2021 Year In Review: Destroying the Grey Old Deal to Build The Green New Deal

It’s the end of the year, which means its time for the fifth annual (!) No More Freeways year-in-review, in which we tell you all about what a busy year we’ve had fighting ODOT and the freeway industrial complex. If you’re grateful for our accomplishments, we encourage you to join our newsletter and consider throwing a few bucks to our freeway fighting fund.

No More Freeways Sued ODOT. TWICE.

This, unsurprisingly, was our big news of the year. In early April, No More Freeways joined with co-plaintiffs Neighbors for Clean Air and the Eliot Neighborhood Association and filed a lawsuit against the federal government demanding a full Environmental Impact Statement that studied alternatives to freeway expansion for tackling the traffic congestion at the Rose Quarter. We also wrote Secretary Pete Buttigieg a letter stating our concerns about the federal government’s approval of ODOT’s Environmental Assessment, encouraging him to revisit the project, and followed up in July.

Pretty cool to see it in print like that, yeah?

In our main federal NEPA lawsuit, seeking a full Environmental Impact Statement and consideration of pricing and transit alternatives to the I-5 Rose Quarter “Improvements”, the court has finalized a date by which ODOT and the FHWA must produce the record of the decision making process for their Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). The case will then be argued later in the spring.

Our second suit at the state level contends that ODOT’s findings of compatibility with Portland’s Comprehensive Plan are flawed and premature since ODOT continues to redesign the project. There is relatively little case law in this area and the Land Use Board of Appeals has recently decided that they do not have jurisdiction. That means that the case will now move to Oregon Circuit Court where we’ll have the opportunity to depose and take testimony from officials involved in making the findings.

Our litigation earned significant local media coverage, and got picked up by national publications including Streetsblog and Bloomberg’s CityLab. You can read our full complaint here.

hundreds attend tubman rally

In one of the first in-person events many of us attended since May 2020, No More Freeways partnered with the Eliot Neighborhood Association to hold a rally at Harriet Tubman Middle School to celebrate our lawsuit and demand a full Environmental Impact Statement for the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion. We were blessed with numerous amazing speakers, including former Tubman students and teachers, advocates from Oregon Walks and Neighbors for Clean Air, and youth climate justice advocates.

youth vs odot: EIGHTEEN weeks and counting

Check out Robin’s speech from a Youth Vs ODOT climate strike in August.

It started with a simple idea from Aurelia, a sixteen year old climate organizer with Sunrise PDX, who posted on the slack channel: “I want to hold a climate strike to stop the freeway.” After the first rally in April brought about a small crowd, the recurring strike has met outside ODOT every other week since, growing considerably in size. The recurring protest is to call attention to the Sunrise PDX demands of ODOT and Governor Brown, including a moratorium on freeway expansion within the Urban Growth Boundary and a youth climate justice member appointed to the Oregon Transportation Commission. The group has been meeting outside the ODOT headquarters every other week since then, with crowds as large as 75 people in the summer. The Sunrise youth have started gaining national press attention (and more is coming) for these strikes, and more importantly, local elected officials are paying attention. State Representative Khanh Pham attended in September, pledging to push for more accountability and transparency from ODOT and more legislative scrutiny on their proposed freeway expansions. YouthVsODOT has since also hosted Representatives Wlnsvey Campos and Maxine Dexter, and the General Climate Strike that drew a crowd of thousands took a deliberate tour in front of the ODOT building in September. Advocates from Sunrise PDX have appeared on KGW’s Straight Talk with Laural Porter, OPB’s Think Out Loud, and in the Portland Mercury to share their demands. Most recently, Sunrise wrote a letter demanding that any infrastructure funding from the federal government should be spent on projects that reduce driving.

The YouthVSODOT rally continues to meet every other Wednesday; join us for week nineteen Wednesday, January 5th, 2022 outside the Metro Council in advance of their vote to allocate $35 million more for the proposed revival of the Columbia River Crossing. Learn more on the YouthVSODOT Instagram page.

legislative wranglin’ in salem

flyer for NMF’s opposition to HB 3055

No More Freeways helped organize hundreds of postcards and emails to elected officials in Salem opposing a bill that would give greater bonding authority for ODOT to spend more money on freeway expansion. Our efforts to stop House Bill 3055 represented the first time that No More Freeways organized in earnest at the legislative level of government, after spending much of the past few years working at municipal, regional, gubernatorial and agency-specific entities.

Senate floor vote on HB 3055

As we wrote in our written testimony on HB 3065 (the predecessor to 3055), “As our planet lurches towards climate catastrophe, it’s imperative that local and statewide elected officials hold ODOT accountable to investing in infrastructure that doesn’t further clog our community with cars, pollute our children’s lungs or set on fire the planet they stand to inherit.”

Sunrise protest outside Governor Brown’s house, July 2021

While our efforts gained significant attention from local media, the Oregon Legislature voted to pass HB 3055 on the final day of session. In what can only be considered coincidental timing, the vote to pass the bill was held mere days before Oregon’s catastrophic climate-induced heat wave, in which temperatures reached over 116 degrees and over 100 Oregonians died. After the bill was passed, we turned our attention to Governor Kate Brown, who eventually signed the bill despite Sunrise hosting an organized protest outside Mahonia in Salem.

While we still believe the vote represents a gross abdication of responsibility from the Oregon Legislature to hold ODOT to any meaningful goals on climate or transportation reform, we were heartened to see a handful of votes in opposition to the bill. A special shoutout is in order for Rep Campos, as well as Senators Kathleen Taylor and Michael Dembrow, who voted against the measure. Speaker Tina Kotek also voted against the bill, citing a need for ODOT to work on “right sizing projects,” although she played a significant role in getting the bill to the floor for a vote.

Furthermore, as another silver lining, advocates including Rep Pham, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, Oregon Walks and APANO successfully won funding from the legislature to fund a complete retrofit to 82nd Avenue, ODOT’s dangerous highway that runs through the Jade District. 82nd Avenue was the location of two tragic traffic fatalities this spring – that’s two more traffic fatalities than the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion has seen in decades. Let’s hope that legislators find opportunities to fix the rest of the orphan highways in the state, including locally TV Highway, Barbur, McLoughlin and Powell. Clearly, ODOT fixing these dangerous streets should be a top priority over freeway widening…

Thanks to public records, We caught ODOT lying a buncha times

For a public works project with a proposed $1.2 billion project and countless millions spent on public relations and community engagement, you’d imagine ODOT staff would have ample resources to provide information to any member of the public inquiring about the impacts this expansion would have on our community. Curiously, though, No More Freeways spent over three months asking ODOT staffers (as well as testifying at numerous bodies including the state legislature and the Oregon Transportation Commission) a very basic question: how many feet wide is the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion? Joe and Aaron testified to the Oregon Transportation Commission in January asking this question, but ultimately, ODOT treated this simple fact as a state secret.

Ultimately, as Willamette Week reported, City Observatory obtained through public records requests numerous documents showing that ODOT’s proposed freeway expansion is 160 feet – wide enough for ten full lanes. When ODOT was confronted with this, ODOT’s staff said they were working with TriMet to exploring building bus rapid transit lines, but as Willamette Week reported, that seems to be a dubious claim.

No More Freeways and City Observatory also caught ODOT directly lying to the Historic Albina Advisory Board about the air pollution that this freeway expansion would bring to the Albina neighborhood, claiming they hired independent air quality experts to assess the project while not giving the researchers opportunity to review ODOT’s corrupt traffic projection data.

The maps ODOT didn’t want you or PPS to see.

Our public records requests also found documents showing that ODOT planned to take PPS land in Tubman’s backyard for the freeway expansion, and apparently hadn’t told the school. The response? Well, instead of demanding that ODOT find ways to minimize air pollution by implementing congestion pricing instead of freeway expansion, Governor Kate Brown and the state legislature seem prepared to offer PPS tens of millions of dollars to relocate Tubman; latest news suggests they will displace another historically Black elementary school in the process. Stay tuned; we’re coordinating with the Tubman PTSA and other neighborhood education activists to track PPS’s plans.

the zombie bridge is back: New Name, Same Columbia River Crossing

ahhhhh the zombie freeway expansion that ODOT tries to call a bridge replacement is back!!!!!

ODOT and WSDOT are bringing the band back together!

After spending $200 million on consultants over a decade to ultimately build nothing, ODOT and WSDOT are once again beating the drums about the need to spend approximately five billion dollars on a ten lane, five-mile freeway expansion across the Columbia River. The project has been re-branded as the “Interstate Bridge Replacement Project,” but as Ryan Packer has reported at BikePortland, all of the iterations of the project currently being studied essentially recycle the previous plans for the proposed freeway expansion from over a decade ago.

In our first call-to-action for the CRC 2.0, we got hundreds of people across the Portland region to email the Metro Council and ask for them to demand specific concessions from ODOT to study alternatives to freeway expansion before allocating the agency another $35 million further in study. No More Freeways also signed onto a letter asking Metro to postpone the vote until after a public hearing on the project.

We are eager to continue working with partners including 1000 Friends of Oregon, The Street Trust, and Oregon Environmental Council to track this gargantuan freeway expansion and push for a sensible alternative. Stay Tuned!

Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion Stumbles Forward with “Hybrid 3”, but Funding still a challenge

In September, the Oregon Transportation Commission voted to approve “Hybrid 3” for the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion, in a deal brokered by Governor Kate Brown. This proposal represents a fairly successful set of improvements to the surface level plans for the proposed expansion. As No More Freeways wrote in our testimony to the OTC, we are delighted to see that the Albina Vision Trust and the Historic Albina Advisory Board have been able to successfully advocate for positive outcomes for the community. Their continued leadership, moral clarity, and commitment to wealth generation and healing what was the largest Black neighborhood in the state of Oregon is commendable and inspiring.

However, as we’ve said for years – we don’t have to widen the freeway to add caps and heal the Albina neighborhood. The core objections of our NEPA lawsuit – that ODOT deliberately manipulated traffic data and refused to study congestion pricing ahead of freeway expansion – remains intact despite these significant improvements to the original surface-level plans. As we wrote in our testimony:

There is no need to expand the freeway in order to cap it. An alternative to
cap the existing highway should be studied. Maintaining the existing roadway
dimensions makes potential caps cheaper to build, healthier for the community,
less polluting, and more capable of supporting additional housing and community
space. We find it puzzling that ODOT has never given the community the
opportunity to consider alternatives to adding additional polluting freeway lanes,
especially given that congestion pricing studies by ODOT’s own consultants
suggest the additional freeway lanes aren’t necessary to reduce traffic
congestion.

Despite the unanimous vote in support of Hybrid 3, there’s still no plan to fund the project, which has seen cost increases to over $1 billion. The OTC insisted these extra costs should be born by local governments like the City of Portland, Multnomah County or Metro; the OTC was expected to hear a funding proposal at their December meeting, but that was curiously postponed. Stay tuned to see how ODOT tries to cobble together the enormous funding – and remember, the proposed buildable caps would be cheaper, healthier, easier, and greener to build without widening the existing freeway below. The only way to study these alternatives legitimately demands a full Environmental Impact Statement.

other miscellaneous odds and ends

Front Page of The Oregonian
Go Ka’sha!

What’s in store for 2022?

2021 was clearly a big year for No More Freeways, and the pace only seems to increase as ODOT gears up to build more freeways and we gear up to fight them. As The Portland Mercury reports, there’s an awful lot of money coming into ODOT’s pockets from the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. No More Freeways joined numerous partners with the Clean and Just Transportation Network to write this letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission, following a similar letter from Sunrise PDX, demanding that the OTC only invest in projects that reduce carbon emissions. We also expect ODOT to continue to push hard on the Interstate Bridge Replacement, and for our lawsuits to advance. Stay tuned!

And now, a note from Aaron Brown, co-founder of No More Freeways:

Hey ODOT – which side are you on?

It sure has been a helluva year for our humble freeway fight. I’m often asked why I’ve spent so much of my life volunteering on this campaign; aside from being very stubborn, the best answer I’ve got is that No More Freeways has brought together so many inspiring people putting in the elbow grease to rid their community of the Grey Old Deal so we can make space for the Green New Deal. Every foot of auxiliary lane we stop leads to millions more dollars for transit and sidewalks, as well as cleaner air and more congestion-free commutes. As we lurch into the climate apocalypse, every single foot of removed freeway is worth fighting for. And we’re so grateful for the leadership from the teens from Sunrise – their moral clarity, bravery, intelligence, and ability to righteously demand climate leadership is deeply affirming. We can only hope to do them right.

No More Freeways and our partners are using every tool at our disposal to dismantle this Grey Old Deal and freeway industrial complex – we’ve got protests in the streets, we’ve got lawsuits, we’ve got public testimony and letter-writing campaigns to targeted elected and appointed officials, we’ve got a litany of allies in environmental and transportation justice organizations we work with closely across the state, and we’ve got policy wonks churning out white papers envisioning a transportation system for a better Oregon.

When you donate to No More Freeways, you’re giving our all-volunteer team the resources to continue to pursue public records requests, hire excellent (and deeply discounted) NEPA lawyers, promote our campaigns on social media and yes, to make sure we’ve got plenty of buttons and stickers to hand out.

A generous anonymous donor has pledged to give up to $5000 in matching donations for our freeway fight fund. Whether you can give $5000, $500, $50, or $15, every dollar makes a difference – and we’ll be sure to mail you some buttons and stickers, no matter how much you give.

See you in 2022! Rest up – we have a lot more freeways to fight.

Joe, Chris and Aaron at the Tubman Rally. Photo credit Jonathan Maus

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