As state transportation officials forge ahead with plans to replace the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River, critics charge that the billion-dollar project doesn't go far enough to reflect Portland's fight against climate change.
Their biggest complaint: adding up to six new lanes of traffic into a new span would feed the addiction to cars instead of taking innovative, bold steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
"We're thinking we're still in the 1950s," says Multnomah County Commissioner Jeff Cogen, part of a 39-member task force advising the project. "We cannot just keep gradually increasing car use each year. That really is the road to ruin."
A proposed $4.2 billion new bridge would be the most expensive transportation project on the West Coast by the time it's finished in 2017. It's not yet a sure thing—options to build a supplemental bridge, or not to build at all, remain on the table. But replacing the current bridge has the backing of Gov. Ted Kulongoski and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.)—both of whom, coincidentally, are sustainability gurus.
To its green credit, this is the first federally funded transportation project in the Northwest to take carbon emissions into account. That means engineers have calculated the overall effect on emissions. But the project lacks firm goals or even stated guidelines to reduce emissions.
Environmentalists say it's not too late to inject a more rigorous concern about climate change. They see a chance to set a new standard for future projects—or an embarrassing blow to Portland's reputation as a haven for green living.
"It's a huge opportunity for Portland," says Jill Fugilister, co-director of the Portland-based Coalition for a Livable Future. "This is kind of the king of all projects. If we don't take this one seriously, we won't take anything seriously."
Plans for replacing the 3,500-foot bridge between Portland and Vancouver already boast eco-friendly amenities, including a light-rail line, more room for bikes and pedestrians, and bridge tolls that rise in price during peak hours.
Blumenauer spokeswoman Erin Allweiss says the congessman's support for federal funding of the project hinges on including many of those same green additions.
But Fugilister and Cogen say the project falls short in reducing emissions, given the troubling numbers that planners have kicked out so far.
According to the project's estimates, greenhouse gas emissions from traffic in the Portland area are set to rise 40 percent by 2030. That increase remains about the same whether officials replace the bridge, build a supplemental bridge or do nothing at all.
Given that the United Nations has called for cutting emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, Fugilister says a 40-percent rise is unacceptable. At a time when bold solutions are called for, simply adding new traffic lanes is a step in the wrong direction, Fugilister says.
"What it's saying is, this project is business as usual," she says. "We need 21st-century thinking."
Emissions depend on a wide range of factors, including population surge (Portland is expecting 50-percent growth by 2030), land-use decisions and the local economy. The bridge is just a small part of that mix and shouldn't become a battleground, says Rex Burkholder, a Metro councilor and veteran of two Kulongoski climate-change committees.
"It's not going to result in a climate-change impact," Burkholder says. "The impact is negligible in changing people's living behaviors."
But because it's a huge project and the linchpin of the region's roadways, Fugilister and Cogen say it's an ideal place to take a stand. Fugilister calls for no more than the current six lanes of traffic. Cogen wants firm assurances the project favors pedestrians, bicyclists and hybrid cars.
"It is a significant investment," Cogen says. "We want to make sure it's a step in the right direction, not just the same old same old."
Portland was the first city to adopt a global-warming strategy (1993) and to form an Office of Sustainable Development (2001). Oregon was the first state to pass a law aimed at reducing greenhouse gases (1993). (See "Ten Years After,"
, Dec. 5, 2007.)