Portland) and and Carolyn Tomei (Milwaukie) — voted against the project.
The presentation of the bill in the House chamber began with co-chairs of the Joint Committee on I-5 Bridge Replacement Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) and Tobias Read (D-Beaverton).
Bentz pointed out the many “triggers” in the bill that he said must be fulfilled before the state treasurer can issue bonds and construction can begin. Those include, said Bentz, a cap of $3.4 billion in project cost, an investment grade analysis of tolling revenue, a permit from the U.S. Coast Guard, a $450 million commitment from the State of Washington, and so on. Backers of the project say the triggers are rock solid; but critics still question the vague language and accuse its authors of legislative slight-of-hand. “These are toothless triggers,” said economist Joe Cortright in an analysis of HB 2800 published on Portland Transport this morning.
While Bentz focused on the bill’s details, Rep. Tobias Read’s job today was to make the emotional pitch. He said there’s bound to be “some level of uncertainty” with a project this large, but that, “If we don’t act, problems increase and solutions only get more expensive.”
Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland), who had been a rare outspoken critic of the project and had even introduced a bill that would stop funding it entirely until the state could prove it could be built and financed, voted yes on the project. He was pleased that HB 2800 included some the funding triggers outlined in his bill and said he was appreciative of the “kind of debate we’ve had on this.” “That leads me to a reluctant yes on the bill.”
Then northeast Portland Rep. Lew Frederick spoke and made his position clear from the get-go. “I remain disturbed about this project and plan to vote no,” he said, “As all the neighborhood associations in my district have asked me to.”
“I’m not against doing something,” Frederick said, but he proceeded to eviscerate the project’s PR machine and laid out his case on how it would negatively impact his community’s public health.
“My district is bound on the south and west by freeways. My people bear a heavy burden from these freeways. Their neighborhoods were razed for I-5 without any or too little compensation. Their neighborhoods have high levels of pollution and respiratory diseases and that’s a big deal to me and the residents in my district. We have the highest asthma rates in the state.”
Frederick even brought up the Mt. Hood Freeway, a 1970s freeway project that was thwarted by neighborhood opposition — but not before authorities re-located people’s homes to make way for construction that never happened. He criticized the CRC’s massive PR effort. “The public process struck me as… a con. Residents were shown a preferred scenario next to scenarios that looked unreal or ridiculous… I have a lot of planners in my district and they called that out early.” Frederick accused project staff of going into neighborhood meetings with a “predetermined outcome” in mind and said he felt decisions were being made “more by momentum than by problem solving.”
One Rep (whose name I did not catch) dismissed concerns and questions raised by critics of the project, saying that it’s rare for an undertaking of this size to please everyone. That “It’s not perfect, but nothing ever is,” type of talking point has been repeated often by CRC backers in recent weeks. “We cannot let perfect be the enemy of progress,” said the Rep, who voted yes.
Rep. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha) veered from the carefully crafted script given out by project backers and Governor Kitzhaber who want everyone to think of this solely as a bridge project (even though only 30% of the cast pays for a new bridge). “I’m voting yes on the bridge bill — or, the highway widening project if you will,” he said.
In closing remarks, Rep. Read said people have been working on this project since 1999 and that it’s been “well-vetted and well-considered.”
“It’s easy math,” said Read, “We can see a return on our investment tomorrow that far exceeds our investment today.”
He then brought up The Great Bridge, a book by historian David McCullough about the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. “I realize this is not New York City,” he said, “But I can saw with a high degree of confidence that this project and this bridge can play a significant role in the revitalization of our region. This can be our great bridge.”
The bill’s next stop is the Senate where it’s scheduled for a first reading tomorrow. A vote is likely to happen by next week. Stay tuned.