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The Street Trust says “compromises with legislators” are why they won’t sign I-5 widening opposition letter

In a blog post yesterday The Street Trust (formerly the Bicycle Transportation Alliance) offered further rationale for why they’ve chosen to not sign onto a letter opposing the a freeway widening project on Interstate 5 at the Rose Quarter.

In a post titled, “The future of the Rose Quarter” written by newly hired Communications Director Romain Bonilla, the group said, “While we have chosen not to sign this coalition’s letter, we share advocates’ concerns and wholeheartedly agree that widening highways will not reduce congestion.”

The No More Freeway Expansions coalition has written a letter to Portland City Council and the Oregon Transportation Commission that has been signed by over 25 organizations including the Audubon Society of Portland, Neighbors for Clean Air, the Urban Greenspaces Institute, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon and others. Their letter strongly opposes the I-5 widening project and demands that the project is removed from the City of Portland’s Transportation System Plan.

In their blog post yesterday, The Street Trust wrote that, “We share advocates’ concerns and wholeheartedly agree that widening highways will not reduce congestion,” and that, “We all have a role to play in this political ecosystem and we are grateful for our partners and others who are doing their part to help us get there… we encourage these advocates to make their voices heard as we fight together towards our shared priorities.”

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But even with that strong note of support for the coalition’s position on the issue, The Street Trust decided to not sign the letter. Here’s why: “To remain consistent with the compromises reached with legislators and stakeholders in the bill.”

Curious about that passage in the blog post, I asked The Street Trust’s newly hired executive director Jillian Detweiler if indeed a deal was made. And if so, whether she’d like to share more details about it.

Detweiler said no, her organization didn’t cut a deal with lawmakers or stakeholders.

“We opposed freeway projects throughout and got them significantly reduced,” she wrote BikePortland via email last night. “It is inaccurate to say we ‘couldn’t’ sign the letter,” Detweiler continued. “If you are trying to imply some sort of silence was ‘bought’ or agreed to by investments in transit and sidewalks that’s not correct. We just think it demonstrates integrity to not take a lead throwing pot shots at an element in the overall package we supported. We don’t oppose those who do and and in fact we encourage it.”

The bill funds public transit and updates to streets around schools (to the tune of about $12 million per year for the next 10 years). Detweiler said The Street Trust supported those investments, “Because we want people to have safe and convenient alternatives to driving and we want to save lives. There’s no direct benefit to The Street Trust if that is what you are trying to imply.”

If there was no deal made, I asked, what exactly does it mean when they say, “To remain consistent with the compromises… we have chosen not to sign on to this coalition’s letter”?

“Our ideal bill would have no freeway improvements,” Detweiler responded. “To urge legislators to support HB 2017 was to urge support of a compromise.”

Local activists and supporter of the No More Freeway Expansions coalition Steve Bozzone said via a Twitter thread last night that he understands the political game of compromise; but he wants The Street Trust to take a more aggressive stance. “Oregon is burning, Texas is flooding, our children have asthma, and we’re going to support expanding freeways because of safe routes to school money?!,” he tweeted. “When do we draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough? Where is the leadership from our big NPOs [nonprofit organizations]? Now is the time.”

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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