I have called out elected officials who support the idea of big carbon reductions but end up supporting huge highway projects. Now I am calling out Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder—a very close friend of Sightline and a personal friend of Alan Durning—for falling into the Sustainability Gap. Burkholder supports reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. But he also supports the CRC project, a multibillion dollar highway expansion across the Columbia River north of Portland, which would likely increase greenhouse-gas emissions for decades to come.
Burkholder has a much-deserved reputation as a champion of sustainability in Oregon. He co-founded the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, the Northwest’s most effective advocate for sustainable urban mobility. He was biking to and from his elected post on the Metro Council when Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn were a political staffer and an activist lawyer, respectively. So Burkholder clearly gets it.
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But when interviewed by Bike Portland, Burkholder had this to say about how he would respond to a hypothetical, disappointed constituent, upset about his support of a big highway project:
I just say well, I’m sorry, we have to do something and this is the smartest thing to do. We spent three years going through all these same questions and doing nothing is not an option. It’s my job to do something and I’m sorry if you’re not happy, but guess what? I can’t let nothing happen, so that’s how it goes.
Burkholder is not alone. The CRC has split sustainability advocates—and voters generally—in greater Portland. Like the Alaska Way Viaduct did in Seattle’s 2009 mayoral race, the CRC has become the dividing line in greater Portland politics.
In his defense, Burkholder could make some compelling arguments. For example, he could argue that the CRC proposal is the best that we can hope for. Or he could argue that it is a small price to pay for much larger benefits. Without a new bridge for (mostly) cars and trucks, for example, he may believe that metro Portland’s grand bargain between cities and suburbs in favor of rapid transit expansion will collapse.
He might also argue that the CRC is the price of winning. Even if the CRC proposal is a bad idea, he might contend, it’s what voters want. Opposing it won’t stop it. It will just throw the election to someone who supports the CRC. So supporting it is the path to power, this argument would contend, and the power can be used to win many other battles.
Any of these arguments might be compelling. But they are all political arguments—not arguments that the CRC is the best policy option.
The best policy option would lead to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, better land-use, and healthier communities. And it seems increasingly likely that the CRC—at least when considered in isolation from other projects and deal-making—may move the region in the wrong direction on these measures.
Yet the best policy options —that would advance sustainability in the Portland region—seem out of reach. In other words, we need to figure out how to bridge the Sustainability Gap.
In his keynote speech at a recent conference in Seattle on climate change, Seattle Mayor Michael McGinn (a lonely opponent of the tunnel during last year’s Mayoral campaign) offered a suggestion. According to McGinn, part of the way we can bridge the Sustainability Gap is to get people better organized to hold elected officials accountable for supporting projects—like giant tunnels and expanded bridges—that are antithetical to reducing carbon emissions, growing our cities up rather than out, and kicking our addiction to oil. It also means backing those officials up when they take hard, and sometimes unpopular, positions against such megaprojects.
As Burkholder says, doing nothing is increasingly not an option. That’s urgently true for climate change. And it’s as true for advocates of carbon reduction as much as it is for elected officials.
Rally photo courtesy of Flickr user gabriel amadeus under a Creative Commons License.
Thank you. As a real—and real disappointed—constituent, I’ve wondered why a man who bikes to work with a bike trailer behind (for carrying those organic CSA veggies) doesn’t seem able to buck this particular issue. Makes me think I need to look more closely at the one opponent in his race who has come out against SuperBridge.
The real answer to why the bridge is still a very good and necessary idea – vehicles are not going away population will continue to increase. Infrastructure for vehicles will continue to be needed (we will not be going back to the horse and buggy days). Those opposed the bridge based on sustainable reasons do not understand the word “sustainable” and should spend their energy on ensuring the bridge is built with sustainable practices (local materials, recycled materials, low impact surface water management, local employees, welcome/safe pedestrian/bike ways and mass transit, and equipped with solar and wind generation etc) and that the vehicles driving the new sustainable bridge are smaller in size and operate on sustainable power. Instead of yelling and complaining about the short term cost of the bridge – all those sustainable advocates should be advocating for a more expensive bridge that ensures long term benefits based on sustainable construction practices and bridge features transit/pedestrian/bike/innovative power generation etc
Few people will dispute that “doing nothing is not an option”. However, Rex and the DOT’s have dismissed other transportation options that would solve the problem – unacceptable I-5 traffic congestion at the river crossing – by reducing demand on the freeway instead of attempting to accommodate it.Many people have recommended building a much smaller auxiliary bridge for local traffic, light rail and bicycles. Much of the congestion is caused by traffic turbulence at the interchange that serves Hayden Island, which has no other access to the mainland besides the freeway.Another recommendation was to build another bridge adjacent to the downstream railroad bridge. Such a bridge will be needed in the near future to accommodate high-speed rail and it could include a “truck-way” between Marine Drive and west Vancouver that would greatly reduce congestion at the I-5/Marine Drive Interchange. It could also include a direct bike-way connecting the 40-mile Loop and Cross Peninsula Trails with west Vancouver.This new passenger rail bridge would provide the capacity, not currently available, for fast (10-minutes) commuter rail service between Vancouver and downtown Portland. The availability of both light rail and commuter rail across the river would greatly reduce peak hour commuter traffic on I-5. Both of these bridges could be built for half of the cost of the mega-freeway bridge, have a greater potential for federal financing and could be under construction much sooner.Jim Howell
One important issue that Roger misses in his rush to label as “political” all reasons for my and others support of moving forward with a replacement bridge is the physical reality of the dangerous condition of the existing 93 year old span (the other is 60 years old and also deteriorating). Putting the region’s people and economy at risk is a failure to acknowledge physical reality—steel rusts, concrete deteriorates, the earth quakes. The current bridges are also functionally obsolete and environmentally harmful. The question is, how to turn an onerous responsibility—replacing an expensive piece of critical equipment—into an opportunity. I worked 5 years to ensure this project will provide real transportation alternatives, use tolls to reduce traffic demand and move traffic quickly, and reduce impact on the environment and surrounding communities. The proposal adopted by the Task Force, the Metro Council and the Portland City Council does this. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has strong recommendations on major transportation investments which the proposal that I back includes: fix/replace infrastructure within the center of urban regions rather than build new on the edge (check), provide transportation alternatives (check), use tolling to reduce traffic demand and regulate flow to reduce emissions (check). It does take “political” will to spend 5 years at the table getting the best project possible for the environment, our economy and our communities and then to do the work to get agreement from all levels of government, on both sides of the Columbia. I’ve done that and am proud to have fulfilled the responsibilities given to me by my constituents who voted for me.
I just re-read Roger’s post and saw this statement which I must address:”And it seems increasingly likely that the CRC—at least when considered in isolation from other projects and deal-making—may move the region in the wrong direction on these measures. “The intellectual failure of the CRC WTF argument is that no project can be considered in isolation from other actions. Population growth will require that we build schools, houses, coffee shops and <gasp> roads (!) (at least to ride our bikes on). All of these will cause increased GHG emissions. Does that mean we stop all construction, ask people to double up in their houses, have 60 kids per classroom? Of course not. No, just like with the CRC, we will have to compensate by greener building techniques, reduction in GHGs in other sectors, making sure streets are complete streets with transit, bike and pedestrian facilities and maybe even tolls on our freeways. Sounds like the CRC proposal to me.
Rex,If you think CRC is sustainable, you have not done much biking through SW Washington. The reason that the present bridges clog at rush hour is unsustainable sprawl, a problem that the proposed new bridge will exacerbate.To write that CRC is needed because of population growth is intellectually lazy. Infrastructure planning can guide population growth, enhancing sustainablilty. CRC takes the easy way out: reiforcing bad land use decisions and enabling the growth trends they produce. Metro may have not have the authority to plan for Clark County. That does not mean Metro should make it easier for sprawl to continue there.
Anyone who gets up at 7:30 AM on a Saturday gets my vote. Seriously though, I support Rex on his stand regarding the CRC. Is this project even a done deal? I read the Oregonian every day (don’t get me started) and I have yet to see an approved design. All this talk could be water under the bridge once the feds step in and put their foot down. We need to think responsively about a growing metro area and how the region can stay competitive. Accomodating intra-state and regional commerce/traffic must be addressed. At the same time, we can still be mindful of the GHG emissions. Perhaps the actual construction of the bridge leaves a zero carbon footprint? We can use only eco-friendly material to build the bridge as well. What’s good for the environment and what makes good business sense is a delicate balance to be sure. With Rex already having valuable experience at Metro, I trust he’ll do the right thing.
Scott,The responsible, mindful, and eco-friendly way is to build infrastructure that enhances, not prevents, sustainability. Eco-friendly construction practices on an eco-destructive project is a trifling matter.Responsible, mindful, and eco-friendly transportation planning would promote reduction in SOV miles driven, reduction in CO2 emissions, and reduction in amount of fossil fuel consumption. The megabridge would lead to increase in all of these, even if it were constructed of 100% recycled bottles, cans, and paper.The unfortunate truth is that elected officials are exposed to heavy pressure from interest groups: developers, contractors, labor unions, and more to build and build big. If we just trust them to do the right thing, we will make little headway toward sustainability where it means the most – on decisions that create the environment under which basic economic decisions are made.If sustainability is an afterthought, we might as well be painting peace signs on nuclear bomb casings.
Yeah, a bigger highway will increase greenhouse emissions more than not building a bigger highway in the long term. If Clark’s report is correct. Which it almost certainly is. However there is a few major flaws with this whole discussion. First. Why is the decision to build the bridge based soley on the increased amount of greenhouse gasses? The value assigned to the bridge by this post shouldn’t be so one dimensional. Things to think about. What are the environmental impacts of the alternative projects or doing nothing? How does that weigh against the economic value of the bigger bridge? In addition to those questions, the blog doesn’t take into account the fact that CO2 emissions from newer cars on average are lower than older cars. The nations personal vehicle fleet is around as old as it has been in the last 30 or 40 years which suggests replacement of older cars in the near future. I could go on about different variables and economic values that need to be assigned when thinking about a bridge or any capital improvement. I think the arguements about regional growth and increased need for transportation is valid. The more people=more needed capacity. That capacity can somewhat be filled by mass transit, but not completely. Roads do have to be built. I’d like to see an alternative that is viable and improves the economic corridor that is in question. If there is such an alternative than it is worth a look. But not building a bridge because it increases greenhouse gasses is too simplistic. I think Rex has the correct approach. PS I know NOTHING about this project, so my post was ment to be abstract and open up for some more in depth analysis of the issue.
Gary Durning wrote: Why is the decision to build the bridge based soley on the increased amount of greenhouse gasses?Right you are. There are several issues that should be considered. Other environmental parameters vary roughly proportionally to greenhouse gas emissions, though. Bigger bridge means more CO2, more energy use, more other air pollution, more sprawl, more materials consumed, etc.As far as economic issues, Megabridge supporters claim the need for increased traffic capacity. This ignores longterm economic expectations: peak oil will mean much higher energy costs, decreasing auto and truck traffic; need to develop sustainable infrastructure demands that capital not be squandered on inappropriate projects. …the blog doesn’t take into account the fact that CO2 emissions from newer cars on average are lower than older cars.The changes needed to reach sustainability are huge. Cars and trucks will continue to spew huge amounts of CO2 for decades. That must be met head on with weaseling on big projects that will make sustainability more difficult to achieve for decades to come.I think the arguements about regional growth and increased need for transportation is valid. The more people=more needed capacity.The myth of eternal growth lives on and continues to imperil us. Until we learn to think beyond it, sustainability is no more than a parlor game.
a couple mistakes in my previous post:In the third paragraph from the end, I should have written “That must be met head on without weaseling….The last paragraph is my comment and should not be italisized.For those not familiar with impending peak oil, here’s a recent article: The Imminent Crash Of The Oil Supply