Posted by Ryan Packer (Contributor) on November 19th, 2021 at 9:15 am
The Interstate Bridge Replacement project (a.k.a. CRC 2.0) received another unanimous vote on Thursday from Metro’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT) to receive an additional $36 million dollars to be used in the planning and engineering phase. These funds are Oregon’s share of an additional $71 million the project is asking DOTs of both states to fund (the Washington Department of Transportation has already agreed to $35 million) and they need to amend the Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program (MTIP) in order to do it.
“We have to do things differently.”
— Mary Nolan, Metro councilor
The vote and relatively collegial banter between JPACT members and IBR project staff, signals that December 2nd’s final vote in front of the Metro Council could be a foregone conclusion. The JPACT includes three members of the Metro Council: Shirley Craddick, Christine Lewis, and Juan Carlos González. With Bob Stacey’s District 6 seat vacant, only one additional vote would be needed for the amendment to pass.
The least likely member to cast that additional vote is surely Mary Nolan, who has staked out a strong stance against the project in recent months. Nolan testified before colleagues ahead of Thursday’s vote, reiterating earlier statements that their standard for reductions in greenhouse gases in the project is the same as the state’s overall climate target: 45% below 1990 levels.
Calling out “oblivious highway engineers” of past decades, Nolan urged electeds to ask more of the project team than they’ve provided so far. “We have to do things differently,” they said. Explicitly calling for racial equity in the project outcomes, Nolan said that communities of color should “realize at least as much of the benefit [from the project] as white folks.” At one point Nolan referred to the project as the I-5 freeway, not the “Interstate Bridge” as project staff prefer, and ODOT Tolling Program Manager Lucinda Broussard tried to correct them.
Watch the exchange below to see how Nolan stood their ground to clarify that this is not just a bridge replacement project, but a five-mile long freeway project:
Despite Nolan’s pointed testimony, the comments weren’t enough to persuade any other JPACT members to cast even a symbolic vote against the amendment.
“I’m going to trust but I’m also going to verify.”
— Jo Ann Hardesty, PBOT Commissioner and JPACT member
At the JPACT meeting, IBR project administrator Greg Johnson framed the need for more funding as essential to answering the questions that are being raised by elected officials. “We are not at a critical decision point in the program,” he told the elected leaders, noting that failure to approve additional funding for design would “crash our schedule”. Later in the day, as he briefed the project’s Executive Steering Group he called the vote at Metro a “ringing endorsement”.
Councilor Juan Carlos González — who in August said, “From here on out [I] will no longer support any fossil fuel highway infrastructure projects,” — framed his vote as an act of trust and said he will reserve the right to change his yes vote before the full Council vote if project staff don’t answer his list of outstanding questions. Metro Council President Lynn Peterson and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty pressed the IBR team on the issue of looking at a design option that leaned heavily on transit and demand management through congestion pricing. Comments made at the meeting made it clear that Johnson and other IBR staff have met privately with Hardesty and Peterson (and others) and have been able to assure them these options will be analyzed.
Johnson has also put it in writing. In response to a letter from Hardesty and Peterson in October, he wrote in a letter dated November 12th that, “We understand the important role modeling plays in helping our partners reach important decisions and we commit to working with you to strike the right balance to achieve this mutual goal.” He then listed promises to do modeling that includes “fully optimized transit capacity and congestion pricing” as well as quantitative
analysis on equity and climate metrics.
Even with that commitment in hand, Hardesty, head of Portland’s transportation bureau, also spoke about how her vote was something of a leap of faith in IBR project leaders. “I’m going to trust but I’m also going to verify,” she said, prior to voting yes.
But after JPACT’s unanimous vote Thursday, Oregon State Representative Khanh Pham of the 46th District sent a letter to Metro Council (PDF), asking them to withhold approval. “As an Oregon State Legislator and transportation justice advocate, I write to urge Metro Council to reconsider your investment in the Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program (MTIP) relating to the Interstate Bridge Replacement project,” she wrote. “Metro can table the proposed amendment and withhold $36 million from the Interstate Bridge Replacement project until ODOT pledges to study the full range of options to ensure that we are considering the most green, equitable, and affordable actions. I believe this is the right course of action.” Rep. Pham doesn’t serve on the bi-state committee of legislators who will ultimately vote to approve the project; so far, few lawmakers on that body have been openly skeptical of the process.
With the federal infrastructure package a hot topic of conversation at all recent IBR meetings, we now know the project is eying at least three grant programs included in the recently signed legislation. Commissioner Hardesty brought up a tension between a race to be competitive for federal dollars and the timelines to thoroughly assess the design options. Greg Johnson was quick to clarify that he thinks the federal agencies that approve grants are on the same page with the IBR in terms of project goals. “The USDOT has already identified that equity and climate are at the heart of what they’re going to address”, he said. But earlier this year, based on USDOT feedback that updating the Columbia River Crossing project’s purpose and need to include equity and climate change would impact the project’s timeline, those issues were kept out.
There are signs, however, that the project’s ambitious timeline may be slipping a little as the IBR team seeks to answer the outstanding questions that electeds are pressing on. But once Metro officially approves this funding to get the project to final design, it’s not clear if or when there will be another inflection point with this much leverage for quite some time.