I’ve loved Nigel Jaquiss’ ongoing evisceration of the CRC mega-highway boondoggle and his documentation of the flood of falsehoods pushed by CRC backers. But his recent Willamette Week article on where the mayoral candidates stand on the Columbia River Crossing simply missed the boat.
Jaquiss quotes the candidates’ answers to the Portland Business Alliance questionnaire. Both candidates understand the current design isn’t affordable. Both candidates want to do something to address the problems at hand. But of course virtually everyone, from the CRC to its strong opponents, says the project’s design is too expensive and the problems in the area should be addressed.
I wish that Jaquiss was right – that the candidates aren’t that far apart on this issue. But he’s wrong.
Remember: Jefferson Smith used his valuable television time in the primary to talk about how refusing to support the $4 billion CRC mega-highway was a matter of priorities, and talked about walking away from the big-pocketed interests backing it. He has been willing to trade his aspiration of being mayor for taking the right stance on this issue. And it’s cost him lots of endorsements.
At an event last October, Smith characterized the CRC as “a mega-highway and set of interchanges for Vancouver commuters that if we build we can’t meet our climate goals.”
In contrast, while Hales is saying he’s against the current plan, here’s what he said to Populations TV last October:
“If the strategy of this region is to move this project forward, I’ll help. And I won’t try to substitute my judgment for the work that’s been done.”
In short, Jefferson has been a vocal leader in the fight against the CRC boondoggle – arguing it is simply not our top priority and there are smarter solutions.
Hales has been looking for a way out, trying to be all things to all people. As the Willamette Week argued in its primary profile of Hales, some think that’s his character. Randy Leonard calls him “an opportunist.”
While Hales has been trying to catch up to Jefferson’s leadership on this issue in public, he has been privately courting the building trades. The Hales campaign doesn’t seem inclined to release their secret tapes from those interviews, but one wonders exactly what Charlie told the carpenters’ union to differentiate him from the strongly pro-labor Jefferson. In announcing its endorsement, the union cited Hales’ “Support of the Columbia Crossing” as a leading reason for backing him.
Granted, the answers the candidates gave the Portland Business Alliance - the "evidence" cited by the Willamette Week - are written in campaign speak. But Hales says, “I do believe we can get to that pragmatic version of the project quickly and get it out of the planning phase and into construction.” Hales then talks about moving a more affordable project forward. That’s also what the CRC’s high-priced consultants have been saying – that they’re making the project more affordable so we can move it forward. The framing is the same. Whether the exact plans are or not, I can’t say. In the primary, Hales promised at a union forum he’d move “a version of that project” forward in his first year in office.
The CRC lobbyists are hoping to start building some part of the project, and then, in the style of Robert Moses or Boston’s Big Dig, have average people demand that we finish what we started, whatever the cost. Given Hales’ stated desire to break ground immediately, that may fit well with the CRC’s ultimate goals.
In contrast, Jefferson’s answer to the Portland Business Alliance clearly rejects the current project. He points out the holes in the CRC-backers’ case by bringing up the Rose Quarter bottleneck and the subsidizing of Clark County sprawl. He talks up the Common Sense Alternative – which is a distinct split from the project, rather than a minor modification.
The Common Sense Alternative was explicitly rejected by the CRC. The Common Sense Alternative is phase-able and much more affordable, and focuses more on choices, freight, and safety than five miles of mega-highway expansion. Jefferson also goes out of his way to mention the CRC in question 15 – saying “We need to keep up with basic maintenance and address hazardous roads. I'll prioritize that over mega-projects like the CRC.”
The two candidates are clearly very different on the CRC – even on the PBA questionnaire cited as evidence to the contrary.
Those who are most closely following this issue get it. All the environmental groups have backed Smith – the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, and Bike Walk Vote. Nearly all the anti-CRC community leaders agree, and have raised money for Jefferson. Amusingly The Business Journal’s Andy Geigrich tried to be even-handed by comparing the endorsements of three environmental groups – who represent thousands of Portlanders – to two individuals backing Hales.
Again, Jefferson has framed his campaign around being willing to stand up to the mega-highway, while Hales has been quietly trying to not lose anti-CRC votes while meeting with CRC backers and convincing them he supports the project.
Which mayor Portlanders elect could mean the difference between seeing a new vision and investments that meet our needs, or seeing a slightly changed highway mega-project that scars our city while dominating our next 30 years of transportation funding.
I’ve spent years of my life trying to protect the Portland I love from the most expensive mega-highway project in the region’s history. I’ve talked directly to each candidate about it, including some confidential conversations I won’t reveal.
For me, there's a clear choice to lead us forward.
And that choice is Jefferson Smith.
Disclaimers: I’ve worked for OLCV, served as co-chair of Bike Walk Vote, and did contract work on this issue for CLF. And yes, I’m now split between Washington and Oregon. The traffic in Seattle is a lot worse than in Portland, despite what the CRC’s high-priced consultants and spinmeisters tell you. I speak only for myself.