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Guest Opinion: Stop the freeway-widening slush fund

“For me, true independence will come not from a driver’s license, but from Oregon building a transportation system that allows every Oregonian the chance to get around without an automobile.”
— Cassie Wilson

Cassie Wilson.
(Photo courtesy Cassie Wilson)

By Cassie Wilson, a 22-year-old resident of Clackamas County.

This spring, I celebrated getting my driver’s license, knowing it meant I could independently leave my neighborhood for the first time in my life. I can’t help but wish navigating my community wasn’t entirely dependent on traveling by car.

I am 22 years old. Because of a disability, coupled with a lack of nearby transit and sidewalks, I’ve been completely reliant on someone driving me wherever I need to go. I wasn’t interested in driving, but I knew it was the only way I’d be able to get a job or a higher education. Access to an automobile shouldn’t be a prerequisite for participating in society, but in almost all of Clackamas County, we simply haven’t invested in alternatives.

As someone who experiences firsthand the limitations of our existing transportation options, it’s disappointing to see elected officials continuing the status quo by prioritizing freeway expansions over investments in transit, road maintenance, or safer streets. That’s why I urge you to join me in opposition to House Bill 3055, which would create a slush fund for the Oregon Department of Transportation to spend hundreds of millions expanding I-205 and I-5 in Clackamas County by bonding against expected toll revenue.

Owning a car is an expensive privilege; automobility is a luxury that comes and goes with age and ability. Lacking a car shouldn’t prohibit anyone from commuting and accessing health care or education. Investing in freeways instead of building age-friendly, walkable neighborhoods implicitly prohibits many from acquiring basic independence. Even with my new license, I’m caught in a vicious cycle of needing a job, needing an education to get a job, and needing to pay for a retrofitted accessible vehicle to physically access either. How am I, a young disabled person living off SSI’s $529 per month, supposed to pay thousands for a vehicle conversion?

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It’s not just that widening freeways robs us of investing in transportation that actually meets my needs – widening freeways robs my generation of a hospitable future. 40% of Oregon’s carbon emissions come from transportation, and in 2019, Clackamas County set the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. After the wildfires at our doorstep last fall, I don’t know how anyone could deny the urgency with which we need to dramatically lower emissions.

With these crises looming, why are elected officials still proposing to throw hundreds of millions of dollars into widening several miles of freeway that will only exacerbate the problem? We don’t have to wait for the completion of the county’s climate action plan to know that making more room for cars won’t address this emergency. Besides, freeway expansion has literally never solved congestion; it’s baffling ODOT pretends otherwise.

How could we instead invest in solutions that benefit our climate and our community? Clackamas County could instead have reliable and accessible transportation options for people of all ages, for those who cannot afford to own a car, and for those who would gladly walk their children to school with safer streets and sidewalks. We should invest in both the safety of our neighbors and protect the place we call home.

It’s clear that the proposed freeway expansions in HB 3055 won’t solve our problems but will rob us of desperately needed revenue for road maintenance and safety improvements while literally stoking the flames of the impending climate crisis. It’s not too late for our elected officials to push a different direction and invest in alternatives.

For me, true independence will come not from a driver’s license, but from Oregon building a transportation system that allows every Oregonian the chance to get around without an automobile. To get there, we must stop widening freeways and instead invest in transportation options.

HB 3055 is up for a work session today (Monday, 6/21) in the Joint Ways and Means Committee.

— Cassie Wilson is on the Clackamas County Youth Advisory Task Force on Climate, but speaks only for herself. She lives in Boring.

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