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Editorial: Freeways, the future, and Mayor Ted Wheeler

Posted by on April 27th, 2018 at 12:25 pm

Mayor Ted Wheeler supports an ODOT megaproject that invests hundreds of million of dollars in more of this.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus)

When it comes to transportation, recent statements from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler paint a confusing picture of the future.

On one hand, Wheeler seems to understand the urgency of climate change. On the other hand, he supports the I-5 Rose Quarter project that adds lanes to a freeway to improve driving conditions in our central city.

On one hand, he understands that the future of transportation is in flux. On the other hand, he supports single-occupancy vehicle use — a form of urban transportation whose time has long since passed.

Confused or simply wrong, Wheeler — someone who is ostensibly a progressive — is on the wrong side of this issue.

Ted Wheeler, March 2018.

Cars are ruining our cities,” is the blunt but accurate headline of a New York Times op-ed published this week. It’s an excellent summary of why investing in new freeway lanes — especially in urban areas like Portland’s Rose Quarter — is complete and utter folly.

And that’s just one recent article that demonstrates how the Overton Window on freeway expansion as a salve for congestion is beginning to shift. This is due to many factors, key among them is a growing awareness that the transportation sector continues to hemorrhage greenhouse gases while being largely ignored by politicians — even Democrats like Wheeler.

Last week ClimateWire published an article titled, “Cars threaten climate goals in blue states“, which included this passage: “Liberal states’ carbon-cutting plans are stuck in traffic. Transportation emissions [which are 54 percent of total GHG emissions in Oregon] threaten to undercut blue states’ climate goals, raising questions about their ability to lead U.S. climate efforts at a time when the federal government is rolling back environmental regulations.”

But wait, I’m a “climate change mayor” Wheeler would contend.

To which journalist and activist Alissa Walker would reply, as she did in an article on Curbed.com this month, “You can’t be a ‘climate mayor’ if you’re making more room for cars. Sorry — that’s not how it works.” “If these 402 U.S. mayors are truly adhering to the goals set forth in the Paris climate accord,” she continued, “then none of them can build infrastructure that encourages more emissions by more cars and trucks.”

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And don’t let ODOT’s PR spin fool you: The I-5 Rose Quarter project is an attempt to alleviate congestion by adding lanes to a freeway. ODOT can claim it’s about safety and “operational improvements,” but their official infographic on the $5.3 billion transportation plan that includes funding for the project makes it clear: “Relieving congestion bottlenecks will help people get where they want to go quickly and reliably. New lanes on I-5 at the Rose Quarter will save motorists 2.5 million hours wasted in gridlock each year.”

And Wheeler himself doesn’t even try to hide it.

He was asked about the project during an interview on KATU News (Portland ABC affiliate) on April 15th.

KATU reporter:

“As we talk about congested freeways, some would argue against expanding freeways. What would you say to those who say we shouldn’t be adding lanes to area highways?”

Mayor Wheeler:

“Well, you know, highway expansion generally, like building a Mt. Hood freeway, I would agree with them in that case. The lightning rod has really been the work that’s been proposed around the Rose Quarter. That is, two auxiliary lanes that are predominantly going to be built to fix the problem there with the bottleneck. You have several lanes going down to fewer. And you have two ramps coming on, and one going off. So this [project] is going to create auxiliary lanes to help things speed through there a little bit better and actually reduce the number of accidents. So I’m very supportive of that project.”

I’m not sure what’s more disappointing: That Wheeler parrots ODOT talking points and is fooled by the agency’s sly, modern-day tactics to build mega-projects — or the fact that he appears to not understand the connection between investing in urban freeways and increased greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution (Portland ranks 32nd in the nation for worst air pollution), or the role interstate freeways continue to play in the “structured inequality” of our country.

But don’t take it just from climate change experts or journalists. Even Portland-based high-tech CEO Nat Parker is on the opposite side of Wheeler on this issue. “You can’t build your way out of congestion,” the leader of Moovel, an urban mobility company, said in a recap of the TechFestNW event in The Willamette Week earlier this month. “People will drive more if they think there is more room to do so.”

Fortunately there’s a shred of hope. Wheeler is young and seems to be open to change. At a city council meeting on March 15th he shared a version of the future that appeared to look beyond the car-driving status quo:

“I don’t think we know sitting here today what the transportation situation is going to look like even 15 years from now. Those who follow transportation planning believe we are literally right on the edge of a transportation revolution which could shift the demand for parking. It could shift the kind of infrastructure investments we need to make. It could shift the whole question of mobility for people who live with disabilities or older adults. I would be very reluctant to lock ourselves in today. It would sort of be like locking ourselves into an IBM Selectric in 1984.”

(Yes! More of this please! And just FYI, carrying ODOT’s water on a freeway expansion project is the very definition of “locking ourselves in.”)

Unfortunately, that statement came during a presentation about a new master plan for Washington Park. Ironically, Wheeler should take a closer look at that plan for Portland’s marquee park and apply its principles to the central city: Put people and safe, healthy mobility first; push driving to the outskirts; invest in transit and protected bikeways; and create entire areas where there’s no driving allowed at all.

The future of Portland — and to some degree Wheeler’s legacy — depends on building a better city. Not on building a better freeway.

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

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Sarah IannaroneDan AHello, KittydwkGilly Recent comment authors
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SD
Subscriber

Wheeler will say he needs to find “balance” to address everyone’s transportation needs, which essentially means that he has no interest in taking on any risk or political heat to correct the backwards priorities of our transportation system.

Wheeler has been a huge disappointment.

John Mulvey
Guest
John Mulvey

I really do think that Mayor Wheeler is well-intentioned and wants to do the right thing.

The problem, as I see it, is that he comes from a well-to-do background and only listens to people from a similar background. He is the most insulated Mayor we’ve had in decades, and he appears unable to see why that might be a problem.

Our City doesn’t work that way. We don’t elect a Mayor to be the “idea guy.” We elect a Mayor to be the one who distills the best ideas from the community and works to build broad political support for them.

If he doesn’t learn to be a better listener and consensus-builder, we could be in for a long, aimless two years.

rick
Guest
rick

lack of leadership

Aaron Brown
Guest
Aaron Brown

Excellent op-ed, Jonathan.

“On the other hand, he supports the I-5 Rose Quarter project that adds lanes to a freeway to improve driving conditions in our central city.”

Worth noting: even ODOT itself has commissioned traffic studies which ultimately say this freeway won’t improve driving conditions in the central city.

https://www.portlandmercury.com/news/2018/03/07/19724128/a-new-report-shows-highway-widening-wont-solve-portlands-congestion-woes

Mike Quigley
Guest
Mike Quigley

I’m curious about where’s the money coming from for this Rose Quarter thing? Certainly not the Feds. Not the State. It’s broke. So is the City. And if local bonds, how much will be set aside for PERS?

Kyle Banerjee
Guest

“New lanes on I-5 at the Rose Quarter will save motorists 2.5 million hours wasted in gridlock each year”

While it is true that you can’t build your way out of congestion, bottlenecks that leave vehicles spewing pollutants into the environment while they idle or move inefficiently isn’t exactly helping the environment. Nor is it realistic to think that point to point transportation (i.e. single occupancy vehicles) won’t remain the most relevant form of transport for the foreseeable future. Fixing highly specific/local problems is not the same as trying to pave our way out of problem.

Public transit cannot serve more than a portion of Portland residents’ needs — unless we decide they need to stay home. If every car was taken off the streets so only buses, MAX, etc could operate, it would still be time prohibitive to go to destinations more than a few miles away even presuming you didn’t need to carry much.

Bicycles also cannot be applied as a universal solution. If we accept Google’s estimates as “typical” for a rider, the time issues are similar to public transit.

Bicycles work because they are a particularly efficient form of single occupancy vehicle. As much as I love riding, I can’t say I’ve ever ridden on a city street for any purpose other than to get from point A to point B.

Getting people out of cars requires painting a picture where it makes sense. And that’s going to take more than trying to find ways to make/keep life as miserable as possible for those who aren’t fortunate enough to live close to the center where distances are short, services abundant, and realistic transport options are plentiful.

Zach
Guest
Zach

I wish there was a movement to remove I-5 completely and return the waterfront to the east side. Maybe that would also help shift the Overton Window for this particular Rose Quarter widening, by seeming so politically impossible that not widening I-5 would seem like a compromise.

Kittens
Subscriber
Kittens

I wonder how much a role our peculiar form of city governance (commission-type) plays in insuring Portland has weak and feckless mayors. This in cycle is bound to repeat itself as those attracted to run for mayor are low caliber middle-management types incapable of coalescing consensus or thinking beyond the next election cycle.

We have seen so many ineffective and irrelevant mayors that the truth is now inescapable; Portland needs a reform it’s governance structure. While this is a non-issue when we have uniquely motivated and adept operators like Katz and Goldschmidt holding the office and no urgent matters before us, the recent string of utter failures leads me to believe that it’s the system and not the people elected which is the root of the problem.

Everything from addressing homelessness to transportation reform suffers when we have no leadership and our structure insures these results in perpetuity.

Andrew N
Guest
Andrew N

Jonathan, this is one of the best –and most important– editorials you’ve written yet. THANK YOU. Sometimes it feels like Bikeportland is all we have these days (plus, occasionally, the weeklies).

Charlie
Guest
Charlie

I kind of like freeways, even though I don’t own a car and get around mostly by walking or biking. Freeways keep the cars safely *out* of my way. I get bothered much more by streets like West Burnside, which put the cars right in my face. No bikelane, a narrow sidelike, just 4 lines of fast moving cars that block me from getting across and make me not want to be anywhere near them.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

In the future, educated minds will likely describe this era’s political leaders of Portland as matching well its voting citizens…

Mike Sanders
Guest
Mike Sanders

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. What ODOT wants, ODOT gets. Traffic is getting worse everywhere. The Bay Bridge in SF westbound is bumper to bumper at 4:30 am (and toll gates don’t help). A widening priject in Seattle on I-5 closed several northbound exits over last weekend, and the backups extended back several miles. In NYC, they’re taking about limiting street parking to NYC residents only. The RQ project won’t improve anything. They tried that in LA, and the result was an epic failure. Our mayor wants bike and ped improvements to wait until the RQ project is finished. Does he realize that we cannot wait that long? Or did someone at ODOT fell him that following ODOT’s lead is the only way to get re-elected?

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

Great editorial. At this stage of climate change we should be actively tearing out freeways not building more or upgrading the ones we have. But I fear that as a people and a civilization we are too weak to make the hard but necessary choices. This seems to be reflected in our leaders.

Mark
Guest
Mark

Hello, Kitty
>>> Useless, expensive, unamortizable hunks of concrete, like parking garages. <<<Parking garages, while expensive, are hardly “unamortizable” — they are actually quite profitable.Recommended 1

Not when you figure in the cost of loss use by people.

Mark
Guest
Mark

Chris I
The Rose Quarter widening would become unnecessary if I-5 on the east bank were removed. I’d love to see them add more lanes to I-405 and close I-5 on the east bank, but it will be politically impossible until the Marquam eventually needs replacement, or falls down in a Cascadia Subduction earthquake.Recommended 4

My
Or just close i5 to cars and make it open only to transit and bikes and peds.

Mark
Guest
Mark

I can blow through downtown in minutes at 0400. The issue isn’t capacity, it’s over use at one time.

Mark
Guest
Mark

Hi

Kyle Banerjee
“New lanes on I-5 at the Rose Quarter will save motorists 2.5 million hours wasted in gridlock each year”While it is true that you can’t build your way out of congestion, bottlenecks that leave vehicles spewing pollutants into the environment while they idle or move inefficiently isn’t exactly helping the environment. Nor is it realistic to think that point to point transportation (i.e. single occupancy vehicles) won’t remain the most relevant form of transport for the foreseeable future. Fixing highly specific/local problems is not the same as trying to pave our way out of problem.Public transit cannot serve more than a portion of Portland residents’ needs — unless we decide they need to stay home. If every car was taken off the streets so only buses, MAX, etc could operate, it would still be time prohibitive to go to destinations more than a few miles away even presuming you didn’t need to carry much.Bicycles also cannot be applied as a universal solution. If we accept Google’s estimates as “typical” for a rider, the time issues are similar to public transit.Bicycles work because they are a particularly efficient form of single occupancy vehicle. As much as I love riding, I can’t say I’ve ever ridden on a city street for any purpose other than to get from point A to point B.Getting people out of cars requires painting a picture where it makes sense. And that’s going to take more than trying to find ways to make/keep life as miserable as possible for those who aren’t fortunate enough to live close to the center where distances are short, services abundant, and realistic transport options are plentiful.Recommended 5

Yep , let’s induce more pollution spewing vehicles into the area with wider and faster lanes. Or, simply tax the bottlenecks and provide tree transit.

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

Toll I-5 at the Columbia River, then see if the RQ congestion is still an issue.

FRED_TRAMPLER
Guest
FRED_TRAMPLER

“On the other hand, he supports single-occupancy vehicle use — a form of urban transportation whose time has long since passed.” SO UR SAYIN THAT A BICYCLE WHICH IS A SINGLE OCCUPANCY VEHICLE IS NOT APPROPRIATE IN AN URBAN SETTING? WOW GR8 POINT LOL AUTHOR SOUNDS DELUSIONAL NEXT YER GONNA TELL ME THERES MOAR THAN TWO GENDERS AND 2+2 DONT = 4 AMIRITE?

pdxhobbitmom
Subscriber
pdxhobbitmom

So well put. Thanks, Jonathan!

mark smith
Guest
mark smith

FRED_TRAMPLER
“On the other hand, he supports single-occupancy vehicle use — a form of urban transportation whose time has long since passed.” SO UR SAYIN THAT A BICYCLE WHICH IS A SINGLE OCCUPANCY VEHICLE IS NOT APPROPRIATE IN AN URBAN SETTING? WOW GR8 POINT LOL AUTHOR SOUNDS DELUSIONAL NEXT YER GONNA TELL ME THERES MOAR THAN TWO GENDERS AND 2+2 DONT = 4 AMIRITE?Recommended 0

Lars Larson plant?

Al
Guest
Al

The problem w vehicles, airplanes, trains, automobiles, ships, whatever, is that their source of energy is 1) not renewable & 2) releases carbon into the atmosphere. Both of these problems can be solved by synthetic fuels produced from atmospheric carbon using renewable energy. Oil is such a great energy dense source of power that if we didn’t have pools of it in the earth’s crust, we’d have to invent it. There is literally no alternative to oil for flying an air craft due to the liquid phase and energy density. However, biosynthesized fuels solve both of these problems. They consume carbon and use renewable energy via biological catalysts to produce what we have been mining out of the earth for the past century. Given enough industrial scale and effort (otherwise quantified as money) we can actually consume carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the earth’s crust. This gives man kind a thermostat on our atmosphere. This technology is at least a decade old and pilot plants were being established prior to the price of oil collapsing. What is needed is a concerted effort to industrialize this technology. Existing infrastructure for distributing this fuel is sufficient and internal combustion engine efficiencies can further extend its use rather than making vehicles exceeding 1,000 hp which strain modern tire technology to the limits. As far as I can tell, the main problem is that people are simply unaware of this solution so far.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of bicycling. I commute. I ride for fun and it happens to keep me in shape and be good for me as well as give me moments of joy w my kids. But, as far as the big picture, bicycling simply can’t solve our transportation issues. At least not alone but biosynthesized fuels can because 1) they’re not just possible but commercially viable, 2) require no change in the current distribution infrastructure, 3) allow us to maintain current vehicle technology across all modes of transportation and most importantly 4) provide a way out of the current dead end of climate trend.

Sam Churchill
Guest

Reducing Vancouver I-5 traffic might not require “congestion pricing”. A pedestrian/autonomous transit bridge from Vancouver to the Expo Center could be cheap AND effective.

The five MAX lines averaged a total of 120,140 weekday passengers in March, with only 12,770 on the Yellow Line and 54,930 on the Blue Line. Some 125,000 vehicles cross the Interstate Bridge daily.

A Bike Tube might siphon off 10-15% of that traffic. It wouldn’t need sophisticated autonomous vehicles and could be a boon for business on both sides of the river. Bechtel’s Airport Max line might be a business model for the Columbia Tube.

http://www.hayden-island.com/columbia-tube/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_Bridge
https://trimet.org/about/pdf/2018/2018-03.pdf
https://trimet.org/pdfs/history/railfactsheetairport.pdf

Gilly
Guest
Gilly

Can we pick and choose our pollution ratings.

I prefer the Lung Associations 153 for annual particle pollution out of 187 metropolitan areas. The 94 ranking for high ozone days out of 227 cities isn’t as good. And then there is the 32nd ranking for 24 hour particle pollution out of 201 metropolitan areas.

Unfortunately we will probably be ranked worse next year for the ’24 hour particle pollution’ because we had several days of smoke from forest fires that blanketed the city. (Looks like rankings were based on 2014, 2015, and 2016 data)

dwk
Guest
dwk

There are a ton of people who all work at Intel or Nike or somewhere in Washington county who choose to drive solo from Vancouver. You like to make excuses for why they cannot carpool or choose to live where the work.