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Community opposition and infrastructure projects

A major issue with large-scale infrastructure projects, such as highways or rail transit lines, is that frequently they face community opposition. Depending on which side of the fence one sits on a particular project, such opposition can either consist of heroic defenders of community values fighting valiantly against vested interests and the desctruction of their homes and neighborhoods–or of howling bands of NIMBYs putting their own selfish and parochial interests ahead of the Greater Good™. (Even the acronym NIMBY is generally considered a term of abuse). I’ve been on both sides of this particular fence, and so have you, I’m sure.

Three major controversial infrastructure project in the Portland area–one just “suspended” (and likely cancelled, at least for the forseeable future), one which continues full-speed-ahead through the planning process, and one which is already under construction but which has been subject to eleventh-hour attempts to derail it, serve to illustrate the issue quite well.

Controversy abounds

As noted in a prior thread, Portland Mayor Sam Adams announced the suspension of the Lake Oswego Transit Project after a Lake Oswego city council member withdrew his support for the project, placing the projects supporters on the council in the minority. The CRC continues to march towards construction, despite bipartisan opposition to the project, though funding issues may accomplish what community protests have not been able to. And the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail line is now the subject of a second political challenge from detractors in Clackamas County, as opponents of the project have launched a second challenge to the project, this time an initiative in the city of Milwaukie to block that city’s contribution to the project. A similar measure is also being circulated county-wide, and one county commissioner has suggested renegotiating the contract, already executed, which exists between the county and TriMet, and calls for the county to contribute $25 million to the project.

And a formative event in both the political culture of the region, as well as our transportation infrastructure, were the freeway revolts of the 1970s, which led to the cancellation of the Mount Hood Freeway, as well as several other proposed freeways through Portland neighborhoods–a strike against the alleged Greater Good which was made largely on the grounds that it would have ripped up much of SE Portland.

While I have issues with the cost, I’m generally a supporter of Portland-Milwaukie. I’m on record as opposed to the current CRC, and I’m generally ambivelent to the proposed LO Streetcar. Part of the reason for my ambivelence to the LO Streetcar is that many of the communities along the line–Dunthorpe, Lake Oswego, and even West Linn (which is beyond the line’s terminus, but would be affected by the proposed transit restructuring) seem to be opposed to it. So a good question is: how do I square this with support for PMLR, when it’s frequently alleged that Clackamas County doesn’t want that? (And what of the CRC, which many leaders, particularly in Salem, Olympia, and Washington DC, insist is of crucial to state and national interests, sufficiently so as to override local objections?)

Striking while the iron is hot

A major issue is, of course, timing.

The Lake Oswego Streetcar is still fairly early in the planning phase. Financial commitments haven’t been made, the Final Environmental Impact Statement wasn’t complete (the Draft EIS was, but that’s still early in the process), let alone final design, permitting, and construction started–in short, now is the right time for community objections to be taken into account. And while some of the stated objections may well fit into the “NIMBY” category (particularly from Dunthorpe residents who don’t want streetcars passing by their expensive homes), a key complaint was that the project as proposed would make transit service worse for many users, not better. The design of the line wouldn’t improve either transit times or reliability for Portland-LO trips, and would require a transfer for those coming from beyond Lake Oswego. And the opponents of the project have been, for the most part, those affected by the project.

Given the project didn’t pass the political test, the resources that would have gone to fund it can go to something else. Of course, one key asset for the project–the Willamette Shoreline right-of-way, can’t be moved elsewhere, but there may be other opportunities to use it in the future.

A wrench in the works?

The situation across the river is arguably different. The PMLR project has, for much of its planning and design, enjoyed the whole-hearted support of the relevant government agencies–the city of Milwaukie and Clackamas County. Lower-cost options such as BRT were considered for the project–and Milwaukie officials made it clear that they preferred light rail. The project DEIS was completed in 2008, and the FEIS was published in 2010. Funding has been secured, and construction of the line is already underway. And of particular importance, contracts between TriMet and the county have been negotiated and signed. Yet since the publication of the FEIS in October of 2010, the project has been under assault from within Clackamas County. There was vocal opposition to the project prior to this, but it was mostly unorganized and ineffective.

Thus a good question can be asked of the various petitioners and activists trying to block the project (or at least block the County and City’s contributions thereto)–where were you guys four years ago? Why weren’t anti-LRT petitions being circulated in 2008? Why weren’t city and county officials who supported the project being threatened with electoral challenges back when the scope of the project could have been meaningfully changed? Why are anti-transit activists calling on the County to renege on agreements it has already made?

A couple of possible answers to that question:

  • Prior to 2008, political conservatives were dispirited due to the low public regard for the Bush Administration (and to a larger extent the GOP). After 2008, with the election of Barack Obama, and particularly in 2010, the opposite has been true.
  • The current recession has caused some desire to rethink government spending, with calls for austerity being a major feature of political debate, at least until recently.
  • Various outside interests (with an ideological opposition to transit) seem to have taken a greater interest in the issue, and are encouraging local activism.
  • Rather cynically–there may be bad-faith attempts by some to sabotage the project by attempting to raise last-minute obstacles after the ink is dry on the planning process–in particular by targeting its funding. (Some Clackamas County opponents have suggested truncating the project to Tacoma Street, the first stop north of the county line–a project configuration not contemplated by the FEIS, and one which would thus require an expensive and time-consuming replanning phase to requalify for Federal funding).

Indeed, many of the objections to PMLR seem to be more ideological and funding-related rather than community-based objections. Residents of Oak Grove have expressed concerns about gentriciation, and there have been quite a few snarky references to “crime trains”, as though the primary users of transit are lowlifes; but much of the objection comes from those who don’t live anywhere near the line. Certainly, County voters are entitled to determine where their tax dollars are spent, but again the question must be asked: Where were you when the decisions were being made? (And why wasn’t the Green Line, which was being built at the time and goes much further into Clackamas County than does PMLR, subject to similar levels of opposition)?

The will of the people

Many opponents will retort that they have already answered that question: quite a few will tell you that they were opposing the project front-and-center, but being ignored by elected officials–officials who were busy disregarding (if not outright thwarting) the Will Of The People. The first part about that claim is probably true–the activists against the project have been opposed for quite a while–but the second part is harder to justify. Determing the “will of the people” outside of elections isn’t always easy; and many politicians assume that they have a mandate to do the things that they wish to do once in office, particularly if they campaign and win election on these issues. Politicians who only seek to do what appears to be political popular are routinely derided as weather-vanes and flip floppers, after all, not praised for their commitment to democracy. Activists on all sides of an issue will often claim to represent the will of the people, but knowledgable politicians will tend to disregard such claims until they are backed up by votes. (Or dollars).

And a key point about the will of the people–it changes over time. People may change their minds on issues, priorities may shift due to differing circumstances, people move in and out of different jurisdictions, and people may tune in or out of politics due to various psychological factors. This is a big reason why I asked “what changed” above–prior to 2008, it was liberals who had an enemy to rally and defeat; now it is conservatives who are energized by a bogeyman. Thus it is entirely possible (and I suspect, likely) that the critical mass of opinion in Clackamas County has shifted on the issue. Right now, it seems rather evident that a public opinion in the county as a whole is against the project, as several recent electoral contests have been won by the anti-smart-growth side. But a key thing to remember is that it has shifted–much of this appears to be a recent development. If public opinion was against the project in the latter part of the aughts, it was far less in evidence.

When is late too late?.

So which brings up an interesting question: How much should the political process respect stare decisis–a legal term of art meaning “it’s already decided”? (In law, it refers to the concept that a given issue shouldn’t be adjudicated more than once, without good reason). Is TriMet justified in suggesting it may sue Clackamas County if it tries to back out of prior commitments to PMLR? Were governers such as Chris Christie, Rick Scott, John Kasich, Scott Walker justified in killing off various transit and rail projects in their state, in many cases leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in sunk cost and federal funding, and years of planning, on the table?

Before you answer that, consider: CRC defenders love to point to the hundred million dollars, and advanced state of the public process, as reasons the CRC ought to be built as currently planned, despite significant opposition to those plans on both sides of the river.

And consider the Mt. Hood Freeway.

In the early 1970s, Portland’s freeway plan was about half done. The Fremont and Marquam bridges were complete, as were the Stadium Freeway (I-405), Baldock Freeway (I-5 south of downtown) and Minnesota Street Freeway (I-5 to the north). Much of the East Portland Freeway (I-205) was under construction. (This is in addition to older freeways such as the Banfield and Harbor Drive; which predated the construction boom associated with the Interstate highway system). Next on the list was the Mount Hood Freeway, followed by the St. Helens Freeway and the Rose City Freeway. This plan was a subset of the even more ambitious Portland Improvement plan written by none other than Robert Moses in the 1940s (to say nothing of the proposed freeways designed to support a Portland bid for the 1968 summer games; a bid which did not get far).

The Mount Hood Freeway was, in many was, the crown jewel of the system. West of 92nd, it was to be the intended routing of I-80N (later I-84) into Portland, replacing the functionally-obsolete Banfield Freeway. One part of the proposed highway, a stretch between Gresham and Sandy, was already built. Final designs were in progress, property acquisition had started, and the powerbrokers were all aligned to build it–City Hall, the state highway department, and the feds. Gas was cheap and freeways meant Progress.

But then, neighborhood activists, seeing the destruction brought to neighborhoods like Albina and South Portland by the prior freeways, fought back. Allying with environmentallists, they were able to find a sympathetic audience with the Multnomah County Commission, which was able to delay the project. The 1976 mayor’s race became a referendum on the highway, and the anti-freeway side won. A deal was cut, and the Mount Hood Freeway was cancellled, as were the other highways coming after it. The funding was diverted to build the original MAX line. (But not all was good news–as part of the deal, I-205 was allowed to complete, resulting in the destruction of thousands of homes and several East Portland neighborhoods).

Today, hardly anybody laments the millions of dollars spent on designing a project that was never built. The object lesson–inertia, by itself, ought not be an excuse for building a bad project.

So where does that leave us?

So where does that leave us with regard to MLR? Are the same dynamics in play here as were in play along SE Powell Boulevard back in the days of disco?

A couple of differences between the proposed light rail line, and the Mt. Hood Freeway, come to mind:

  • Actual community impact. The Mt. Hood Freeway, were it built, would have resulted in the destruction of hundreds, if not thousands, of homes and businesses. Homeowners would have been reasonably-well compensated, but many business owners, particularly those who don’t own the premises, would have been wiped out by the eminent domain practices in use back then. While the number of condemnations needed for MLR is higher than for prior light-rail lines, it still numbers in the tens rather than the thousands. An eight-lane freeway would leave a scar about 50 yards wide through the neighborhoods it runs through, completely impassable to pedestrians and cross traffic except where overpasses would have been built. A surface light-rail line, on the other hand, is far less disruptive to cross traffic, as the trains only come every several minutes, rather than a continous stream. And electric-powered rail produces zero emissions and little noise; compared to the roar and fumes of a freeway.
  • Rail detractors often point to “increased crime” as a side-effect of transit infrastructure–but this is a charge with little basis in fact, which depends on offensive stereotypes of transit users. These basis of these stereotypes–transit systems predominately used by the poor, and thus afflicted with the pathologies of poverty–aren’t true in Portland anyway, as many middle-class commuters use MAX and the bus.

  • Who benefits?Another big problem with urban freeway construction is that the benefits accrue mostly to those living outside of the city. Someone living near 52nd and Powell isn’t in great need of a shorter ride into town–if Powell is slow, there are plenty of alternate surface streets avaialble; numerous frequent service bus lines serve the neighborhood, and the distance can easily be covered by bike if you prefer. The main beneficiaries are suburban commuters and regional and long-haul traffic. City dwellers, however, bear the brunt of the consequences; it’s their neighborhoods who are ripped up. Urban transit lines, on the other hand, mainly benefit those who live nearby.
  • Source of opposition. Often local fights over community decisions get affected by ideological politics. While much of the opposition to the Mt. Hood Freeway was based on affected neighbors terrified of the bulldozder, the project certainly attracted the attention of environmentalists, who provided local activists with organizational skills, money, and the like. Likewise, Portland’s transit plans have attracted attention from national anti-transit activists, with Americans for Prosperity getting heavily involved in financing and organizing opposition to light rail. In both cases, groups with strong ideological positions (independent of the particulars of a given project) got involved and likely influenced the outcome. Given the short distance that PMLR extends into Clackamas County, however, a good argument can be made that the ideological concerns dominate the discussion.

USDOT approves CRC

The US Department of Transportation has just issued a record of decision for the CRC. This represents the final regulatory hurdle for the project, meaning that the state DsOT can go forward with acquisition of land for the ROW and of construction.

Of course, there’s still the matter of funding the thing…

Ray LaHood endorses CRC

In an interview with KGW-TV’s Tracy Barry (who also scored an interview with President Obama), Transportation secretary Ray LaHood today praised the Columbia River Crossing and stated that “the Northwest could count on big federal support for a new I-5 bridge across the Columbia River if President Barack Obama’s American Jobs Act is passed by Congress.”

LaHood didn’t endorse any particular design or proposal for the project; merely noting that it is considered a priority by the Obama Administration.

Metro weighs in on CRC phasing

At yesterday’s CRC work session, which as Chris noted was intended to be about issuing a Land Use Final Order, instead got diverted to the subject of financing, and in particular, the subject of phasing the CRC project which was suggested last week by The Oregonian

Bottom line: The Metro council wasn’t keen on the idea, as the project FEIS is about to be published–and it only includes one phasing option. In this phasing propsal, most of the project would be completed, including the entirety of the bridge itself, the Yellow Line extension to Clark College, and most of the interchange work on I-5 in the ‘Couv. In phase 2 a few additional ramp improvements are built. Needless to say, this phasing would do little to improve the financial situation of the project.

Any other phasing proposals, it was pointed out, would require the FEIS to be modified, and likely cost many more years and dollars beyond the $130 million or so already spent on public relationsanalysis and design. (When phased projects are built, federal regulations require that each phase have “independent utility”, so that if succeeding phases are cancelled, the public isn’t stuck with a white elephant, and so public officials don’t go and do the least important parts first, knowing they are more likely to get the whole thing done than if they do the most important parts first. At least, in theory).

Given the present political situation in Washington, its somewhat understandable that local leaders seem eager to get a deal done, any deal, lest a mood of national austerity result in the money hose being shut off. (Of course, if there’s a default, all bets may well be off). But as we’re also finding in DC–while deadlines may result in deals getting done, they don’t often result in good ones.

A phased approach for the CRC?

With the recent revelations by the Oregon and Washington state treasurers that yea verily, the funding for the Columbia River Crossing is not all there, and the amount of money available from tolls is not likely enough to pay the bridge’s ginormous price tag–it is good to see the editorial board of the Oregonian acknowledging the elephant in the room. The folks at the state’s paper of record do insist, of course, that a new bridge is still a necessity, but recognize that funding the current plan is a problem–depending on who you ask, there is a $500 million shortfall to be made up if the current design is to be built.

One possibility mentioned by the paper–one that hasn’t, too my knowledge, been considered by the CRC project committee–is a phased approach: Build part of the project now, with available funding, and part of it later, when more money falls off the proverbial tree.

The obvious phasing would be to do the bridge itself, and the intermediate interchanges, first; and then do the other interchange rebuilds–mainly in Washington–second. With the single-bridge design, mode phasing (highway first than LRT, or vice versa) is probably not a useful option, and there’s probably too much mistrust between the various political factions to arrange things in that fashion.

Some may protest that by doing that–doing the important part of the project first, and then the less-important part of the project second, that the less-important part of the project simply won’t ever get done. Which, of course, is precisely the point. It would be an interesting and useful analysis to determine if Just The Bridge, sans interchange work, still meets project goals and cost-effectiveness criteria (and whether it would be a serviceable MOS)–and then, if the interchange rebuilds north of SR14 pencil out as a separate project. If it turns out that the bridge-only project substantially still meets the project goals, but the interchanges are a deadweight feature, then there’s no real loss in not building them.

(The other advantage of a phased approach, at least for Oregon residents, is that phase 2 might become a Washington problem. Which makes sense; I don’t see the Olympia lining up to assist Oregon with any improvements to I-5 in the Rose Quarter area, improvements already being considered, which would doubtless become more pressing without the present bottleneck in place).