Yes, we can build infrastructure to fight climate change

By Ronald A. Buel of Portland, Oregon. Ronald is a longtime progressive activist in Portland. This is the final column in a four-part series on climate change and Oregon transportation policy. Read the first, second, and third columns.

For the Oregon Democratic legislators who largely rely on unions to fund their campaigns (and Democrats spent more in this last set of legislative campaigns than Republicans for the first time in many, many years), the calculation works this way -- it’s better to side with the unions that are buttering your campaign bread than to worry about environmental support, because the enviros have nowhere else to go and don’t give as much money as the unions anyway.

Those of us who don’t have to worry about funding expensive legislative campaigns have a right to be incensed, however, by the faulty economic analysis presented at the Business Summit on the subject of transportation, used as it will be to justify a huge gas tax increase and massive highway construction.

The argument at the business summit goes like this:

Transportation is essential to Oregon’s economy, which is 70% a consumer economy. When consumer goods coming in to Oregon have to move from dock to warehouse to store, transportation becomes more costly if truck drivers are stuck in congestion, which will drive businesses away from Oregon and slow down commerce here. And commuters going to work waste a lot of otherwise productive time sitting in congested traffic. Our population is growing here in the Portland Metro area, so we have to build more lanes to eliminate the bottlenecks that exist. Because of the population growth, there are going to be more people on our highways, so bottlenecks and congestion will get worse exponentially and they are already bad enough. Our growing population density and land-use limits will make this congestion even worse.

This summary is not a direct quote, but it’s a pretty good synopsis of the Business Summit study.

There are so many obvious flaws with this economic and transportation “study” that it’s hard to know where to start, so in the interest of brevity, let me try to describe just three:

So, what should the Oregon Transportation Commission and the Oregon State Legislature be doing to fight global warming and climate change instead of building more highway lanes for autos?

  1. Open up the gas tax in Oregon to building transit, bike lanes and rail along roadways, with the prescription that any such measures would necessarily be designed to reduce traffic and congestion on state highways.

  2. Spend more state transportation money on Tri-Met transit service (instead of Tri-Met cutting back on service as they have been doing). Give Tri-Met and other local transit services additional taxing authority so Tri-Met, for example, can extend service north-south on the East side of Portland, including light rail service south from the Rose Quarter to the new station on the new Milwaukie rail line, and to build the new SW line out to Tigard. Get Tri-Met to build a real transportation hub at the Rose Quarter where light rail could go north, south, east and west with this new southerly line, avoiding un-necessary side trips through Downtown Portland for Portland’s many east siders. Make transit work better to get people out of their cars and to work.

  3. Pass a carbon tax on all fossil fuel sold in Oregon. Use the funds to build new grade-separated electric high speed rail systems that can go 200 miles per hour, as in 17 other countries and as California is building today. This could replace Amtrak and go from Portland to Eugene in 50 minutes, and go from Portland to Seattle in one hour. Work with Washington to build a complementary transit system on these exclusive high speed lines, going south to Woodburn and Salem, and north to Vancouver, Longview, and Olympia, with stops in between. Get commuter traffic off I-5 so trucks can use it. (Extending the Yellow Line to Vancouver as the CRC planned would not have been competitive with other travel modes, because it would have taken 36 minutes from the nearest Vancouver station to Downtown Portland, more than twice as long as a typical bus trip on I-5. Light rail on the extended Yellow line would have had 10 stops from Vancouver, and gone an average of 13 MPH, including the time for those 10 stops).

  4. Spend more money on keeping our existing highway system maintained, and on shoring up existing bridges in case of earthquakes, and spend less on adding highway capacity.

  5. Build Jim Howell and George Crandall’s Common Sense Alternative to the CRC, an eight-lane freeway bridge just to the east of the existing I-5 highway bridges across the Columbia. Plus a new bridge south off Hayden Island without using the freeway, and a new lift in the Railroad Bridge in the center of the river that would eliminate 95% of the lifts on the existing I-5 bridges. Put some form of transit on the existing I-5 bridges and otherwise use them for arterial traffic. Total cost of the Common Sense Alternative – less than $1 billion, $2 billion less than the over-built CRC, and $3 billion less than the original CRC proposal.

I would only add that there is plenty of construction work in this five-part plan to fight greenhouse gas emissions for the AFL-CIO, the Building Trades, and other unions, such as the transit drivers’ ATU, and the Teamsters.

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