Metro's Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) is a bit embarrassing for the city that's supposed to be the capital of sustainability. The plan lays out all the transportation projects the region will build over the next 25 years—$20 billion worth of roads, bridges and transit—if it's not in the RTP, it's not getting built here in the next two decades.
But despite the $1.3 billion in bike and pedestrian project the plan lays out, plus ideas for light rail and mass transit, if the region builds all the projects in the plan, we'll increase greenhouse gas emissions in the region by 50 percent over the next 25 years. Mayor Sam Adams is not pleased. To meet the city's much-lauded Climate Action Plan, he needs an 80 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2050, not an increase.
Adams' team wrote up an amendment to the $20 billion plan that would require Metro to grade proposed transportation projects based on their expected greenhouse gas emissions. Projects found to be "high risk" would get tougher scrutiny and local jurisdictions concerned about climate change could pick out the "low risk" projects to build first.
But in a packed Metro meeting this morning, Adams' idea failed by a 5-11 vote. Metro's Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation approved the regional transportation plan despite Adams' and two other members "no" votes against it.
"We have a new RTP! Thank you all," said Chair Carlotta Collette, to small smattering of applause. Adams did not clap. Instead, he says, approving the RTP without greenhouse-gas ranking amendment means "more projects that are big greenhouse gas emitters will go forward without remediation and scrutiny that could have made them more sustainable."
"We've missed a significant opportunity to walk our talk when it comes to sustainability," says Adams.
- Rex Burkholder
Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder disagrees. He says the idea of ranking projects by carbon emissions is flawed if the rankings don't take into account the transportation projects' impact on land use and development. For example, he said, building a road might be "high risk" but if that road leads to a light rail station and is lined with high-density development, it could be an overall plus for the environment. "If we say every road and every highway expansion is a bad project, you think we'll be able to move forward on that?" asks Burkholder.
More on this debate below the cut PLUS a bizarre stand-off in which Metro sort of dissolves into high school debate club, complete with Council President David Bragdon whipping out a dog-eared copy of the Robert's Rules of Order and reading a passage aloud.
So there was some weird tension floating around the Metro Council before the big vote.
Mayor Adams and Burkholder introduced dueling amendments on the RTP (Adams' I described above, Burkholder's is a less aggressive plan that sets a December 2010 deadline to get rough estimates of carbon emissions created by the $20 billion in transportation projects) and each wanted theirs introduced first.
- I'll throw the book at 'em! Bragdon and the Roberts Rules of Order
When Committee Chair Collette moved to introduce Burkholder's first, Adams called the process "underhanded." He moved to table Burkholder's amendment and discuss his idea first. Looking around the room for support, Adams told committee members ominously, “If this can be done to the City of Portland, it can be done to you.”
Chair Colette, with a rather nervously upbeat tone, asked if there was a lawyer in the house to clarify the rules on what to do when someone tries to table a discussion.
Metro Council President David Bragdon came to Adams’ aid, standing up in the crowd and informing the committee that Adams had a right to ask the motion be tabled. “I’ll get the book,” Bragdon said, ducking out of the room to grab the Roberts Rules of Order. He returned with a beaten-up brown copy, reading verbatim a rule that confirmed Adams could legitimately ask to go first. So the committee took a quick vote and, surprise surprise, voted that Adams go second.
The group also overwhelmingly supported Burkholder's amendment over Adams', despite Adams' strident pleas that the Metro approach to greenhouse gas emissions will be too passive. "It’s past time, folks. World leaders are gathering in Copenhagen on this issue and they are endeavoring to push themselves beyond their collective comfort level," said Adams. "So should we."
But Burkholder says that giving experts a year to put together estimates of transportation projects' carbon emissions and until 2011 and 2012 to put together "very sophisticated analysis" of their impacts will get hard data into the hands of decision-makers and reverse the RTP's projected carbon increases.
Adams' final statement took the prize for coining the best wonky phrase of 2009:
“Respectfully, I think the Metro amendments put us in a fact-gathering cul-de-sac. It’s too passive for my tastes,” said Adams. “Expertise does exist, resources are out there. We can get the info if we have the will to do so.”
The vote was quick: Adams was the only nay on Burkholder's amendment.