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January 15th, 2014 NIGEL JAQUISS | News Stories
 

The Watchdogs’ Late Bark

After a long silence, Oregon’s top enviro groups slam the Columbia River Crossing.

news1-wwstaff_4011IMAGE: WW Staff
For years, two of the state’s leading environmental groups have seemed lost in a green cloud over the Columbia River Crossing.

The $2.8 billion bridge, light-rail and freeway expansion project has posed all kinds of challenges to air quality, land use and transportation planning in Portland.

But the two groups, 1000 Friends of Oregon and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, have largely stayed out of the debate—and have until now made themselves irrelevant to the fate of the CRC.

Both groups seemed to take little interest in putting it on their political agenda. And doing so risked alienating allies, including Democrats and Gov. John Kitzhaber, who desperately wants the project.

Today, the CRC is on life support, after the state of Washington last year refused to commit to pay its half of what was then a bi-state project. Gov. John Kitzhaber keeps insisting Oregon should build it without Washington, shouldering all the risk even though two-thirds of commuters live across the Columbia.

Now, 1000 Friends of Oregon and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters are finally speaking up against the CRC—both groups motivated by concerns over Kitzhaber’s decision to pursue the project alone.

“We urge legislators to vote against the current ‘Oregon-only’ option,” says a new report from 1000 Friends, distributed to lawmakers this week. “It does not meet many of the most important interests of Oregon voters, and it exposes Oregon taxpayers to avoidable financial risk.”

[Read 1000 Friends of Oregon's scathing 22-page review of the project, titled CRC Facts, here.]

The report—which the Oregon League of Conservation Voters signed on to—says the project is based on flawed assumptions, overestimates tolling revenue expected to pay off the project, and exaggerates the seismic risks and traffic dangers of the current bridge.

“The back-up plan,” the report says, “is to increase tolls, reduce or eliminate other transportation projects in the state, and to raise taxes.”

Such criticisms are not new. What is new is 1000 Friends’ willingness to put its name behind them. The group, known for its bare-knuckled defense of Oregon’s land-use laws, has been muted about the CRC since Bob Stacey left as executive director in late 2009. 

1000 Friends executive director Jason Miner says Stacey had established the group’s concerns about the CRC. His group felt no political pressure to stay quiet in 2011 and 2012, he adds. But since 1000 Friends started asking harder questions, Miner says he’s received pushback.

Specifically, he says, House Democratic leaders warned that criticism of the CRC could exclude his group from discussions about transportation policy. “That has been made obvious to us from House leadership,” Miner says. “It’s a subtle threat.”

House leadership says that isn’t the case. “1000 Friends has been an important collaborator and partner,” says Jared Mason-Gere, spokesman for House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland). “I can’t imagine any member of house leadership saying anything to change that.”       

After Kitzhaber switched to an Oregon-only plan, Miner says he lobbied his board to oppose the project emphatically.  “With the Oregon-only approach, the threat to our interests in land use is greater,” Miner says. “The financial risk threatens pretty much any transportation project around the state.” 

The Oregon League of Conservation Voters’ silence on the CRC has been even more stark. The group has a broader political agenda in Salem than does 1000 Friends, deploys a political action committee and issues a closely watched legislative scorecard after each regular session.

There was no vote with higher environmental stakes than the one in February 2013 to fund Oregon’s $450 million portion of the CRC. Yet the group didn’t include the vote on the bill in its biannual scorecard.

Oregon League of Conservation Voters executive director Doug Moore says that’s because none of the groups in the Oregon Conservation Network identified the CRC bill as a “threat” during the session, which would have prompted full-scale lobbying against it. Moore says his predecessor, Jon Isaacs, signed a 2011 letter stating the group was satisfied with the bi-state CRC plan.

“I don’t like to move the goal posts on people,” he adds. 

Moore says he later came to distrust claims the project’s boosters were making about federal funding and their ability to build the project efficiently.

“We we question whether investing billions of dollars for one project outside the scope of a long-term, comprehensive plan makes sense for Oregon,” Moore wrote Kitzhaber in a Sept. 13, 2013, letter WW obtained through a public-records request.  

1000 Friends’ Miner says some are asking why jump in now, when the CRC is nearly dead. 

“It’s the time of greatest threat because there are a lot of vested interests that still want this to happen,” Miner says. “It’s clear that a lot can be driven through this Legislature.” 

[Full report available on the 1000 Friends website here.]

 
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