A lawmaker who wants to give cities broad authority to design and construct major new highways learned in a public hearing yesterday that there’s a good reason why our region hasn’t built one since the 1980s: Strong opposition from people who actually understand transportation planning amd the vast negative consequences of highways and the motor vehicle trips they encourage.
Republican house respresentative Rich Vial, who represents a rural district west of Tigard in Washington County, testified on behalf of House Bill 3231 on Tuesday. Rep. Vial’s bill has raised eyebrows because it would mark a significant departure from how transportation projects are typically planned, funded and built in Oregon. HB 3231 would allow cities and counties to form autonomous districts that would be able to create “limited access publicy highways” by excercising eminent domain if necessary and paying for the projects through private gifts, donations, tolls, new property taxes, and/or revenue bonds.
“We’ve constantly told ourselves if we can just get the right kind of alternative transit, more bike paths, more trains, more other types of transportation, that we would relieve the congestion. It has simply not happened and it’s time to do something different.”
— Rich Vial, Oregon State Representative
Put another way, if HB 3231 passed, city leaders could get together and build mega-freeway projects anywhere they want (they’re eyeing prime farmland) without adequate oversight of transportation agencies or our regional planning organization.
Rep. Vial and other backers of the bill are downplaying the bill’s intentions and potential influence. Washington County Chair Andy Duyck said in submitted testimony that the bill merely, “creates the potential for a conversation.” And Rep. Vial told members of the House Transportation Committee Tuesday that his bill isn’t about one specific pet project. “This bill is designed to allow us to look at a new way to do things,” he said. However it’s clear Vial wants to build a new freeway on the west side that would give people an alternative to Interstate 5 and Highway 26. Even after assuring fellow legislators his bill wasn’t just about one project, Vial said, “It’s important that I confess my hope is this [bill] could be a vehicle that would help us do something that has been needed for a long long time: to get a soluition to the congestion in Portland with an appropriate west side reliever route.”
Rep. Vial is frustrated that our region — unlike others around the country — hasn’t decided to build our way out of congestion (a strategy politicians love, but reality hates). During his testimony he tried to convince legislators that our approach of strong land-use policies and prioritizing transit — and to a much lesser degree, biking and buses — is a bad strategy. “For 30 years I’ve heard of the ‘Westside Bypass’ and other similar programs,” he said. “These programs have never come to fruition… We’ve constantly told ourselves if we can just get the right kind of alternative transit, more bike paths, more trains, more other types of transportation, that we would relieve the congestion. It has simply not happened and it’s time to do something different*.” (*Note: The Portland region has starved bicycling and transit infrastructure relative to highway improvements.)
“We can continue to tell ourselves that we’ll solve this with train, buses and bikes,” he continued. “But I think that is a lie we now need to recognize we can no longer afford to listen to.”
Comments like this are part of a distrubing new trend of normalizing the extreme step of building new highway capacity in our region.
About a dozen people testified at Tuesday’s hearing. While there was plenty of agreement with Vial that something needs to be done to fix “the traffic problem,” the bill seemed to only have tepid support from a few regional leaders. Only one person strongly praised the bill: John Charles from the Cascade Policy Institute, a libertarian think-tank. Charles said the lack of new highways in our region since I-205 was completed in 1983 is “unworkable.” “The other alternatives have their place,” he said, “But they haven’t worked and they won’t work enough in the future.”
“The bill is an unnecessary distraction and we urge you not to move it forward.”
— Kathryn Harrington, Metro councilor
Other testimony offered withering criticisms of the bill.
Meeky Blizzard, a former board member of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters who’s now retired after 16 years working as an advisor livable communities for U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, opposes HB 3231. She told committee members that building freeways is “simply a waste of money” and that the bill it would “undercut” the role of the legislature and counties in “planning their own future”. The lack of funding for highway mega-projects in our region for the past 40 years, Blizzard said, “Indicates a lack of support.” “And if you lack support for something, you don’t find ways to change the rules.”
Washington County Commissioner Dick Schouten said the bill, “Is just poor governance.” He thinks transportation planning needs to be done in a holistic way with strong coordination between jurisdictions.
Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington also made the trip to Salem to oppose the bill. “We pride ourselves on collaboration,” she told the committee, “HB 3231 would authorizes a district that would operate completely outside this well-established process with potentially dire consequences.” Harrington warned that the bill would “ignore critical public protections,” that it lacks accountability, and it could lead to projects that would violate air-quality regulations. “The bill is an unnecessary distraction,” she said, “and we urge you not to move it forward.”
1000 Friends of Oregon is a nonprofit that fights for land-use laws that prevent sprawl. Their executive director Mary Kyle McCurdy testified against the bill as well. “This is an outdated concept,” she told the committee. “It will not build us the transportation system we need for this century and it won’t solve congestion.” McCurdy said if we want to fix congestion, “Mass transit must be upgraded substantially.”
And Kathleen Carl, a fifth-generation farmer from Marion County (where Vial and others have proposed a new highway), seemed personally offended by the entire premise of the bill — especially its provisions that would allow tolling districts to acquire farmland through eminent domain. At one point she referred to the planning concept known as “rural reserves” — land set aside by zoning law for farming that can’t be developed on and appeared to turn and ask Rep. Vial directly, “To say that you can now go through these rural reserves… What are you doing?!” “Once you put a road through things, it changes things,” she said.
UPDATE, 10:00 am on 4/12: Rep. Vial says, via his latest newsletter, that the bill is dead and will not get a vote this session:
“I was informed by the committee chair that HB 3231 would not receive a work session by the April 18th first chamber deadline, which prevents the bill from moving forward this session… I hope to work … to pass a statewide transportation package to ensure that we are taking proactive steps to address Oregon’s long-term transportation challenges.”