A group of people hold signs outside a brick building
Sunrise Movement PDX rallying outside ODOT headquarters. Isabella Garcia

Sunrise Movement PDX, a youth environmental group, is urging Governor Kate Brown to direct Oregon’s recent influx of federal infrastructure money towards public transit, bike, and pedestrian transportation projects in an effort to reduce the state’s carbon emissions.

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“This funding is an opportunity to make serious progress towards decarbonizing our transportation system and building climate resilient infrastructure,” Sunrise PDX stated in a letter sent to Brown Thursday evening. “Are you a climate leader? We will be watching.”

The request to invest federal money from President Biden’s historic infrastructure package in public transit, bicycle, and pedestrian projects is only the latest addition to Sunrise PDX’s Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT)demands. The youth group has been hosting rallies outside of ODOT’s headquarters in downtown Portland every other Wednesday since April. In the beginning, it was a handful of Sunrise members clustered outside the transportation agency’s building. By week ten, the group had swelled to thirty people and featured state Representative Khanh Pham—a freshman legislator who has pushed hard for environmental and transportation safety causes—as a speaker. On October 27, or week 14, the group hosted a Halloween-themed strike, complete with costumes and an ODOT-themed Monster Mash parody.

The youth activists have their sights set on ODOT because transportation accounts for 40 percent of Oregon’s carbon emissions. If the state wants to meet its goal of reducing carbon emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, decarbonizing the transportation sector will be crucial.

Along with chants, sign making, and a communal space to share and process climate anxiety, Sunrise PDX’s bi-weekly events center on three demands: a moratorium on all freeway expansions within Portland’s urban growth boundary, a more rigorous environmental study of the proposed Rose Quarter Improvement Project by ODOT, and a youth climate advocate be appointed to the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC), ODOT’s governing body. The activist group previously asked the state legislature to oppose House Bill 3055, which gave ODOT the power to use bonds to fund its various highway projects throughout the state. That demand was dropped after the bill passed, with Brown’s signature, during this year’s legislative session.

Nearly eight months into the strike, all three demands remain unmet. Highway projects like the Interstate 205 project and the Interstate 5 bridge replacement project are moving forward with plans to add additional vehicular lanes, the Rose Quarter I-5 project is moving forward with its less-rigorous environmental assessment, and Brown filled the recently open OTC seat with Marcilynn Burke, the Dean of University of Oregon School of Law.

“It feels really frustrating that we have to continue to spend our time on this, especially with Governor Brown as someone who says that she wants to fight for climate justice and that she ‘shares our sense of urgency,’” said Adah Crandall, a 15-year-old organizer with Sunrise PDX. “The way that she can show that she shares our sense of urgency would be to meet our demands, and she still hasn't done that and she hasn't really even made an effort, it seems.”

A person holding a megaphone stands in front of a group outside
State Representative Khanh Pham speaks at a Sunrise Movement PDX rally outside of ODOT headquarters. Isabella Garcia

Crandall and other Sunrise PDX organizers hope the latest call for Brown to direct federal funds to carbon-reducing projects will be taken more seriously. Most of the $1.2 billion in federal infrastructure money must be spent on specific types of projects, as directed by the federal government. But, according to ODOT, about $400 million of the funds can be spent at the discretion of the OTC. While the OTC has final say on how that money will be spent, Brown can influence the OTC’s decisions—which she has done in the past.

Brown's office did not respond to the Mercury's request for comment.

The OTC will also hear public comment on where the flexible infrastructure money should be directed. The first opportunity to provide comment on where the one-time federal money should be invested is December 7.

Sunrise PDX members, many of whom are too young to vote, are a staple at OTC public comment sessions. Crandall has often had to get excused from her high school class in order to testify during OTC meetings about the feelings of dread she experienced during Portland’s historic heatwave in June that killed over 60 people in Multnomah County or her anger at the transportation agency’s continued investment in highway projects that she believes will increase carbon emissions. After making her comments, OTC Chair Bob Van Brocklin usually thanks her before moving on to the next speaker. To Crandall, it feels like her opinions are being recorded, but not actually listened to.

“As time has gone on, I've skewed farther from the idea that if we just make a good enough case, we can convince them,” Crandall said. “I think it's getting to the point where it's not so much about convincing them, it's about putting them in a position where they have to [act]. There's a need to escalate our actions to match the severity of our leaders’ inaction.”

Crandall says Sunrise PDX youth are currently strategizing how to increase pressure on transportation decision makers and “have things in the works for other direct actions that are a little bit more extreme than just standing outside their building every other week.”

Ultimately, Sunrise PDX members want Brown, state legislators, and OTC members to take their fear of climate change more seriously.

“We are not choosing to do this because it's going to look good on our college applications,” said Sunrise member Ukiah Halloran-Steiner. “We are choosing to do this and choosing to put all this work into writing these letters and testifying at strange government meetings and showing up every other week at ODOT because we want a livable future and a future that actually sustains life. This is not our first choice in how we would be spending our time.”