Concerns about climate change were made loud and clear to Metro’s Transportation Funding Task Force at their meeting last night. Metro is leading an effort to raise what some say could be as much as $20 billion for transportation infrastructure around the regional via a bond measure that could go to voters in November.
As lines are drawn on maps, lines are being drawn in the sand by electeds and advocates looking to stake out positions for debates to come.
“If we don’t make it clear to the public that our top priority is averting climate catastrophe, I don’t see it passing in Portland. And we need Portland to carry this measure.”
— Chloe Eudaly, Portland City Commissioner
This was the sixth meeting of the 35-member Task Force, which is made up of elected officials and advocates from around the region. With their input, Metro has whittled a list of 75 corridors down to 26. Now the job is to place these in three tiers. Metro wants the Task Force to recommend a prioritized list of “investment corridors” in time for a Metro Council work session on June 4th.
At last night’s meeting, dozens of Portlanders — and several notable Task Force members — elevated concerns about the process and whether or not Metro is doing enough to set the stage for an investment package that would lead to a dramatic reduction in vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions. There was widespread concern that some of the corridors at the top of the list are merely placeholders for future freeway expansion projects that could increase driving capacity.
Kasandra Griffin with the Community Cycling Center and the Getting There Together Coalition opened the public comment period by saying, “According to Metro’s adopted policies, the priorities for this process are simple: Only pick projects that will reduce climate change and increase equity.” Griffin then suggested that four corridors Metro staff has recommended as a top priority should be removed from Tier 1 consideration: Highway 212 (Sunrise Corridor), I-5 through downtown Portland, Highway 217 and I-205.
Those corridors “represent old thinking,” Griffin said*.
Volunteers with the Portland chapter of the national Sunrise Movement showed up in force last night. Wearing matching t-shirts, a few of them testified and about a dozen others were in attendance. 29-year-old Sunrise PDX Organizer Suzanna Kassouf said transportation justice is “at the very heart” of her group’s effort to “radically transform our societies and economies before our climate fate is sealed (in 11 years).”
“We are extremely concerned by the lack of priority placed on public transit as well as pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure in a city which considers itself a climate leader,” Kassouf said. “Many residents who depend on this infrastructure are members of our frontline communities. Specifically, low-income people of color, like myself.”
Kassouf said Metro’s bond measure is an opportunity to fund a Green New Deal for Oregon. “The young people in this room will live through the next sixty years, through the entire life-cycle of the decisions you are making, and through the worst, most destructive effects of the climate crisis if we do not act… The entirety of this package must be dedicated to the transition away from fossil fuels. The time is now to be brave. The time is now to be bold. Please, do the right thing. We will be watching.”
17-year-old Reynolds High School student Victoria Clark echoed Kassouf’s urgency by pleading with the Task Force: “I should be focusing on the fact that I’m graduating in less than a month,” she said, “but instead I’m… begging you to make the right choice and invest in our planet’s future.”
After public comment, Task Force members heard a presentation (PDF) about the readiness of specific corridors from consultants with Kittelson Associates Inc. They focused on the top three scoring corridors: Tualatin-Valley Highway, 82nd Avenue, and McLoughlin Blvd.
Then Metro’s Director of Government Affairs Andy Shaw unveiled the agency’s first attempt to place corridors in specific tiers. Their proposal for Tier 1 corridors includes: 82nd Ave, Tualatin Valley Hwy, 181st Ave, McLoughlin Blvd, Hwy 212, Burnside, Downtown Portland, I-5 Downtown, SW Corridor, and SW 185th. In a potential Tier 2 list, he included: Powell Blvd, 122nd Ave, MLK/Grand, Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy, Foster Rd., Division St., Columbia Blvd, 162nd Ave, 99W/Pacific Hwy, Hwy 217, Tualatin-Sherwood Rd, Hwy 43/Macadam, and Sandy Blvd.
Then it was time for Task Force members to speak up. A facilitator said she wanted to get a “gut reaction” and asked members to hold up green, yellow, or red cards to express how they were feeling about the corridor discussion so far.
Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba was one of several people to thrust up a red card. “Virtually every single piece of public testimony we’ve had has spoken clearly and emotionally that the number one thing we have to think about is, ‘What are the climate impacts of this investment we are going to make?’… This is the only opportunity we will have to put this level of investment into our transportation sytstem in time to stop climate change. Climate change absolutely, positively, has to be the number one issue — and yet — of the categories being scored, climate isn’t even one of the categories,” he said.
“This process we have used for the decades — of piddling around, doing all these things before we actually get down to doing the thing that needs doing — has got to end.”
— Mark Gamba, Mayor of Milwaukie
Gamba expressed concern that Metro’s scoring only considers safety, equity, transit potential and readiness. He wants an evaluation of how much carbon reduction would result from investment in each corridor under consideration.
“Readiness should be the very last thing we’re considering. When the U.S. was bombed in Pearl Harbor, how ready were we for war? And yet how quickly, and how decisively did we then win that war. This process we have used for the decades of piddling around, doing all these things before we actually get down to doing the thing that needs doing has got to end. We have 11 years. Climate must be the number one consideration on this list.”
The room then erupted in several seconds of applause.
Task Force member Vivian Satterfield, an environmental justice advocate with Verde NW, expressed worries that some of the top tier corridors wouldn’t deliver high-capacity transit service. “I cannot in good conscience go forward and put my name and my organization behind anything that continues to expand and add road capacity to our region,” she said.
Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly echoed Gamba’s remarks. “I’m surprised that climate is not clearly one of the determining criteria,” she said. “I’m not interested in decreasing congestion by making it easier for more cars to move through our streets.” Then Eudaly tied climate change concerns directly to politics: “This initiative is a statement of our values. If we don’t make it clear to the public that our top priority is averting climate catastrophe, I don’t see it passing in Portland. And we need Portland to carry this measure.”
Some of the tension in the room was the result of a common, chicken-and-egg problem that happens with processes like this: Agencies need general feedback on where to invest, but stakeholders need detailed information in order to give it. And given that the legacy of transportation funding has gone primarily to highway expansions, there’s an understandable lack of trust among progressive politicians and activists.
Task Force Co-Chair Jessica Vega Pederson tried to walk a line down the middle. She said staff told Task Force members that some metrics — like climate change — wouldn’t be possible to measure until after projects got more developed. Then Vega Pederson explained why she feels I-5 through Portland should be a priority. “I don’t have any desire to help ODOT fund a highway expansion project,” she said, “But I’m very interested in using investments in that area to connect neighborhoods in Portland that haven’t been connected before.”
Task Force member and Clackamas County Chair Jim Bernard said he too agrees with Gamba’s climate sentiments, but feels Hwy 212 (aka Sunrise Corridor) needs to be expanded. “It’s one of the fastest growing communities in the state of Oregon, and transit is poor,” he said. “The Sunrise Corridor opens up a lot of land for opportunity… For me, it’s about the jobs-housing balance.”
The lines are being drawn and it will be a very interesting debate from here on out.
“Ultimately we need to put together a package that resonates with our values and with voters,” Vega Pederson said in closing remarks. “I’m confident we can get there.”
As Task Force members filed out of Metro HQ, they were serenaded with songs about hope and love from Sunrise PDX:
*The Getting Together Coalition has released their tiered corridor recommendations. Read the PDF here.
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