As CRC rumbles forward, major advocacy groups sit on the sidelines

Concept drawing of CRC in Washington.

“I heard from a number of people who have expressed concerns about their [legislative] priorities if they were to speak against the bill.”
— Mara Gross, interim director of Coalition for a Livable Future

The Columbia River Crossing project took a big step forward when HB 2800 easily passed the Oregon House this week. But while the project has made a lot of noise lately, major environmental and transportation advocacy groups have stayed quiet.

The bill will likely be voted on by the Senate next week (March 4th) and then Governor Kitzhaber is expected to sign it into law (unless he gets nostalgic and has a change of heart).

As this snowball has gathered size and speed, I have become intrigued by the deafening silence about it from our region’s major environmental, land-use, and transportation advocacy groups. Groups like the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, 1000 Friends of Oregon, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, the Oregon Environmental Council, and the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Meanwhile, the relatively small opposition has been led by volunteer grassroots activists with little to no budget and a few organizations pulled together by Coalition for a Livable Future, an umbrella group that has just two policy-related staff. At a house party on Tuesday hosted by CLF and the Facebook-based group Shut Down the CRC, they celebrated a paltry $1,000 fundraising goal to help pay someone to work the halls of Salem to stop the bill.

Not a priority.
(Graphic: CRC Urban Design Advisory Group)

The Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA), a group with 5,000 members and 14 full-time paid staff, says they don’t support HB 2800; but they’re not working to stop it. The last time the BTA urged action against the CRC was in 2011. Since then, they have been quiet about the project.

The Oregon League of Conservation Voters (OLCV) is arguably the largest and most powerful environmental non-profit in Oregon with seven paid staffers and 5,400 members statewide. They’ve been all but silent about the CRC since 2010.

1000 Friends of Oregon, with its 5,000 members and 10 paid staff specializing in land-use issues, has not worked to oppose the project since 2011.

The Oregon Environmental Council has 18 paid staff members and over 13,000 dues-paying members. A search for “Columbia River Crossing” on their website comes up empty.

The Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club is the nation’s largest at 7,500 members. There is no mention of HB 2800 on their website and the last time they raised concerns about the CRC project was in 2008 (links to PDF).

These groups (and others) could form a formidable front against the powerful lobbyists and political insiders pushing for the project. Each one of them on their own has large member databases and deep connections in Salem. Just imagine what they could do if they came together with their millions of dollars in annual revenue and nearly 30,000 paying members.

Would their advocacy be enough to sway votes in Salem? Why aren’t they doing more to oppose HB 2800, which sets in motion a mega-project that will have vast financial, infrastructural, and environmental consequences? Those questions have been on my mind for a long time. With new momentum for the CRC via HB 2800, I felt it was time to try and find some answers.

Mara Gross of Coalition for a Livable
Future (in 2008).
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Looming in the background of my work on this story were accounts from several sources that leadership of the Oregon House and Senate have muzzled dissent to HB 2800. Both freshman legislators and advocacy leaders, sources say, have been told directly that if they oppose HB 2800, they will pay for it. For lawmakers, that could mean withholding future campaign funding and support from party leaders; and for advocates, that could mean their current legislative agenda would not move forward.

When asked why she thinks many major advocacy organizations have not come out to publicly oppose HB 2800, Mara Gross, the interim director of Coalition for a Livable Future said, “I heard from a number of people who have expressed concerns about their [legislative] priorities [if they were to speak against the bill].” Another source, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “There are a couple groups that have been told explicitly that their priorities will be on the chopping block if they oppose the CRC.”

In that environment, it’s not hard to see why some groups might be hesitant to speak out.

BTA Advocacy Director Gerik Kransky told a reporter last year that “His group and others are planning a full-court press to try to derail the CRC by pushing for a referendum on the funding measure expected in Oregon’s 2013 legislative session.” Here we are in the 2013 session and the BTA is not working against that funding measure at all. When asked about their silence on HB 2800, Kransky confirmed that although they do not support the bill, they are also not devoting any resources to stop it. “Our legislative agenda,” Kransky wrote via email, “is based on our strategic plan and is focused on safety for all users of the roadway by; reducing neighborhood street speeds, improving traffic safety cameras, and dedicating funding for bicycle projects.”

Kranksy added that the BTA is, “Faced with strategic choices on where to put our resources” and pointed me to their current policy statement on the project (links to PDF). That statement, dated January 2011, doesn’t oppose the project. Instead, it outlines a list of design goals it must reach in order to get the BTA’s support.

“My perspective… is that we didn’t do a great job of movement building over the course of the last two to three years and we probably should have been doing that… It’s embarrassing.”
— Jason Miner, executive director 1000 Friends of Oregon

The leader of the OLCV, Doug Moore, said his group hasn’t taken a position on HB 2800. Ground zero for the OLCV’s political action is their “Salem Watch” newsletter distributed through the 40-member Oregon Conservation Network. The newsletter tracks legislative bills and states the OCN’s position on each. The February 18th newsletter — which came out the same day as HB 2800 got its first of two hearings in front of a joint legislative committee — listed four bills on the organization’s “Hotlist.” HB 2800 wasn’t one of them. However, it was listed as one of five bills under the heading, “On our Radar.” The OCN position on the bill was stated as, “Watching carefully.”

When asked why his group hasn’t done anything to oppose HB 2800, Moore said it just hasn’t “become the focus” of the OCN community. This was a recurring theme in my research for this story. There’s a sense that for some reason, Oregon’s many environmental activists and advocacy groups have never been able to coalesce around CRC opposition. Moore said he’s only been at the organization over a year so he doesn’t have the perspective to understand why they aren’t doing more to oppose it. Moore said that while his group isn’t officially taking action, he has personally expressed concerns about how the project would “reduce investment in alternative forms of transportation.”

Two years ago, 1000 Friends of Oregon was actively raising questions about the CRC and pushing for an alternative plan. Their former leader Bob Stacey, now a Metro councilor, remains an outspoken critic of the project. On February 18th he testified against HB 2800 in Salem, urging legislators to reject the bill. But Stacey’s former organization has been silent about the project since 2011. I spoke to their current executive director Jason Miner yesterday. “My perspective at this point,” he shared, “is that we didn’t do a great job of movement building over the course of the last two to three years and we probably should have been doing that.”

Miner had hoped that movement would rally around an alternative design proposal for the project. “We oppose the big bridge and the highway widening,” he said. The main focus of their advocacy was to put out a different vision, which was something Miner believed “There could have been a coalition behind.”

Two years ago, 1000 Friends was in talks to unite with other groups including the Coalition for a Livable Future, but that effort never materialized. “I think the community was fractured over the years… We worked on it and we didn’t come up with a single coherent voice.” Looking back, Miner feels like the failure to agree to an opposition strategy is “embarrassing.”

Like other groups, Miner said 1000 Friends is opposed to HB 2800. If they’re opposed, I asked, are they taking any public stance against it? After a long pause, Miner said, “No. I can’t think of any active organizing that I’m aware that we are doing.” Similar to the BTA, Miner said 1000 Friends simply hasn’t been in the lead in opposing the CRC and that they have other priorities. He also said they’ve worked behind the scenes to support the Northeast Coalition of Neighbors in their lawsuit against the project.

While Miner said that while 1000 Friends hasn’t gotten any threats from Salem power brokers about opposing HB 2800, he believes, “That conversation is going on out there.” He’s heard legislators describe being pressured for support for the bill from Speaker Kotek’s office. “They’ve said; ‘This is important to the speaker.'” Having the Speaker of the House push legislative priorities is a standard practice. I have no proof that that pressure went above and beyond the usual.

For citizen activists like Scott Lieuallen, who views the CRC as a “monstrosity,” the silence from these groups is notable. Lieuallen is a member, former staffer, and uber-volunteer for the BTA. He says he’s confused as to why the BTA doesn’t take a stronger stance against HB 2800. “I’m disappointed. I don’t know why that is. Maybe they have some good reason for not doing it. What I do know, is that I don’t see them taking a stand. I wish I could tell you why. I wish they would.”

Would action by the likes of the BTA, OLCV, Sierra Club, and 1000 Friends of Oregon have made a difference? “If they’d taken a lead,” said Noecker, “I have no doubt that we wouldn’t be in the position we are in today. They ask for people’s money, then they sit on the sidelines while activists no money at all have done all the real work against the CRC. This is a serious breach of trust.”

In speaking with advocacy leaders, I’ve heard many excuses for not opposing HB 2800: a lack of resources; a lack of urgency from their members; a lack of agreement on exactly how to oppose it (“There’s so many things to not like about the project, how do you begin to unify around this thing?” is how one person put it); a sense that there’s a better chance to kill the project in Washington; conflicting stances on the project from board members (BTA board member Val Hoyle is an Oregon State Rep who voted in favor of the bill), and so on. The one that stood out to me was a sense that the CRC is so big and the political power behind it is so strong, that resistance is futile.

Meanwhile, grassroots advocates, with their small numbers, small budgets, and limited political clout, have not given up. CLF and Shut Down the CRC have three more house parties planned in March. They’re targeting Oregon Senators with phone calls, urging them to vote no, and making as much noise about the project as they can. They have to be loud to get noticed — and to make up for the silence of the major advocacy players who continue to sit on the sidelines.

For activists like Scott Lieuallen, that’s unfortunate. “When does anyone break ranks,” he wonders, “and point out that the emperor has no clothes?”

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