On February 25, Mayor Sam Adams led city council in a 4-1 vote approving the biggest, most car-friendly option for the Columbia River Crossing to Vancouver: 12 lanes.
Surprisingly, Portland's environmental groups have so far refused to openly criticize the supposedly green mayor's decision to build a huge new bridge. Instead, a group of private citizens have stepped up to organize their own rally against the project, now set for April 5 in Waterfront Park.
Adams reiterated his ambitious goal for Portland to become the most sustainable city in the world at his sold-out State of the City Address on Friday, February 28. But only 48 hours earlier, the mayor refused to support Commissioner Amanda Fritz's modest green amendment to his big bridge proposal. Her motion to include environmental justice advocates on a new bridge management committee died for lack of council support.
The major advocacy group that has been pushing for a smaller, cleaner option for the Columbia River Crossing is the Coalition for a Livable Future (CLF). Last spring, CLF member and economist Joe Cortright came out swinging against the 12-lane option, releasing a report comparing the bridge's $4.2 billion proposed price tag to constructing "80 OHSU aerial trams" ["Bridge to Disaster," Feature, March 13, 2008].
Cortright says council has yet to answer basic questions about funding for the bridge. But when asked whether Adams can still be considered a green mayor, Cortright responded, "I'm not going to go there. Let's just say it's not a green decision."
CLF Co-Director Jill Fuglister says she was disappointed in the 12-lane option, but also had no comment on Adams' vote, specifically. And while the big bridge may create some big environmental problems—like increasing vehicle traffic—the state's go-to environmental group, 1000 Friends of Oregon, has taken no stance on the bridge debate, either. The group had no comment on Adams' decision to vote for 12 lanes.
The day after the council vote, Adams' staff defended his green reputation.
"Sam is definitely still a green mayor," says Adams' spokesman, Roy Kaufmann. "We have a long time to work out all the details on the project. We're not wavering on our environmental objectives."
Adams believes the management committee's oversight of the project will lead to carpool lanes and mass transit options. In his speech on Friday, Adams compared this ongoing oversight to a "thermostat."
But independent city transportation activist Chris Smith was first in line to question the mayor's plan at City Club. "I imagine there will be disagreements between Portland and other parts of the region about whether this thermostat should be set at 64 or at 72," said Smith. "And I'm just afraid we'll build the furnace that will heat the city to 82."
"Where's the big outcry from an advocacy group leading the charge on this thing?" asks Jonathan Maus, whose website BikePortland.org lit up with dozens of angry comments about the bridge last weekend. "The project is going forward exactly the way the highway planners want it and you haven't heard one peep about it, except for testimony at city hall."
Maus also says he has seen a lot of disappointment about the Bicycle Transportation Alliance's (BTA) tepid criticism of the bridge: BTA boss Scott Bricker told Maus last Friday that "it's not about the number of lanes, it's about the bridge's impact on the community."
The BTA's Michelle Poyourow clarified the group's stance more forecefully on Tuesday: "We are disappointed in the council vote," she said.
Meanwhile, outraged citizens have taken it upon themselves to spearhead a protest. When syndicated Portland bicycle columnist Joe Kurmaskie posted two comments online proposing a rally against the 12-lane decision, he received emails from 100 people in 48 hours, he says.
"I had not stepped up at the city council meetings because I thought for sure this would be killed—because we have the sustainability mayor," says Kurmaskie. "It's very much a stab in the back for me."
Ironically, Kurmaskie's planned Waterfront Park rally was plotted over tables at the bar Vendetta on N Williams last Saturday afternoon—not in the boardroom of one of Portland's environmental nonprofits.
"Citizens have had to fill in for the leadership void," says Kurmaskie, ruefully.