It’s been a challenging several weeks for the Oregon Department of Transportation and their lofty freeway expansion goals. Not only is ODOT now facing hurdles from the federal government and the Oregon Transportation Commission, but local anti-freeway activists have proven to be determined enough to hold their own against the Goliath state agency for more than a year, and their movement is only continuing to build political will.
Wednesday marked the 23rd Youth vs ODOT rally to protest the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway expansion. It was held at Salmon Street Springs in Waterfront Park where the cherry blossoms are just starting to bloom.
One of the main points the Youth vs ODOT protesters want to make clear is that young people need to have a seat at the political table, especially regarding climate issues that will have direct ramifications on their futures. Even though most of them aren’t old enough to vote, they’ve proven to be able to leverage political power and have asked local political representatives and candidates to come on board.
“We’re going to build a better Oregon because of the work that you’re doing here.”
— Akasha Lawrence Spence, Oregon State Senator
Akasha Lawrence Spence (above, left), a recently-appointed state senator who represents Oregon District 18, which encompasses Southwest Portland and Tigard, is one of those representatives. She spoke at Wednesday’s rally, and spoke about how important it is to her to make sure these students’ voices are heard.
“I’m committed and dedicated to continuing to work alongside you all,” Lawrence Spence said.
Lawrence Spence proudly rolled up to the rally on her bike: a signal to activists that she’s the real deal when it comes to caring about transportation reform.
AJ McCreary (above, right), who is running for Portland City Council position 2, was also at the rally. McCreary demonstrated her commitment to climate action by signing the Sunrise Movement’s Green New Deal pledge for elected officials, a promise to champion the Green New Deal climate legislature and reject the powerful oil, gas and coal industries.
“I am so very inspired by seeing all these young folks coming together and bringing us older folks along. I am so inspired by your commitment,” McCreary said.
Both Lawrence Spence and McCreary recognized the importance of having climate leaders on the ballot. Lawrence Spence in particular discussed how she plans to fight for the money coming from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) to go to active transportation projects intended to reduce carbon emissions from the transportation sector, and not freeway widening projects.
“We have been rallying alongside my fellow legislators to ensure that IIJA dollars are going to infrastructure that is pedestrian centered, that is bike centered,” Lawrence Spence said. “We’ve been really engaged in making sure this money goes to the right place.”
“Community advocates concerned about air pollution, traffic congestion and climate change have won round one of the fight against ODOT’s proposed Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion.”
— Aaron Brown, No More Freeways
One major setback happened in January, when the Federal Highway Administration said the project’s Environmental Assessment wasn’t sufficient, and retracted the “finding of no significant impact” (FONSI) it had previously given it.
Activists at No More Freeways, Eliot Neighborhood Association and Neighbors for Clean Air withdrew the lawsuit filed a federal National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) lawsuit against ODOT last April on the grounds they were underplaying the extent of negative impacts the freeway expansion would have. The co-plaintiffs withdrew the lawsuit this week, declaring victory on the first round of the fight against this project.
“This legal decision formalizes what we’ve said for weeks: community advocates concerned about air pollution, traffic congestion and climate change have won round one of the fight against ODOT’s proposed Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion,” Aaron Brown, an organizer with No More Freeways, said in a Thursday press release.
“This project isn’t dead, but it’s floundering. If someone picks it up, finds a billion dollars and throws it back in, then it’s fine. But right now, it’s just kind of flopping around and we’re just watching and waiting for it to die,” Brown told me at the rally Wednesday. “But that doesn’t happen without us.”
Despite the slow progress the freeway protesters are seeing, there’s still a long road ahead.
Lawrence Spence acknowledged the challenge the youth protesters have undertaken, spending their high school years trying to convince people in power their futures are worth fighting for.
“We’re going to build a better Oregon because of the work that you’re doing here,” she said. “It might not feel like it, but it’s true.”