we challenged the idea that says we
can build our way out of congestion by adding
more freeway lanes.”
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)
The strong support being given to the $3.4 billion Columbia River Crossing highway expansion project by Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber represents a u-turn from his previous positions. The two-time governor was once considered a progressive thinker when it came to transportation. Comments made during his first term as Governor now seem at odds with his strong support for HB 2800, the “CRC bill” that passed a vote in the Oregon House this morning.
On February 13th, during the first of two hearings on HB 2800, Kitzhaber sounded like a staffer for the CRC project. He rattled off all the talking points one by one and painted a picture for lawmakers of dire urgency if the project fails to move forward immediately.
“We must seize this opportunity to get a huge return on investment in Oregon’s future,” he said, “It’s time to build a bridge.” Kitzhaber said the project is “construction ready” (even though CRC staff themselves say it’s only at a 30% design) and that it will, “Increase mobility” and “Fix one of the worst bottlenecks of any highway system in the U.S.”
In 2013, Kitzhaber clearly believes that dumping billions into a massive highway expansion that will harm neighborhoods, promote sprawl, and put Oregon’s finances at risk is the best way to manage our transportation system. No matter what else he works on, his legacy will be defined by many Oregonians as a leader who pushed us into a 1950s-style, more-lanes-will-solve-everything highway building project.
But at one time in his life, Kitzhaber had a much different outlook.
In his State of the State address in 1997, two years into his first term, Kitzhaber spoke at length about transportation. Managing our roads was one of his three top priorities (along with education and natural resources).
When it comes to transportation policy, Kitzhaber said, “Unless we begin to do things differently, we will lose that quality of place that makes Oregon so special.”
“We can’t raise enough money to build enough roads to prevent congestion. That is a fact.”
— Gov. Kitzhaber
Doing things differently was his major transportation theme. He was trying, admirably, to change course on the huge ship that is the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). He wanted them to think outside the box when it came to managing traffic demand and transportation behaviors.
In making the case in his speech that “Times have changed,” and agencies must employ new ways of thinking, he made an example out of ODOT:
“The Department of Transportation was designed to build roads, and they’ve done a good job. But today we need more than that. Today we need to manage growth and congestion, and the Department must change accordingly.”
Key to this change, Kitzhaber said, was the false notion that we can buy — or build — our way out of congestion.
“Money alone won’t buy quality of life and will not buy our way out of congestion in the long run.
It’s time we challenged the belief that the answer to our transportation problems is simply more money for more roads. It’s time we challenged the idea that says we can build our way out of congestion by adding more freeway lanes. That didn’t work in Seattle or Los Angeles and it isn’t going to work in Oregon.”
With this speech Kitzhaber was laying the groundwork for his proposal to reform transportation funding. Kitzhaber was launching a push to raise funds through a gas tax increase, a general transportation fee, and a vehicle miles tax. He saw those measures as essential not just for financial reasons, but in order to “manage growth more effectively.” In other words, Kitzhaber wanted to decrease the amount of driving by Oregon citizens.
“We need to make it easier for people to use their cars less.”
By charging people based on how much they drive, instead of how much gas they use, Kitzahber believed the new fees would, “give people the incentives they need to explore alternatives to driving… We need to make it easier for people to use their cars less.”
Back in 1997, Kitzhaber seemed unwilling to take a financial risk on a highway expansion mega-project: “We can’t raise enough money to build enough roads to prevent congestion. That is a fact.”
A week after his speech Kitzhaber told The Oregonian that he wanted a “market approach” to dealing with traffic congestion in Oregon.
The chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission at the time, Henry Hewitt (who also eventually supported the project as co-chair of the CRC Task Force a few years ago), said, “… We also need to alter our approach over time and change our behavior. If we just do it the old way, we fail.”
“The debate,” The Oregonian reported on January 20th, 1997, “stems from the belief of transportation officials’ conclusion that the state cannot afford the financial or environmental costs of trying to build a way out of congestion.”
Apparently the debate has changed. Kitzhaber and the Democrats in the state legislature have put all their effort into backing the CRC project; a project that will promote sprawl, encourage single-occupancy vehicle use and drain state coffers for many years while hurting the public health and vitality of the communities it goes through.
What accounts for Kitzhaber’s change of tune? Has he been sold a lie by CRC staff, lobbyists, and consultants? Or does he really believe the CRC is a good project? I tend to think that the political and lobbying power behind this project is so strong that not even the Governor of Oregon is able to stand up against it. What do you think?