— Before joining BikePortland, author Taylor Griggs lived in Eugene for six years and covered the city for Eugene Weekly.
Eugene, Oregon: 100 miles south of Portland by way of the Willamette River; famous for its population of college students, track and football jocks, pot-smoking hippies, and… NIMBYs intent on overthrowing the city’s democracy because of a public transportation project they don’t like?
Based on recent politics, local progressive advocates fear that’s where the city’s headed.
Last month, about 2,300 voters in one of Eugene’s eight wards voted to oust Claire Syrett from city council less than six months after she voted with the majority to support a new bus rapid transit (BRT) project in the city. Recall organizers say Syrett misled the public about the project and failed to engage with her constituents who were concerned about the impact this project would have on their ability to get around the city by car.
Eugene transportation advocates look at what transpired not only as a warning sign for their city’s future, but also as an indication of a problem playing out far beyond the south Willamette Valley. And in order to turn the tide, leaders need to change their strategy – or clever naysayers are likely tosabotage transformative and broadly appealing policies.
The transit project in question is MovingAhead designed by the local transit agency, Lane Transit District (LTD), in collaboration with the City of Eugene. At the center of the Syrett recall is the plan to remove two general travel lanes and build out dedicated bus infrastructure on a busy, five-lane arterial.
Eugene has successfully implemented BRT lines (which they call EmX) in the past on three different corridors. This time, the project is planned to run on River Road, a street in Syrett’s ward that follows the Willamette River from Eugene’s urban core to the rural community of Junction City about 15 miles northwest.
In addition to being a direct route from the city center to the surrounding countryside, River Road is close to some of Eugene’s most industrial, working-class neighborhoods, and the street itself is lined with homes and businesses. It’s also an area of rapid growth, characterized by large affordable housing developments. As Eugene’s population increases, more and more people will need to commute to and from the farthest reaches of this corridor.
But the MovingAhead plan would not only create BRT infrastructure – it would also be a complete streets project that local transportation advocates say is urgently needed. The City of Eugene identifies the street as one of the most dangerous for people walking and biking and includes it on their Vision Zero High Crash Corridor network.
The EmX plan for River Road includes new pedestrian crossings and protected bike lanes that project leaders say would make it safer for all people (a similar approach to TriMet’s Division Transit Project).
Members of Better Eugene Springfield Transportation (BEST), a local transportation advocacy non-profit (Eugene’s version of The Street Trust), say they aren’t entirely sold on EmX as the best treatment for River Road. But something has to be done to make the street safer for people walking, biking and taking transit, and the MovingAhead plan has presented solutions they’re on board with.
Moreover, project leaders from the City of Eugene and LTD are adamant that this project isn’t set in stone – which makes the intense recall effort all the more perplexing. Planning for MovingAhead has been underway since 2015, and though Eugene City Council did agree in March to move forward with the EmX proposal as it was, planners said they were nowhere near complete with the process. BEST trusted they, and other members of the community, would get another chance to share their input.
“BEST continues to question whether EmX bus rapid transit is the most cost-effective approach for making River Road safe and practical for everyone,” reads their recent newsletter. “We need better answers about impacts before final decisions are made.”
…or moving back?
Maxwell says people simply don’t want to ride the bus, and the city shouldn’t make residents foot the $72 million bill for a new EmX line that nobody’s going to use.
While the recall campaign against Syrett got off the ground this past summer, there has been a group loudly dissatisfied with the MovingAhead plan since its inception. One of the main project opponents is a woman named Meta Maxwell, a Eugene resident whose family settled in the city in 1862, less than two decades after its founding. When I called the number listed on the Syrett Recall Campaign website, Maxwell picked up the phone.
Maxwell owns some commercial property on another Eugene corridor that was previously under consideration for an EmX line of its own, but that project was tabled when council chose the River Road route. She doesn’t reside in Syrett’s ward – the recall campaign was largely led and funded from out of district – but she saw an injustice taking place along River Road and had to do something about it.
The argument from recall proponents against MovingAhead has two main components.
The first is the stance from Maxwell and her peers that mass transit agencies, in Eugene and beyond, are inherently corrupt and want to push pro-bus ideology onto the masses.
This philosophy is summarized in an article linked on the Syrett recall campaign website titled ‘The Transit-Industrial Complex.’ The author of this article believes there is a well-funded, pro-transit propaganda machine running the United States consisting of organizations like Smart Growth America and Streetsblog. (For the record, this is not true.) Here’s an excerpt from the article:
“All of these groups provide the illusion that there is strong grassroots support for transit subsidies when in fact the groups get most of their funding from a few foundations and public agencies… they promote the idea that transit subsidies exist for noble causes, such as protecting the environment and helping the poor, when in fact those subsidies are mainly to transfer wealth from taxpayers to selected special interest groups.”
Maxwell and her co-organizers used this approach to frame transit projects as anti-populist. Maxwell says people simply don’t want to ride the bus, and the city shouldn’t make residents foot the $72 million bill for a new EmX line that nobody’s going to use.
“I’ve ridden a bus on rare occasions, but my day would never allow me to just use the bus in Eugene. There’s no way I could do what I do in a day on the bus,” Maxwell told me. “These plans have not taken into consideration any of the new technology for electric vehicles and the alternative means of transportation people can take that are eco-friendly, and that meet their needs better.”
The second component, which Maxwell says was the real problem, is the perceived lack of public engagement around the project.
“The number-one thing is there was no engagement. They claimed that there was real outreach and engagement, and that’s a complete farce,” Maxwell said, adding she and her team of canvassers went door-to-door on River Road asking people if they’d heard of the plan, and none of them did. “Reaching out and saying ‘we’re going to talk about what we’re going to do on River Road, and if you want to know what, come to a meeting,’ is not outreach.”
Broken engagement and weak leadership
On that last note, even the most progressive transportation advocate may concede Maxwell’s point. Attempts to engage the public on city policies – especially people with lower incomes and people of color – have been scrutinized nationwide, especially by progressive activists. (And Syrett herself has acknowledged this issue in the past on at least one occasion.)
Though transportation advocates think the recall organizers are misrepresenting what happened – MovingAhead project leaders did request public input on multiple occasions – they say the city and LTD should take this as a lesson about the value of extensive community engagement for projects like these.
“If I worked for the city, I would next time be so in the face of businesses about the projects that are happening that they couldn’t deny it,” Claire Roth, BEST’s Safe Streets Coordinator, told me. “But at the same time I wonder, would that have been enough?”
Of course, the challenging nature of public engagement isn’t specific to Eugene. Portland policymakers, planners and advocates are well-aware of the tightrope they must walk when attempting to come to community consensus on a project (the failed attempt by Metro to pass a transportation funding measure being just one of many examples).
The auto industry has spent over a century convincing Americans cars are an intrinsic and necessary part of a functioning society – and that the more of them we can fit in our streets, the better. It’s easy, then, to circulate misguided talking points against alternative transportation projects with little data to back them up.
An April article by CityLab illustrates how this conundrum is holding back transportation projects across the country: “In city after city…plans to build safer streets sit on shelves, get mired in endless red tape, or are reversed after backlashes — often led by business owners and drivers who fear traffic impacts or object to parking disruptions.”
To move past this, transportation advocates aren’t pointing the finger at people living in Syrett’s ward who voted for the recall. They concede that Maxwell and her allies led an effective – if nefarious – campaign, and the rebuttal tactics were lackluster at best. They say city leaders should be doing a better job of selling projects to people who would benefit from them and proactively working to combat misinformation.
Letters submitted to local news outlet Eugene Weekly show mass opposition to the recall campaign. One letter penned by Eugene resident Lynn Porter – who supported Syrett and the MovingAhead project – offered a criticism of the former councilor that speaks to the need for stronger tactics from leadership.
Porter wrote that Syrett and the entire MovingAhead team took the wrong approach to publicizing a good policy that working-class people in Syrett’s ward should have every reason to support. The people running the recall campaign, on the other hand, used very effective tactics to convince people this project would harm them. From Porter’s letter:
“I haven’t owned a car since the mid 1990s, because I can’t afford one. I’m also too old to drive. I’ve spent years riding buses in Portland and Eugene. Most of them are very inconvenient because they run every half hour, which discourages people from using them, especially in the winter cold and rain. EmX is much better because it runs so much more often and gets you there faster. Working-class people like me have every reason to support it. People in local government need to understand that they have to defend their policies in local news media, through letters and columns, and they need to focus on what we really care about.”
Porter’s testimony stands in the face of the anti-EmX argument Syrett recall organizers used to justify their campaign. Yet Syrett’s team didn’t use this to their advantage, and they lost in the end.
Roth said she thinks policymakers and planners need to get serious about their approach if they want to implement the bold transportation projects needed to prevent traffic fatalities and curb carbon emissions.
“I think it’s going to be important for there to be closer working relationships between advocates, leadership and city staff for more transparency,” she said.
As of now, Eugene’s MovingAhead plan is still, well, moving ahead. But now that other councilors see the potential repercussions for getting on the Syrett recaller’s bad side, advocates think it’s very possible it will get watered down. And there are whispers that the people who ousted Syrett have already started efforts against other councilors who voted to support this plan and other progressive policies, like zoning changes, housing reform and building electrification.
Local environmental advocates are concerned they lost their best ally on Council, and are urging the other councilors not to back down.
“In the face of the reactionary disinformation campaign that led to Claire Syrett’s recall, it’s critical that Council doubles down on the progressive policies their constituents support, including greater access to public transit, affordable housing, renter protections and climate policy,” Dylan Plummer, Sierra Club Senior Campaign Representative and Eugene resident, told me.
Syrett’s old seat is currently vacant, and advocates are working to fill it with someone even farther to the political left. But the seeds of distrust –in democracy and public transit projects – have been sown.
“If no one trusts the experts with public dollars, I’m worried that this is going to just keep on compounding and becoming more and more of a NIMBY monster,” Roth said. “If people say, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re a senior transportation planner, but I just don’t trust you. I just don’t think that you have my best interests in mind’ – what do we do?”
Lessons for Portland
Michael Andersen, an affordable housing advocate, journalist, Portland-based researcher for the Sightline Institute, followed the politics in Eugene and thinks transportation advocates everywhere should take heed.
Andersen pointed out that Eugene’s district-divided City Council made this recall easier to carry out. Only residents of Ward 7 were polled on whether Syrett should stay in office, so people like Maxwell were able to carry out a very targeted campaign against her. This is a form of government similar to the one Portland Commissioner Mingus Mapps hopes will sway people to vote against charter reform in November.
“This is a useful example of the danger of small, single-member districts. They were able to leverage this hyper-local issue in a way that is still going to shape citywide policy,” Andersen said. “The fact that it was so easy for people to do a super-targeted recall on this issue is a good example of the ways that it could be dangerous.”
Andersen agreed with those who suggest a messaging shift in Portland and elsewhere can push through the limitations of their local government.
“Transportation reformers always have a challenge to locate our agenda within other people’s agenda,” he said. “The winning formula is to show how reducing our dependence on the car is good for all the other things people care about, like a prosperous economy, affordable housing, pleasant neighborhoods and connected communities.”
CORRECTION, 10/14 at 8:05 am: This story initially claimed the recall campaign received a sizable donation from Paul Conte. That was a mistake. Conte was reimbursed by the recall campaign as a volunteer. We regret the error.