“We have to fight!” Youth anti-freeway activists protest outside ODOT headquarters

Posted by on June 10th, 2021 at 12:24 pm

Aurelia Nelson-Reske leads a chant during a rally at ODOT headquarters in downtown Portland Wednesday.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

A growing contingent of young climate activists have brought their dissatisfaction with the Oregon Department of Transportation right to the agency’s doorstep.

“We’re striking because we are in the middle of a climate crisis, freeway expansion is only going to make that worse and we need ODOT to wake up and see that.”
— Adah Crandall, Sunrise Movement

“Hey hey! Ho ho! Freeway expansion’s got to go!” yelled 14-year-old event organizer Aurelia Nelson-Reske into the loudspeaker. She marched as she led the chant outside ODOT’s Region 1 headquarters building on Northwest Flanders in downtown Portland. Like many young people fighting to save planet earth from further climate change-induced catastrophes, Nelson-Reske stepped up after learning about international icon and climate activist Greta Thunberg. “Her speeches really inspired me to get more involved,” Nelson-Reske said.

Now her own words — and the words of the dozen or so other young activists that have been showing up — are being heard.

“We’re striking because we are in the middle of a climate crisis, freeway expansion is only going to make that worse and we need ODOT to wake up and see that,” explained one of the group’s leaders, Adah Crandall (whom you might recall from a rally against the freeway project at Tubman Middle School (her alma mater) in April). “People don’t think of ODOT as a villain in the climate crisis but they don’t realize that 40% of our state’s carbon emissions come from freeways ODOT is trying to expand and they’re trying to make that worse, and we need to stop them.”

“It’s completely ridiculous that everyone on the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) making the decisions about our climate fate are way older than us,” Crandall told the group who had formed a circle for introductions. “They are not going to face the lasting impacts of their actions. So we’re going to keep striking here every other wednesday until they meet our demands.”

At a previous rally (Wednesday was the fourth of the biweekly actions), ODOT Director Kris Strickler was spotted leaving the building. “We ran chasing after him with the banner,” Nelson-Reske told me during a break in the action. “But he just drove away. He didn’t talk to us at all. He’s embarrassed.” Why would the leader of a $5 billion, 5,000 employee agency be embarrassed? “Because there’s a bunch of kids standing outside their building yelling at them!”

But Nelson-Reske and her fellow protestors from Sunrise Movement PDX and No More Freeways are doing much more than just yelling. They’re getting organized, building networks, chalking messages on the pavement, and hammering home a list of demands to anyone that will listen. And yes, they’re also doing what teens often love to do: laugh with friends, take selfies and eat doughnuts (yesterday’s box was dropped off by none other than veteran transportation activist and No More Freeways co-founder Chris Smith).


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The serious side of these rallies is that aforementioned list of demands that includes: a full environmental impact statement for the I-5 Rose Quarter project (something the agency has vehemently resisted in favor of a less robust process), an immediate moratorium of all freeway expansions in the region, an end to House Bill 3065 which would allow ODOT to toll freeways in order to build more of them, and they want Governor Kate Brown to appoint a youth climate advocate to the OTC.

Rylie Norberg.

“I hope they can listen to us and have an open mind. There are ways to fix this if we can work together.”
— Rylie Norberg

15-year-old Rylie Norberg was writing a postcard to send to her State Senator when I asked why she showed up. “It’s ridiculous, knowing that they [Tubman Students] couldn’t go outside because there was so much smog in the air that they couldn’t even have recess. It’s very angering.” What does Norberg want ODOT to do? “I hope they can listen to us and have an open mind. There are ways to fix this if we can work together.”

The proximity of the planned freeway expansion adjacent to Tubman School has radicalized many young climate advocates. “I used to go to Tubman,” one person at the rally said during introductions, “and not being able to go outside during recess was kind of shitty.”

Now these young activists get to express their grievances directly to the source. They use words, a physical presence, large banners, and many sticks of chalk. Messages like “ODOT: Department of Climate Arson,” “Climate justice now,” and “Stop the freeways!” were scrawled all over the plaza in front of the Matthew L. Garrett Building.

The mood was very positive. Crandall said the group of strikers has grown steadily over the past few months.

ODOT Region 1 PIO Don Hamilton.

ODOT Region 1 Public Information Officer Don Hamilton emerged from the building to see what all the fuss was about. “We’re always encouraged to see political activities going on,” he said. In an interview with BikePortland, Hamilton asserted that ODOT is already doing enough to reduce the impacts of climate change. “It’s important to recognize that ODOT is doing a lot to encourage greater use of electric vehicles. The more electric vehicles we have on the road, the less greenhouse gas emissions we’re going to have.”

How can Hamilton justify ODOT being climate-friendly when they are pushing freeway projects that will increase driving capacity?

“ODOT understands the issues. We have to understand also that the highways are not going to end with the sudden stroke of a pen,” Hamilton replied. “We need to transition away more from traditional gas-guzzler cars into something that has a lot less greenhouse gas emissions. This is what ODOT’s working on right now. We understand there’s been a lot of protest about this and that’s understandable. But I think ODOT can be a significant player in helping to reduce GHG. The science tells us a lot about what improved congestion relief on some of the freeways would mean. If we see traffic move at a more steady speed, some of the studies are telling us we will see less greenhouse gas emissions on the road. If you look at what ODOT is doing in the larger picture, there’s a lot of good, good work going on that’s really going to assist in the climate change issues.”

Hamilton’s assurances aren’t likely to change these young hearts and minds.

“ODOT’s lies, ODOT’s greed, are not what this planet needs!” “Clean air is a right! That is why we have to fight!” the group chanted as Hamilton looked on.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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The DudeivandamieneAdah CrandallMiddle of the Road Guy Recent comment authors
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Ed
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Ed

Hamilton (and ODOT) never discuss or factor in induced demand from expanded freeways. Whatever greenhouse gas benefits you get from improved travel flow can easily be overcome by the number of new vehicle trips generated. If we are also thinking about an electric vehicle future, they use less energy travelling at slower speeds than higher speeds.

The Dude
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The Dude

This aggression will not stand, man.

“ODOT understands the issues.”

Debatable. But if so, then the only reasonable conclusion based on ODOT’s statements is that ODOT is lying.

“We have to understand also that the highways are not going to end with the sudden stroke of a pen…”

Nobody has ever said anything to the contrary. Hamilton uses the reducto ad absurdum rhetorical technique to paint the protesters as radicals with unrealistic and unreasonable beliefs, in stark contrast to his moderate and sensible views. This is a favorite trope of the US Right.

“We need to transition away more from traditional gas-guzzler cars into something that has a lot less greenhouse gas emissions. This is what ODOT’s working on right now.”

Next Hamilton tries distraction. If only we improved vehicle fuel efficiency, this wouldn’t matter so much. We are actually trying to help the situation. Think about that instead.

“We understand there’s been a lot of protest about this and that’s understandable.”

Translation: We know we are wrong but my job is to explain why it will happen anyway.

“The science tells us a lot about what improved congestion relief on some of the freeways would mean. If we see traffic move at a more steady speed, some of the studies are telling us we will see less greenhouse gas emissions on the road.”

Here, Hamilton uses the appeal to authority technique. He pretends that scientific studies show that emissions go down with less congestion (true), and that expanded freeway capacity will lessen congestion (only in the short-term), so therefore building more freeways will reduce emissions. That conclusion is totally false. But it is embedded in an argument where some premises are intuitively true. And according to this authority at ODOT, (“some”) scientists say he’s right. Don’t worry about the details. We’re on top of it.

But in fact exactly the opposite is true. Building more freeway capacity will increase emissions.

But he knows that science also shows that if he says it enough, and if it gets repeated enough, many people will accept it as true. And that’s the game.

Mr Hamilton, even the children can see through this Doublespeak.

David Hampsten
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David Hampsten

It’s the conservative Democrats of the Oregon state legislature and the equally conservative Democratic governor who are chiefly responsible for ODOT’s actions and appointing the bureaucrats who run ODOT, and the equally dumb Oregon residents who keep electing the same legislators and governors and yet expect different results each time.

The Dude
Guest
The Dude

Agreed. These are the same people who taxed bike riding. Oregonians must wake up to the reality that Oregon Democrats bear responsibility for this and that they won’t lead us out of it. It’s time for a third party for Oregon.

damiene
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damiene

In order for a third party to be plausible, we’ll need to change the way we vote.

STAR voting and doing away with primaries would be a tremendous start. It’s too bad HB3250 didn’t gain any traction, but it was its first go, so not unexpected – a lot more legislators are aware of it than they were previously, at least.

ivan
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ivan

comment of the week?

Cleo Robins
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Cleo Robins

So nice to see protesters that don’t break windows and vandalize our city. Mahatma Gandhi would be proud.

Big Bad John
Guest
Big Bad John

Unusual for Portland for sure!

Gregg Dal Ponte
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Gregg Dal Ponte

Children lack both experience and knowledge, and therefore also lack wisdom which is the product of the learning which results from having both of the foregoing. Furthermore, respecting both your elders, and the order and structure that society brings is an important lesson these children have not grasped. Sadly, they have had in recent months a plethora of poor role models.

Steve C
Guest
Steve C

“Am I out of touch? No, It’s the children who are wrong”

Rylie Norberg
Guest
Rylie Norberg

Thanks for your comment Gregg, unfortunately many of our elders created a problem that we will now suffer the consequences of. As far as I’m concerned societal structure is a conversation for another time.

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

Greg
Your premise is wrong. There are innumerable examples where experience and knowledge fail to impart wisdom. If you have any experience with kids you would know that they (usually) have a true moral compass.

Brian
Guest
Brian

And knowledge doesn’t necessarily come with age. Additionally, I fail to see how this is disrespectful of their elders. In fact, I would argue it is the opposite.
Nice work, youth activists.

Let's Active
Guest
Dave
Guest
Dave

Thank you Let’s Active. I would hazard a guess that within the next ten to fifteen years, “the order and structure that society brings” will be tested by the disorder and chaos brought about by climactic change, caused by society. Too bad old farts in positions of power and decision making authority keep on keepin’ on with the status quo!

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

Double dipping while working for the State (for us). Is this the “wisdom” he is such an expert on?

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

Or is he one of the poor role models enumerated by the plethora

The Dude
Guest
The Dude

Thanks for showing how Gregg Dal Ponte perfectly illustrates the capture of the government’s fiduciary responsibilities to the public by private industry, in this case the trucking industry. No wonder he defends the status quo with nothing but platitudes.

Adah Crandall
Guest
Adah Crandall

Hi Gregg, I’m sorry if your ego was hurt by children wanting a livable future. As for your concerns about our ‘lack of wisdom,’ feel free to stop by the next strike on June 23 and we can discuss all the many ways the current order and structure of society is failing my generation!

Big Bad John
Guest
Big Bad John

If you want to fight freeways, you need to walk your talk. That means stop using all products moved to Portland via freeways. The environmental benefits will be YUUUUUUGE!

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

And promise to not reproduce!

Roberta
Guest

I’m hoping these climate leaders will run for office. We need people to RUN RUN RUN for office. NOW NOW NOW!! Especially in Eugene Springfield. I would like to remind everybody Democrat (Republican/Charboneau Country Club freeway lobbying team) Senator Lee Beyer needs a legitimate opponent to run against him. Immediately. I though Eugene Springfield had our back. They don’t cause they keep voting in this freeway builder. Eugene Climate activist step up and aim for Democratic Climate Cheater Senator Lee Beyer needs a protest outside his shop.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

PPS should never have reopened Tubman when they were aware of the poor air quality at the location.

SD
Guest
SD

Can we nominate comments for “worst comment of the week?”