The Sustainability Gap—the annoying tendency of some politicians to talk big about sustainability but do the opposite when it comes to policy—is a term that has gotten some play recently. To be honest, though, I think it is still pretty tough for sustainability advocates to get mad at their local politicians who make lousy decisions that have a deleterious effect on climate or water or energy. It’s hard to say who’s making the gap wider, the politicians who vote the wrong way, or those of us who keep supporting them. But with the election (or re-election, since he was governor before) of John Kitzhaber as governor of Oregon we have a chance to track the gap from the beginning. Let’s take two issues on which he’s sounded exactly the right note, and talk about how we might track the gap if one opens.
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The first item is similar to a problem in Washington: user fees and gasoline taxes are dedicated solely for highways rather than to general transportation use. Here’s what then-candidate Kitzhaber said about this:
I have always supported opening up a portion of the Highway Trust Fund to support non-highway investments—particularly for public transit and other alternative modes of transportation; as well as for transportation options, including bicycles, that reduce road usage and preserve the assets in which we have already invested. (Emphasis in the original post at BikePortland).
Governor Kitzhaber could close the Sustainability Gap by keeping this promise and passing legislation to change the “bike bill” (also cited as ORS 366.514) passed in 1971, which limits state highway funding for pedestrians and bike infrastructure to facilities in the right-of-way of public roads, streets, or highways open to motor vehicle traffic. In other words, the bill made it clear that “the [state highway] funds cannot be spent on trails in parks or other areas outside of a road, street or highway right-of-way.” He could also take the advice of advocates, and take steps to prioritize all transportation funding—whether local or federal—for alternatives to the car.
The next issue is school energy efficiency upgrades. Here’s candidate Kitzhaber on Cool Schools Oregon, an effort that is similar to the Referendum 52 that recently stumbled in Washington.
We have about 90 million square feet of public school buildings in Oregon. They pay anywhere from 25 cents to $2.20 a square foot for energy. That’s a huge opportunity for conservation! So the idea is to bond against the anticipated cost savings, and put people to work in every community in Oregon starting next summer.
Kitzhaber is holding a press conference this week to push Cool Schools. That’s an impressive first move in keeping his promise and closing the gap. The question here is whether the new governor will buckle under the tremendous pressure being placed on elected official to cut down debt.
I think it’s fair to judge Kitzhaber on whether he works to get this bill passed and implemented. Backing down on investing on school efficiencies would only widen the Sustainability Gap in Oregon.
Frankly, I’m exited about the Kitzhaber governorship. I think it presents at least two opportunities to widen Oregon’s lead in sustainable transportation and energy efficiency. But I also know that the new governor faces a terrible budget, high unemployment, and heated political atmosphere—at least nationally—about debt and jobs. Still, I think evaluating the new governor on these two issues makes sense. He promised big things. Now it’s up to him to deliver.