The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. CRC

Evan Manvel

On Monday, the House is poised to make this boondoggle a “Special Order of Business.” That is a telling title for this homage to highway fetishists, a push for a Mr. Hyde-like decision in the face of the climate crisis, to press hard on the accelerator instead of the brake.

In his State of the Union, President Obama passionately laid out a key problem America faces: our crumbling infrastructure, including 70,000 structurally deficient bridges (note: the current CRC is not among them). Jon Stewart highlighted the problem on The Daily Show, “The Bridges are Death Traps.” President Obama:

”So, tonight, I propose a ‘Fix-It-First’ program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.”

In his 1997 State of the State, Governor John Kitzhaber said this:

"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."

In 2011, ODOT Director Matt Garrett gave compelling, under-reported testimony, where he clearly laid out the long-term funding problem faced by ODOT and how we are failing miserably to maintain what we have, while revenue is falling and costs increasing. Sounding like a CRC critic, Garrett said:

“... the credit card bill will continue to come due... this is just a fiscal reality. And it demands that we pivot.”

As a candidate, Mayor Charlie Hales told the Portland Business Alliance:

“I don't believe the current version of the bridge is fundable, buildable and consistent with our values.”

Every one of these leaders would want to call themselves green and supportive of the environment. But unfortunately they've crumbled under the pressure from the highway lobby.

Their transformation evokes Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novella, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The novella is a study of split personality, where the good Dr. Jekyll struggles with his alter ego, Mr. Hyde.

They’re not alone. A recent three-part expose by McClatchy, “U.S. Keeps Building New Highways as Old Ones Crumble”, calls our record “a politically-driven road building binge.”

Under political pressure from the highway lobby, many of our well-meaning elected officials are retreating from previous positions. They’re writing apologetic (and not so apologetic) excuses for supporting the boondoggle, most of which point to the supposed "triggers" meant to control the mega-project in HB 2800 (the unfunded CRC bill).

It’s been a long time since the days when Governor Tom McCall railed against this approach:

“Some highway engineers have a mentality ... that would run an eight-lane freeway through the Taj Mahal. That is our problem.”

“I simply say that Oregon is demure and lovely, and it ought to play a little hard to get. And I think you’ll all be just as sick as I am if you find it is nothing but a hungry hussy, throwing herself at every stinking smokestack that’s offered.”

This weekend Joe Cortright has another piece in The Oregonian explaining how the mega-project is a bad deal for Oregon. One of the Oregon’s leading economists, Cortright calmly lays out the facts about the blank check boondoggle, and HB 2800. Cortright explains:

“In reality, the fine print makes it clear [the CRC bill’s triggers are] an illusion... The state's financial liability is open-ended and unlimited.

He notes the game is the oldest trick in the highway lobby’s book – and how it was a favorite of highway-pusher Robert Moses: “He'd take a small amount of money and get the project started, and then dare the Legislature not to fund the rest of the project and leave it unfinished.”

The Moses reference is somewhat obscure. For the curious, check out “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s Pulitizer Prize-winning biography of Moses. Here are a few excerpts from it that might sound familiar:

“[Moses realized] once you did something physically, it was very hard for even a judge to undo it.... once you physically began a project, there would always be some way found of obtaining the money to complete it. ‘Once you sink that first stake,’ he would often say, ‘they’ll never make you pull it up.’” (p. 218)

“[W]hat if you didn’t tell the officials how much the projects would cost? What if you let the legislators know about only a fraction of what you know would be the projects’ ultimate expense?” (p. 219)

“Once they had authorized that small initial expenditure and you had spent it, they would not be able to avoid giving you the rest when you asked for it. How could they? If they refused to give you the rest of the money, what they had given you would be wasted, and that would make them look bad in the eyes of the public. And if they said you had misled them, well, they were not supposed to be misled. If they had been misled, that would mean that they hadn’t investigated the projects thoroughly, and had therefore been derelict in their own duty. The possibilities for a polite but effective form of political blackmail were endless.... Once you got the end of the wedge for a project into the public treasury, it would be easy to hammer in the rest.” (p. 219)

“[Moses] had told the Legislature that one million would be the cost of the Long Island program. He knew that actually the million would pay for only a fraction – a small fraction of the program.... with the million, he drove a lot of stakes.” (p. 220)

We will do the planning, he said. We don’t need your help. We don’t need your suggestions.” (p. 275)

“When he had asked the Legislature for money for the parkway, Moses had said that two miles of an ocean drive was all he had in mind. Now he revealed that he actually had been concealing a few other miles – ninety-eight, to be precise.” (p. 311)

“The allocation was for building a bridge, not roads, and while the allocation did permit expenditures for bridge ‘approaches,’ that word traditionally referred only to the ramps... Moses persuaded... ‘approaches’ could be defined as ‘approach roads.’” (p. 392)

While urban design professionals have explained all along how the CRC is a highway-expansion design from the 1950s, the CRC’s politics are firmly rooted in the Moses model of 1920s and 1930s.

Of course, Moses wasn’t the first bully. As Caro notes about robber barons: “They were the men who had blackmailed state legislatures and city councils by threatening to build their railroad lines elsewhere unless they received tax exemptions, outright gifts of cash – and land grants.” (p. 148) Sound familiar? It echoes the year-after-year claims of urgency about federal funding for the CRC.

On Monday, the House is poised to make this boondoggle a “Special Order of Business.” That is a telling title for this homage to highway fetishists, a push for a Mr. Hyde-like decision in the face of the climate crisis, to press hard on the accelerator instead of the brake. For HB 2800 is indeed a special order of the highway lobby. The grasping wastrels Governor McCall warned us about are rejoicing.

It's not too late for our Dr. Jekylls to reappear. Our leaders can find their wisdom of old, and stand up to the highway lobby. For the future of Oregon, I hope they do.

UPDATE: I've swapped out the original Tom McCall video I linked to in this page for the Think Out Loud piece. Watch the body language and listen for specifics. Do you feel comfortable voting for most expensive project in the region's history based on this discussion?

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