Taylor Griggs contributed reporting to this article.
Nearly 60 individual activists and advocates working with a large coalition of nonprofits descended on the State Capitol in Salem today for a transportation-focused lobbying effort meant to persuade lawmakers to take a different path on the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program (IBR).
The event was organized by the Just Crossing Alliance as part of their Right Size Right Now campaign.
24-year-old Portlander Jacob Apenes biked to Union Station this morning to catch a 7:00 am bus to Salem just so he could be a part of the effort. After stuffing his bike in the cargo bin under the bus, Apenes told me on the ride down that he’s worried about a massive new freeway being built. “If we build a bridge of this size, we will ruin my future. I’m 24 and I have a lot of time left on this earth. If we fund a bridge that is $7.5 billion, we won’t have funding for a lot of other things we need.”
For transportation advocate Steph Routh, the day was about a simple and clear goal: If this coalition can build support for a different type of project — a more modest bridge instead of five miles of new freeway and seven interchanges between Portland and Vancouver — Oregon could fund other important needs. “Sidewalks in east Portland, we could finally fund them!” she said with optimism at the start of the day as we walked to an orientation at a conference room inside Oregon Department of Transportation headquarters.
When we arrived at the first gathering of the day, a large conference room buzzed with activity. People were making introductions, refining messaging, and strategizing about how to make the most of the next few hours. Advocates were separated into six lobby teams that would fan out across the Capitol and meet with key legislators.
House Representative Khanh Pham, who played the role of legislative liaison and welcomed the group with open arms, stood at the side of the room, beaming.
“We have not had many opportunities for the public to speak out about this really important billion dollar proposal,” she shared with me during a short interview (more to come from her in a podcast episode in the works). “I’m excited that the public is here to make their voices heard.”
Rep. Pham and others I spoke to today expressed frustration that an informational hearing being held later this evening by the Joint Committee on Transportation only includes invited guests and will not have public comment. “I’m disappointed… There’s just invited testimony which there’s a panel of, quote-unquote, ‘system users,’ which includes just the trucking and automobile industry… So those are the two system users that are being represented tonight. And so it’s so important that the community, the real system users come out to be able to have their voices heard.”
The bulk of today’s event were meetings with legislators led by small teams of advocates.
In a meeting with Senate President Rob Wagner, a Democrat who represents House District 19 (Lake Oswego, Tualatin, West Linn and parts of southwest Portland), his Chief of Staff Tom Jones heard from five advocates from groups like Oregon League of Conversation Voters and Sunrise PDX. Sen. Wagner’s Chief of Staff Tom Powers was receptive to their concerns. After saying the financing is still a long way off, he added that, “It will be 10-11 years before this bridge is even in place, so there will be a lot of time to determine what it looks like.”
Then, after telling the group about where the leaders of the Joint Committee on Transportation stand on the project, he said, “They’re not where you all are yet, but that’s not a final decision.”
One of those leaders is Co-Vice Chair House Rep. Susan McLain. McLain is a Democrat who represents House District 29, which encompasses West Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove, and she co-chairs both the Joint Transportation Committee and I-5 Interstate Bridge Committee.
McLain was one of the architects of House Bill 2017 (the most recent statewide transportation funding package) and has a big seat at the table. Given that position, many advocates we spoke to today want her to be more critical of the IBR project — and of ODOT in general.
Routh, a Portland-based transportation and sustainable planning advocate, told McLain in their meeting today that she wants future generations to be able to live in a “livable, sustainable place.”
Other members of the group expressed concerns about so much money going toward a freeway expansion when they still don’t have adequate public transportation to get around without a car. McLain listened to their concerns, but maintained that the IBR plan does not involve expanding the freeway.
“The bridge is not going to be enormous,” McLain said. She said the added width in the Locally Preferred Alternative can be attributed to road shoulders and auxiliary lanes, both of which she said would make traveling on this bridge safer.
The mention of auxiliary lanes caused a noticeable reaction in the group. One member, Portland-based Sarah Risser, spoke up.
“I just want to say that this issue is deeply, deeply personal. I was driving with my 18 year old son on a highway that had a very wide shoulder. And a reckless truck driver crossed the centerline,” Risser said. “I sat beside my son as he took his last breath. He died in a ditch of severe head trauma.”
Risser added that she thinks the most effective way to address the dual crises of road fatalities and the climate crisis is to “get as many cars off the road as possible.”
“We’re working on that with tolling and congestion pricing,” McLain replied. “We’re there together on that.”
“I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” McLain told Risser at the end of their interaction. “No, you can’t,” Risser said. “And it happens to many, many Oregonians every day.”
“We’re on the same team,” McLain replied, holding Risser’s hand. (Later, Risser told BikePortland she wasn’t sure about what McLain meant during this interaction.)
For many lawmakers today, this was the first time they’d heard about an alternate vision for this megaproject.
In a short interview under the cherry blossoms across from the Capitol, House Rep. Mark Gamba said, “And it’s not just the IBR. It’s the Rose Quarter, the I-205, the Abernethy Bridge, 217, Boone Bridge [projects]… that’s $16 billion worth of stuff that we are kind of just sleepwalking into.”
Today’s many conversations should go a long way to help awaken legislators from their slumber.
“The legislators are learning that it’s not going to be smooth sailing, that there are people that are concerned and they have needs in their community,” said Brett Morgan with 1000 Friends of Oregon. “So I think today was a really big success and I’m really happy with the number of people that showed up.”