Oregon should invest in solutions that reflect our values.

By Jason Miner of Portland, Oregon. Jason is Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, which promotes healthy cities, protects farms and forest lands, and empowers Oregonians in shaping their communities.

North out of downtown, Interstate 5 cuts through neighborhoods and crosses the Northwest’s greatest river, the Columbia, after only a few miles. How we decide the future of that corridor and that crossing will shape this region – and Oregon – for decades.

In July, the Washington legislature rejected funding a proposal to widen the freeway, the bridge, and build light rail to Vancouver. At that time, both state’s governors were wise to declare the deal dead. For about a month, Oregon had an opportunity to move forward on a new conversation about affordable, multimodal mobility, including in challenging areas like Interstate 5.

But the project team held its cards, soon returning to proclaim we didn’t need Washington after all, that Oregon could go it alone. Now that new conversation stands interrupted as we return to tired rancor.

Yet the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) debate has been largely misdirected. Ultimately, this decision isn’t about the bridge or the freeway. It’s about the region.

This region has repeatedly set itself apart by recognizing the connection between land use and transportation, and has collaborated over decades to create a transportation system with choices for many.

Our triumphs are writ large: light rail to the airport, a tight grid that favors pedestrians, great bridges that reflect our values—the Fremont, the Hawthorne, the new transit bridge. Many can walk, bike, drive, bus, or take the train to work, school, or the grocery store.

But our missteps are also plainly visible: vast underinvestment in East Portland, freeways carving up neighborhoods, the Marquam Bridge a towering reminder of how ugly infrastructure can be when we abandon our values and just settle.

And for many there still aren’t real options. Too often you see mothers pushing strollers in the shoulder beside the rushing traffic of busy urban roads. Too often you see students walking to school in a muddy roadside path, going to a bus stop likely to fall victim in the next round of service cuts.

Making the wrong choice on the CRC could exacerbate the latent unfairness we’ve still not addressed. The costs are unfair, with the entire state gambling a decade of transportation investment on one project. The burdens are unfair, with neighborhoods along I-5 and I-205 bearing the impact of more air pollution, getting sicker so others might have a speedier commute. And the process is unfair, potentially steamrolling into a special session for a proposal that has failed to meet its contingencies, failed in Washington, and fails to meet Oregonians’ values.

And with that unfairness comes untenable financial risk, risk that will escalate if the project goes over budget, as should be expected. Oregon alone will bear this burden, and it is far too great.

We have a choice. In a moment of big bets, Oregon’s CRC decision will show whether we remain committed to more options for more people. We should walk away from an Oregon-only CRC, and invest in solutions that reflect our values— they will prove more enduring than a bigger bridge.

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