The Clackamas County Board of Commissioners didn’t strike a fatal blow to the carfree Oak Grove-Lake Oswego (OGLO) Bridge Project at their meeting Tuesday, but they definitely wounded it. Asked to make a decision about whether the project was feasible enough to move forward and receive further planning funds, they voiced skepticism, asked for more community outreach, and expressed fears that it might take away funding for “capacity” projects.
It was a surprising discussion, given how relatively non-controversial the project had been for so many years.
“I’m not interested in wasting a bunch of political capital trying to move a bicycle bridge up [in funding priority] when our transportation needs are more capacity on our roads.”
— Ken Humberston, Commissioner
The OGLO project – envisioned as a carfree bridge over the Willamette that would close a 10-mile gap between river crossings — has enjoyed strong support for years from the public, government agencies, and elected officials throughout the region. Leaders have worked to study and plan the project for over 10 years and Clackamas County has led a public outreach and project development process for the past year-and-a-half. The project is highly ranked in the County’s Transportation System Plan and is seen as a key link between growing cities (and transit and biking networks) on both sides of the river.
A county survey of over 600 people revealed that the project has 63% support (71% approval in Oak Grove and 55% approval in Lake Oswego) and just 28% opposition. The potential bridge alignment has been narrowed to three options — all of which include landings entirely on publicly-owned right-of-way. Metro has already said they’ll give Clackamas County $500,000 to conduct more detailed engineering, develop cost estimates, and so on.
However, despite all this momentum, voices of some people uncomfortable with the idea of a new bridge have emerged in the past few months. This, combined with regional politics and a late request from Metro Council President Lynn Peterson to consider adding a transit lane to the bridge, have abruptly changed the tone.
Transit is kryptonite in Clackamas County
“I will tell you now I will not support transit. I was told this would only be for bike/ped, so that’s a deal-breaker for me right out of the chute.”
— Martha Schrader, Commissioner
At the county commissioner’s meeting it was clear the mere mention of transit has set the project back.
Commissioner Paul Savas, an ardent supporter of the project who said in February 2018 that, “I can’t think of a project that serves more people potentially,” has now changed his tune. “The whole surprise twist on the transit thing is something I didn’t receive very well and it wasn’t received by well by others,” he said. “Transit just increased the angst about this tremendously.”
Clackamas County has a long history of discomfort around Metro’s meddling, not to mention a deep dislike of transit.
Savas is also uncomfortable with the estimated cost of the project, which County staff says could vary between $30 million and $52 million depending on the alignment and other factors (a transit lane would increase project cost by 50%). “At $10 million, that was feasible and in reach… but the price tag is going up to the point where it’s far greater than I ever anticipated.” Savas has also heard increasing opposition to this project in his conversations with residents at community events, prompting him to think perhaps a bridge isn’t the best option.
Because some senior citizens might have trouble walking up and over a bridge, Savas said, “Maybe we can look at a ferry across the river, connected to a shuttle service, because it’s not practical to walk from either of these landings to either the light rail station or the highway.”
“As of today, I have issues with where we are with this,” he continued. “When you read a lot of the input from this I’m reluctant to move on as it sits… I think we need to look at the scope a little differently, or cut bait.”
Statements like that flummoxed county staff, who had to repeatedly explain basic process details to the commissioners. “Re-scoping isn’t in the scope,” said Clackamas County Assistant Director for Transportation Mike Bezner.
Then there’s Commissioner Ken Humberston. He too voiced support early on when it was, “Just a bike/ped bridge with minor impact on neighborhoods.” But he feels differently now. “Whoever put transit on the table, threw some serious sand in the gears for any constructive discussion.” Humberston, who called the idea of transit on the bridge a “non-starter”.
The specter of transit on the bridge also scares Commissioner Martha Schrader. She supports a bike/walk only bridge, but said, “I will tell you now I will not support transit. I was told this would only be for bike/ped, so that’s a deal-breaker for me right out of the chute.”
Funding anxiety (don’t take away our road money!)
“If I have to choose between only a bicycle bridge versus increased capacity, I’m going to choose the increased capacity.”
— Ken Humberston
Some of the anxiety expressed by these commissioners is because of the jostling going on around the upcoming Metro transportation funding measure known as “T2020”. That process will identify a list of “Tier 1” projects that will be the first to be funded with new revenue (if/when the measure passes). Currently, OGLO is on Tier 2 and it’s boosters are fighting to get it onto the top tier (Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba told us last year: “I will be fighting to get this project listed on the transportation bond measure in 2020 which is the only way it’s likely to be funded”). Skeptics like Humberston and County Chair Jim Bernards (below), worry that if OGLO gets onto Tier 1 it will push other projects off the table.
Commissioner Humberston made it clear he doesn’t want this bridge getting in the way of the county’s T2020 lobbying efforts:
“More importantly, T2020 is coming down the pike and the purpose of that is major transportation funding. And our major transportation funding issue is the Sunrise Corridor [an ODOT highway expansion project]… I’m not interested in wasting a bunch of political capital trying to move a bicycle bridge up [in funding priority] when our transportation needs are more capacity on our roads. If I have to choose between only a bicycle bridge versus increased capacity, I’m going to choose the increased capacity because there are a heck of a lot more people driving individual automobiles than there are riding bicycles. When we do a project that increases capacity, if we can improve bicycle lanes, I’m all for it. But I think this project muddies the water for political support that all three counties are going to need for the major transportation projects we’re going to have in the region… As important as riding bicycles is, it is of secondary importance to expansion of our road system.”
Commissioner Bernards also said he’d rather focus on driving-centric projects. “Our key priorities have always been the Sunrise [Corridor], a parking garage at Park Ave and repairs on Highway 43,” he said. “I think it does compete with Sunrise if it’s moved to Tier 1 because there’s only so much money.” Bernards also admitted his tepid support of OGLO is a political, horse-trading move to assure votes for highway projects. “I don’t want to kill it yet, it could be a bargaining chip for the Sunrise money or the parking structure or Highway 43 work. So let’s leave it on the table so do some more community outreach.”
Requests for “more community outreach” is a well-known stalling tactic that is often used to cover up an elected’s true objections, which might be publicly unpopular or politically fraught. In this case, a majority of the County Commission is worried that building the OGLO bridge would take away from their top concern: more and wider roads for driving.
Bernards clarified this when he added, “What we hear from the other side is ‘no more roads’ and Clackamas County isn’t Multnomah County, it isn’t Washington County. We still need roads. We need to reduce congestion and I’d rather spend that money to do that.”
And here’s Commission Savas expressing his priorities:
“At what point does it not become feasible in terms of dollar amount? At what point is it disproportionate to the amount of money we ought to be investing on roads. There’s scarce dollars out there. We don’t have money to throw around. At some point, we have to say by the number of people who’ll use this bridge it’s no longer feasible and how much money are you going to throw at it? If it’s too expensive, it’s too expensive.”
(Savas is fine with spending “scarce dollars” to develop projects, as long as they widen highways. In 2016 during a Metro funding process he tried to cut active transportation and boost highway projects. His idea was quickly denounced by other leaders.)
Politics of public feedback
Like I mentioned above, Clackamas County received clear support from the public for this project. But for some reason, commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting repeatedly said the project was unpopular.
“I ran for this office to build bridges not walls, this bridge is a wall. It’s divided the community,” said Commissioner Bernards.
Commissioner Savas claims that support for the bridge is only strong with people who live far away, and that locals don’t like it. He claimed 65% of the people he talked to at a recent community event were against it. If planning moves forward, Savas claimed, “We’d be spending money on designs that aren’t popular and aren’t supported by the community.”
“This has bubbled up as more controversial than I ever thought it would be,” said Commissioner Schrader.
For them and Commissioner Humberston, the answer is to re-open the public process and do even more public engagement. Savas suggested a town hall meeting. Humbertson opined that perhaps a public vote is needed.
These claims and concerns fly in the face of reality. “I don’t think we’ve had a project ever when we’ve had 600 individuals give us comments,” Bezner replied to requests to do more engagement, “the work to date has got a lot of public feedback on it.”
At one point, County Transportation Director Dan Johnson stepped in to add (with frustration in his voice): “Respectfully commissioners, this has been on your transportation plan for six years, there’s been an active public involvement campaign for a year-and-a-half, you’ve heard from a lot of people. My suggestion is get to a decision point here.”
According to County Transportation Planner Stephen Williams, whom I asked to explain the disconnect between Commissioner statements and survey results, “Information from our public input process and from the survey does show a clear majority of support. I can’t answer why the Commissioners stated that the project doesn’t have public support.” Unfortunately, Williams also added that commissioners hadn’t been given the survey prior to Tuesday’s meeting.
“Elephants in the room”
The lack of support for this project expressed by the commissioners was surprising to me. Then Commissioner Schrader shared her version of events that helps explain some of the deeper issues that might be driving the ambivalence (such as a fear of who might use the bridge):
“We assumed everything going along nicely. Then suddenly people realize where the landings will be and there heads are like “Whoa?” because of fear of what it’s going to do to neighborhoods and livability. We have wonderful walking corridors that are experiencing a lot of hard use. I mean, look at Springwater; it’s been very, very difficult. When we initially start this it seems like a good idea at the time. People go, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to have this great little bridge you can stroll over and go to the wine shops and go shopping and have people connect?’ Then when the reality hits of where it’s going to land and what other things are driving peoples’ angst, you know, those are the underlying assumptions. We’re dealing with so much houselessness right now. Instead of people seeing it [the bridge] quite frankly, as being this nice amenity, they’re worried. Whether that’s real or not, I can’t say, but I think those are kind of the elephants in the room we’re dealing with when we talk about these kind of transportation changes for people.”
What happens next
So what exactly did the Commission decide Tuesday? They told staff to move just one alignment instead of three into more detailed planning (because they felt it would be cheaper) and they said they absolutely do not support transit on the bridge.
From here the project will go in front of the Policy Committee where they’ll vote up or down on the feasibility question. The process will wrap up next month when the public gets its last chance to share input. If the project survives and the various government agencies vote to move it forward, it will get more environmental assessment and engineering that will take up to 18 months to complete.
(CORRECTION: This story originally said Commissioner Savas suggested a vote on the project. That was wrong. It was Commissioner Humbertson who made that remark. I regret the error.)
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
— Get our headlines delivered to your inbox.
— Support this independent community media outlet with a one-time contribution or monthly subscription.