There’s one vital ingredient needed to influence the debate around a multi-billion dollar effort to expand I-5 between Portland and Vancouver: Money.
Last night in a shaded backyard in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood, well over 100 people gathered for a house party that raised thousands of dollars for the Just Crossing Alliance, an upstart coalition of advocacy groups that have united to change the trajectory of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program.
Now that the project’s Locally Preferred Alternative has been endorsed and the project is moving into its financial and environmental assessment and design phase, interest groups on all sides see this as a crucial moment to retrench, build power, and prep for the next phase of the fight.
Last night was a strong show of force for the coalition as they embark on the massive task of competing with the million-dollar marketing budget of the project team in a bid to prevent the Oregon Department of Transportation from spending billions on a project they say won’t solve the problems we face.
Among the crowd was a whos-who of activists, planners, elected officials, and freeway fighters — many of whom were around a decade ago to fight the previous iteration of this project, the Columbia River Crossing.
One of them was Mara Gross who fought the CRC as a staffer with Coalition for A Livable future. “I am sad to say that the same issues we saw back then are still at play today,” Gross said, as the first of several speakers aimed at riling up the crowd. “It’s still a mega-freeway expansion over the river. It’s still seven freeway interchanges over five miles.”
Just Crossing Alliance isn’t looking to kill this project, they just want to make it better. And that means smaller. Smaller footprint, smaller budget, smaller impact on the earth and people who live around the project.
Oregon State Representative Khanh Pham sits on the Joint Legislative Committee on the I-5 Bridge and has been an outspoken critic of the IBR project. She and many others are worried about the financial commitment required to build the currently proposed design, and how that investment will rob more pressing priorities like fixing urban arterials. Last night she said:
“ODOT keeps telling us, ‘I’m sorry, but we just don’t have the money to be making these critical investments in your street. And so you’re just going to have to accept that, every year, another community member is going to die trying to cross the street or riding their bicycle.’
And, you know, I now see as a legislator, that in fact, the money is available. It’s just being used on other priorities.”
In the 18 months Rep. Pham has been in office she’s learned that if she wants to make good on her activism credentials and continue to speak her truths to power in Salem, she needs support. “I am only as powerful as the grassroots community that’s behind me,” she told the crowd. “I need you to back me up and show that this legislator is not just a renegade, spouting off on her own… we really need to show that there is a growing and mass movement behind this this effort.”
Pham then looked in the crowd toward Metro Councilor Mary Nolan (who I believe referred to Pham as a “sister”) and led a loud round of applause for the “courage and conviction” of her recent lone “no” vote against the LPA.
The turnout and enthusiasm last night will buoy the spirits of advocates and will act as salve for their wounds after the project was almost unanimously approved by local governments. They’ll need the boost as the project moves into the next phase of the process.
The next big debate is likely to center around a new cost estimate that the IBR team has said will be released in November. Currently estimated at $5 billion, the new number is likely to be much higher. And next session at the Oregon Legislature, lawmakers will be asked to make a down payment on the project.
Just Crossing Alliance backers hope the payments they pledged last night will give those politicians pause.