TRANSPORTATION

How a bridge divides the environmentally conscious in Portland, Ore.

Pacific Northwest environmentalists aren't feeling so hot. They have this nagging pain -- pulsating, really -- with every inch forward of a gargantuan highway project they'd desperately like to stop.

The activists have collectively cringed at the prospect of a $3.5 billion redesign of a bridge linking Portland, Ore., with its smaller neighbor Vancouver, Wash. The plan will only encourage more driving and more pollution, they say to anyone who will listen.

"Hey, why are you spending all this money building a project taking us into the last century?" quipped Portland environmentalist Gerik Kransky.

But shared as their disapproval may be, environmentalists can't seem to coordinate an effective push-back. The Columbia River Crossing (CRC), as it is known, has jumped through hoop after hoop of political and regulatory approval, most recently getting rubber-stamped in December by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"The glaring lack of really powerful action against this thing is a bit shocking," said local cycling and transportation writer Jonathan Maus.

And if established nonprofits and grass-roots efforts can't work together against a project so massive -- and in a place like Portland, which markets its green image -- Maus and others worry it's a sign that disjointedness is sneaking into activism's cooperative culture.

The bridge proposal aims to address a problem everyone in the area can agree on: traffic congestion. Drivers around Portland rely on a network of easily bottlenecked bridges, 10 to cross the north-running Willamette River and two to cross the Columbia. Rush hour makes Volvos and TriMet buses turn to slugs.

The CRC would replace the Interstate 5 bridge, part of which dates to 1917, and improve 5 miles of highway and interchanges. The plan would also extend Portland light rail into Washington and make the crossing more convenient for pedestrians and cyclists.

Environmentalists often oppose highway projects, almost as a knee-jerk reaction, saying they make driving easier and divert funds from green causes. But planners expected the crossing's light rail and cycling amenities to win praise from sustainable transportation proponents.

Green groups say the amenities are not enough to make up for the project's shortcomings, citing other concerns about endangered salmon in the Columbia and air pollution from vehicles, to name a couple. As for climate change, contention boils down to a difference in fundamental assumptions:

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Columbia River Crossing planners say the redesign, which calls for additional lanes, would result in smoother traffic flow, thereby lowering the amount of carbon spewed by idling cars. Without the project, they say, emissions in the area will increase 41 percent by 2030.

"It's totally counterintuitive," argued environmental attorney Tom Buchele of the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center at Lewis & Clark Law School. The added lanes will only encourage more people to drive that route, inducing more traffic, he said.

Activists seek a little more muscle

"It's a classic example where the people that are against it have everything on their side. ... But they've let themselves be fooled or scared into thinking they can't oppose it," said Maus, who has been tracking the plan's development on his news blog Bike Portland. Perhaps it's tricky for some to come down against an infrastructure project that bills itself as a job creator, he speculated.

A number of local project opponents have wished for more muscle behind their cause. Mel Rader, co-director of the nonprofit Upstream Public Health, complained that "most of the large environmental groups have not been willing to challenge the project design."

Instead, most anti-bridge action has rested with smaller environmental outfits.

On a grass-roots level was the Stop the CRC Coalition, which for a while was one of the project's most vocal, if scrappy, opponents. Formed in 2009, Stop the CRC called for a back-to-the-drawing-board approach to the I-5 bridge, and put on demonstrations outside CRC planning meetings, holding signs like "CRC = Highway to Climate Hell."

But by last winter, the coalition had lost steam. Its website hasn't been updated since December 2010, and David Osborn, one of the group's organizers, recently confirmed that it had disbanded. "Everyone was a volunteer," he said, and the coalition struggled to keep up momentum.

Osborn, whose attention is now on the Occupy movement, pondered whether the support of some Northwest heavyweights would have kept his group afloat.

"Some of the big environmental groups -- whether for political reasons or because they kind of got entranced by the light rail that was going to be part of the project -- bought into it," he said. "I think that's fundamentally wrong."

He reiterated opponents' refrain that the light rail option would not make up for the influx of traffic a new bridge could invite.

'Bombshell' or out of context?

Most surprising to Osborn and others were actions in 2010 by Jon Isaacs, then executive director of the influential Oregon League of Conservation Voters, who seemed to be batting for both teams.

Isaacs had dutifully aligned himself and the league with other environmental groups in an Aug. 9, 2010, letter urging bridge planners to consider alternatives. But in the same rush of news releases that day, Isaacs attached his name to a joint statement with the Oregon Business Association and the Oregon AFL-CIO, recommending that the design move forward.

The overall statement emphasized the importance of acting quickly on the I-5 project, saying, "We have had sufficient years of study and enough proposals to know what will work for our communities and our region as a whole."

Kransky, who works for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, said Isaacs' connection to the statement was a "bombshell" to the environmental community.

"Nobody expected the Oregon League of Conservation Voters to express any kind of support for this monstrosity of a project," he said.

Isaacs, who left OLCV eight months ago to work as a consultant, said in an interview last month that his comments had been used out of context in the joint statement and that he had told the business council and labor group he wouldn't work with them again on the issue.

Activists haven't been very forgiving; many are still quick to cite the incident as the most salient example of how environmental powerhouses have neglected the anti-CRC cause.

Kransky wonders if the group's new leadership will take an active role against the CRC proposal. Doug Moore, who took over as OLCV's executive director two months ago, said the league is officially neutral at this point. He would not say whether the CRC was likely to become a high-priority issue for the 2013 legislative session, when project funding measures are expected to see action.

A bridge that reduces GHGs?

Although the bridge design has recently become the subject of concerns regarding height, the Columbia River Crossing has cleared some major hurdles since discussions began in earnest in the early 2000s. Washington and Oregon state transportation departments have both signed off on the redesign, and in December, the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Authority approved it.

In a statement accompanying the December approval, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood lauded the CRC's vision.

"It is one more instance of why the Obama Administration is focusing on key transportation investments to create jobs, strengthen the economy, and provide travelers with affordable, efficient options for reaching their destinations," he said.

The approval followed a September release of the project's final environmental impact statement (EIS), as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

CRC planners point out that they began analyzing the project's effect on greenhouse gas emissions early on. Scoping for the 2008 draft EIS began around the time former Vice President Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" hit theaters, "so awareness of greenhouse gases at a public level was huge," said Heather Wills, CRC environmental manager.

In preparation for the EIS, Wills and her team analyzed traffic patterns and projections for emissions in 2030, with and without the interstate-bridge upgrade. They determined that the project would result in a net decrease in emissions, the level of which is yet unknown because estimates don't account for the expected relief of congestion associated with highway collisions and bridge lifts today.

Wills acknowledges that it can be tough at first for someone to understand how such a massive project could reduce climate-changing gases.

"Intuitively, you think of a bridge like, 'How can you possibly be reducing greenhouse gas emissions?'" she said. "There's a lot of skepticism."

She says it's easy to jump to the conclusion that smoother traffic flow will encourage more people to drive, but that planners have built in deterrents to excessive driving, especially during off-peak hours. For one, there would be the new light rail option over the river. Plus, the plan calls for that section of I-5 to become a toll road, though the details of tolling are still being sorted out by project planners and policymakers.

Opponents remain underwhelmed by the planning and puzzled by the lack of response to their arguments. Kransky, of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, indicated that his group and others are planning a full-court press to try to derail the CRC by pushing for a referendum on the funding measure expected in Oregon's 2013 legislative session.

It'll be one more round of the numerous political and regulatory hurdles the CRC has already faced. Kransky and many of his allies are bewildered the project has made it this far.

"At each step in the process, somehow it's managed ... to pass through relatively unscathed," he said. "We've had several bites at this apple."

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