Mondays 87: Portland Freeway Fight!!
This week we’re joined by Joe Cortright of City Observatory and Aaron Brown of No More Freeways to talk about the local fight against freeway expansion through Portland’s Rose Quarter. We chat about the freeway industrial complex, the ping pong of travel forecasting, and what new federal discussions mean for the movement.
Below is an unedited for now transcript of the interview:
Jeff Wood (6m 22s):
Well, Aaron Brown, Joe Cortright. Welcome to the show. Well, thanks for being here, Joe, we had you on, on, on episode 52, but for folks that might not know your work and what you do, can you, can you share a little bit about your, your work, you, and then Aaron, you can go after that.
Joe Cortright (6m 37s):
Sure. I run city observatory, which is an urban policy think tank based here in Portland. We’ve been around for six and almost a half years. We specialize in a range of issues, housing, economic development, equity, and transportation.
Aaron Brown (6m 52s):
And my name is Aaron Brown. I’m a rabble rouser community organizer and occasional political consultant, depending on who’s billing me that works here in the Portland region. I spend my time passing a lot of school bonds and school levies teachers levees I’ve won about $2.7 billion in funding for schools and parks. And I asked a gas tax here in Portland, back in 2016. I’m the former board president of Oregon walks the pedestrian advocacy organization. And I was involved with that organization for about four years and Joe and I, and some others back in August of 2017, got around a table and said, man, we should really do something about this $400 million at the time freeway X million dollar freeway expansion that ODA is talking about working on.
Aaron Brown (7m 34s):
And I had admired a lot of Joe’s work on fighting the Columbia river crossing and previous years. And so I’ve been drafted into the freeway Wars with the organization and more freeways.
Jeff Wood (7m 46s):
Well, how do you get into that? Like what happens when you sit down at the table and they’re like, Hey, I want to oppose this, this massive freeway expansion. That’s going to go straight through the center of a neighborhood.
Aaron Brown (7m 57s):
It’s a good question because those conversations are always just so enormous and there’s so much to track. And I think it really comes down to just sort of doing a little bit of power mapping and doing a little bit of like resource management and like taking it assessments of, okay, who do we know around here that like can set up their website? Who do we know here that has good relationships with local politicians? Who do we know here that has a huge traffic walk that can like absolutely pull apart every one of the traffic engineering numbers, right? Who here is really good at public records requests. And at that first call, you have a lot of people that are all over the map and you, you know, sometimes people show up that don’t have a lot to offer immediately, but as your campaign grows, eventually every relationship you’ll always find a way to draft somebody into your freeway fight.
Aaron Brown (8m 43s):
If they have some skills or some set of relationships or some sort of resource that they can help towards this greater effort.
Joe Cortright (8m 50s):
Yeah. It’s, it’s a combination of, you know, organizing and hard work. You know, the organizing is reaching out to all the other people in the community who, who we know share a set of values and, you know, logically shouldn’t be supporters of should be active opponents of the freeway. And then, you know, we’re up against technocratically and financially well-resourced institution. And they’ve done a pretty extensive job of building a case for what it is they’re trying to do. And usually buried in the details of, of what they provide. You can find the seeds of the counter-arguments and you see where, you know what some work you can find out where the problems are, where the, where the points are of leverage that you can go after them.
Joe Cortright (9m 40s):
So that’s, it’s, it’s, it’s both of those things and they compliment each other and just communicating to people about what’s going on and how, and who’s doing it. And why is really a big part of energizing folks to get involved?
Aaron Brown (9m 55s):
And one thing I would just add to this, and it’s something that has really come out for me big in the last couple of weeks, when I think back on our time, back in 2017, when we were just getting started and I was almost embarrassed to tell people that we were part of this effort, because it just felt so antithetical and people are like, of course, we’re going to build, it’s just an improvement, whatever this organizer VP card that I’ve been working with, she’s like an electric vehicle advocate with climate solutions. I was on a call with her a couple of weeks ago, and she used the phrase organizing at the speed of trust. And that is just something that I’ve just been really proud of. The work that we’re freebase has done both with community advocacy groups, across so many different layers of climate and of education and of restorative justice and racial justice, as well as just in our early days, there was a lot of like bureaucrats and planners and technical folks that were like, look like we’re getting some bike peds stuff out of this freeway, which we’re not, but like at the time there’s this like, ah, like, why are you guys doing this?
Aaron Brown (10m 49s):
This is annoying. And it’s like, look, we’re going to show you the ways in which we know ought to be lying. And I hope you’ll come along with us over time. And we are going to continue to just make this good faith effort of like providing you with the background information, whether it was a high, a bureaucrat somewhere, whether it was a local elected official. And at the same time, Odette is just continued to demonstrate a lack of transparency or accountability or willingness to just tell the truth if they’re speaking at all. And I think a lot of these freeway fights ultimately come down to, you know, how do you successfully build trust against a very large group of people that are outside of a normative transportation walk, advocacy space that I think myself and Joe and others, and maybe listeners of this podcast often find themselves in.
Aaron Brown (11m 29s):
And that takes time and effort and deliberate effort.
Jeff Wood (11m 32s):
So you started in 2017, obviously there’s not a lot of groundswell for this type of opposition for this project. Where does the opposition that you all have come from? Like what, what is the, what was the impetus for it? Is it from the Columbia river crossing? Is it before that? Is it just seeing all of the documentation that oats been throwing out there? Like, what is it that kind of gets you into that small portion of the population
Aaron Brown (11m 54s):
That says, Hey, I can see down the road, this might be, yeah,
Joe Cortright (11m 57s):
No problem. Well, I, I, my answer to that, which is, you know, it’s, it’s bizarre to me that more than four decades after we successfully removed a downtown freeway Arbor drive, that there’s any question about the utility or the desirability of spending money on more freeway capacity through urban neighborhoods. And it’s, it’s kind of a Testament to how cynical the PR effort is to sell these projects. I mean, you know, Robert Moses, when he went through New York had no guile at all, he said he was taking a meat ax to the city. You know, the is today are, are all about cloaking, their plans, which are manifestly no different from that in, in this rhetoric of, of quote unquote improvement and reparations, which there is manifestly, not, you know, the challenges both to, to remind people the set of values and the history and where we stand as a community.
Joe Cortright (12m 59s):
And then to point out the contradictions between those values and what’s being done by folks who are nominally public servants.
Aaron Brown (13m 7s):
I would add to that too, right? That as an advocate, I thought I wanted to be an urban planner. When I graduated college, I was really focused on urban planning and I’m at an internship at a local government. And I had spent some time and I found increasingly I cared more about like, who showed up at these meetings than I did about like what the technical planning procedural was like, were so thought that like planning ultimately gets to these results and planning is an immensely powerful and important tool. And I’m deeply grateful for all of the practitioners out there. And especially folks that like bring moral clarity to the work that they’re doing. But at the end of the day, these decisions are political, not technical, right? And there’s a lot of political power that is aligning up behind trying to pass an $800 million freeway expansion.
Aaron Brown (13m 51s):
And that really became clear to me. I mentioned, you know, I was the board president of Oregon walks and pedestrian advocacy organization. And in 2014, 2015, we let a big push to get the city to adopt division zero type, you know, eliminating traffic fatalities. And in that process of going out to East Portland and the most miserably sad days, you could ever imagine of going to a traffic vigil, held for somebody, a visual health for someone who was hit by a car and being like, wow, like this crosswalk here that was never built on this rainy, it’s an orphaned highway, Oh, dot the state owns this road that a bunch of late 20th century modem style, suburban style development has filled in, but not actually been fixed up with crosswalks and sidewalks.
Aaron Brown (14m 34s):
This little old Russian woman was hit and killed and it’s pouring rain. And we’re sitting on the sidewalk like sobbing, listening to her family, cry about this poor woman’s death and could have been fixed with an $80,000 crosswalk, right? Like immensely tiny amount of money. And yet ODAT has $8 million for a freeway expansion. And across the Portland region alone, ODAT owns TV highway Owens, Barbara Boulevard owns 82nd Avenue owns McGlaughlin Boulevard. These are all these nasty garish stroads that have not been fixed up. They have terrible paddles and everything else as well. This is where our region needs to be investing in transit, safer streets, affordable housing density, like retrofitting some of these post 1950 style development into livable walkable communities.
Aaron Brown (15m 22s):
I know that doesn’t have money for that. They have money for freeways. And that just moment of, of putting it together where money was being allocated versus where it should be allocated and understanding some of the political dynamics that happen. And some of it is unique to Oregon, but I think a lot of these general trends of state deities are just rebranded highway departments that got their roots in building highways and freeways back in the fifties, sixties, and seventies and previous that were based on racist and classist and sexist assumptions about our land use and transportation policies. And they’ve done rebranding, but at the end of the day, their central core motivating pathologies exist. And we do not get the beautiful vision we want for our community.
Aaron Brown (16m 5s):
We can’t fund it. It’s it’s without retiring those previous models, we don’t get the green new deal without retiring the gray old deal. And for American transportation policy challenging and destroying the political power of state deities is retiring that great old deal.
Joe Cortright (16m 23s):
And, you know, and in Portland we have, I think a lot of, a lot of innovation and a lot of support for rethinking transportation. You know, we have the highest bike mode share of any large city in the United States. We have some ambitious goals to promote walkability and transit and bike served communities. And all of those are constrained by the level of resources that are available. And the reason we don’t have those resources is because we have, as Aaron said, this dominant highway building machine, that’s consuming all the resources. So, you know, in medical terms, it’s like, it’s great to have all these aspirations, but it’s like first do no harm.
Joe Cortright (17m 3s):
And the one project Rose quarter is just, you know, one $800 million chunk. There’s another $5 billion chunk at the revival of the Columbia river crossing. There are billions of other dollars of freeway projects in the Portland area. And essentially what they’ll be doing is eating all of the resources, all of the capital that we have to put into transportation at a time when we know we face critical challenges from climate, from social justice and just in a desire to achieve these other objectives for our communities. So the first thing we have to do is stop doing the wrong.
Jeff Wood (17m 35s):
And it’s interesting to read your, to read part of the lawsuit and also what Houston is doing. And you’re finding these small gaps in the thinking, and it kind of exploiting that because you’re going, you’re, you’re discussing this opposite dream or opposite, you know, kind future that we have. And the, the, the highway departments and the state, the OTs are focused on continuing kind of a legacy move of displacing people. And they seem to not see that, that there’s a problem with that, which is really unsettling, but also kind of strange to me. I’m wondering if you can talk to that piece of it as well. I mean, in Houston, for example, when, you know, they’ve the County Harris County is opposing the, the freeway expansion, you know, because the, the state U seems to have unlimited power to certify their environmental impact statement, which is ridiculous.
Jeff Wood (18m 24s):
I’m wondering how you can kind of get under the skin of the documents and all of the things that they put together to, to sell people this, this vision that they have, and, you know, turn it on its head.
Joe Cortright (18m 34s):
There are so many layers, so many different arguments here. So many, you know, so much of a case that’s built in, in, in our case, you know, the Rose quarter project goes through the neighborhood. That was the largest concentration of African-Americans in Oregon, in the 1950s and sixties, when the freeway was first built. And then over a period of 20 years, the Oregon department of transportation built three highways through this neighborhood. One called 99, w which was a 1950 year old highway. They built interstate five in the early 1960s. And then they put out a part of an unfinished freeway, the Prescott freeway, and all three of those things, you know, just wiped out a big chunk of the housing, but more importantly, destabilized the neighborhood.
Joe Cortright (19m 16s):
And over the course of a little over 20 years, the population of that neighborhood, which was preponderantly, African-American declined by two thirds. So it just, it really devastated that neighborhood. And, you know, I, I think it’s bizarre that they’re coming back and they’re, they’re gonna widen the freeway. And I want to talk more about what that means in a second, but just the idea that you’re gonna, and they’re selling it as somehow reparations to the community, the idea that you’re going to fix the problems that you created in this neighborhood by widening the freeway and injecting more traffic into this area, to me is just, it’s, it’s ludicrous. It, it defies any logic at all, but that’s, that’s what they’re doing.
Aaron Brown (19m 57s):
I would say to that. And I can, I can, I don’t want to speak for the folks in Houston. I can only really speak for what’s happening here in Portland, right? Is that like, even just within the last four years, watching the way that Odette’s rhetoric around this project has changed, like after the murder of George Floyd, like OData is like doubled and tripled down on trying to book, watch this and talk about this as restorative justice, if restorative justice was what the plan was for this neighborhood in the first place, we would be talking about removing the freeway and replacing it with housing and transit, right? In terms of the air pollution problems that Harriet Tubman middle school, which I hope we’ll chat about, which, and in terms of just what marginalized and historically plundered communities need is, is walkable communities with dense, affordable housing that acknowledges the, the racist plunder, hundreds of blocks of housing that was removed from freeways in the first place.
Aaron Brown (20m 45s):
Right. What I would say is that, you know, the freeway industrial complex is enormously powerful and wealthy and well-oiled and has bipartisan support. And they spend a lot of time hiring consultants and messaging and doing polling and figuring out like, what is the best way to sell this? Right? Like there’s no way in 2021, anyone could be doing any project without being able to call it racial justice. But it comes up with these worlds where like, it’s equitable to white freeways. Like, are there equitable pipelines? Are there equitable prisons? Like at what point do we point out that, like, you can’t just put PR lipstick on these terrible atrocious, like, projects that are antithetical to like livable, vibrant communities, like just the inherent geometry and pollution of both air pollution and carbon pollution that this particular form of the infrastructure represents has no place in a dense urban community, let alone expanding one in a community that is already deeply suffered from the racist trespasses of previous decades.
Aaron Brown (21m 40s):
And just to follow up on that quick, I, I can’t speak again to whole of, you know, every community has a different freeway fight and th the local history is always relevant. And the way that local politicians are talking about it, I’ll just point out. I’ve been so impressed about the folks in Houston. They are talking extensively about air pollution and in none of the press I’ve seen anywhere talks about climate. And, and that is not a critique because, you know, Houston is like the energy capital of, of America, right? Like if there, if the advocacy oppositions like look talking about climate is not really a good reason for this in Portland. It’s a great freaking reason to talk about it. But like, if in Houston can talk about racial justice and air pollution and takings, every local freeway fight has to be reflective of its own local communities.
Aaron Brown (22m 23s):
And that’s where, again, it comes down to organizing at the speed of trust, getting to learn who’s directly impacted and what resonates both with those communities and the region as a whole is just essential. Vital.
Joe Cortright (22m 33s):
Yeah. Let me just kind of encapsulate this whole equity issue in Portland it’s so there, there there’s this freeway that was carved through part of a school. What, in, in 1962, I five was carved through a part of the, the campus of Tubman. What is now Tubman middle school, and ODAT is proposing to widen that freeway. They’re basically a double the roadway. They’re going to increase the, the road from a four lane road to a 10 lane road, which is something they concealed for the last two years. And we discovered documents that they’ve been hiding that showed that that was their real plan. But you have to look at the demographics of who benefits from this project and who bears the costs. The kids who go to Tubman middle school are disproportionately kids of color, 60% of the student body.
Joe Cortright (23m 19s):
And about half of them are qualified for free and reduced priced meals. Meaning they’re their kids in poverty or close to it. The people who commute on the freeway next to them are the biggest chunk of them are commuters from suburban areas, particularly from Clark County, Washington across the river, the median income of the average solo peak hour commuter on that road next to the freeway is over $80,000 a year. And 75% of them are non-Hispanic whites. So there’s a real disparity in, in who’s benefiting from this project and getting $800 million in benefit. And who’s bearing the cost. And we know the kids in the school, you know, already bear the cost of air pollution.
Joe Cortright (24m 1s):
The Portland public schools had its own expense, had to spend $12 million on air filtration equipment to make the air inside the school, safe enough for the kids to breathe. And then meanwhile, ODAT is making plans to, to essentially double the size more than double the size of the freeway, right outside the school store and move it closer to the school. So it’s, you know, it’s, it’s clear that, you know, they may, you know, have a good PR game about branding of this project, but when it comes down to it, they’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars to benefit one set of people. And they’re imposing all the costs on the people who are, who are at least, least, have least power in this equation.
Aaron Brown (24m 42s):
Final detail, where it’s just adding to this too, is that like ODA is also really trying to double and triple down on their messaging about minority contracting. And they’re trying to say, Oh, this is economic development. These are, these are black jobs that we’re creating, which I’m a hundred percent on board with the infrastructure rebuild, having, you know, increasingly high standards of, of hiring non white folks. And, and non-dues like women like everyone on board to be like receiving the money from infrastructure and stimulus investments. The report that was put out by smart growth, America and transportation for America showed that the Obama stimulus projects from 2009, all those transportation projects that were built 70% more jobs were created when there were investments in biking and walking and in transit as opposed and 40% more for road maintenance as opposed to road expansion.
Aaron Brown (25m 34s):
So the entire notion that the freeway industrial complex is somehow economic development is again, based on these outdated relationships where building trades are happy for some jobs and anyone that’s promising them jobs. They’re happy to go for it. And I support organized labor, and I want folks to have all of these good jobs, but it, these are PR messages that are not born out in statistical fact about what good economic development and good stimulus let alone the realities, as we’ve talked about with climate, like what kind of infrastructure we should possibly be building.
Jeff Wood (26m 4s):
I also wanted to go kind of back to what Joe was talking about too, about the impact of pollution from automobiles and through this specific district, especially as it pertains to the school children. Obviously we know from research that especially here in, in West Oakland and other spots around the country where, you know, the there’s a disproportionate effect and, and, and creating asthma and other, you know, respiratory impacts. But I want to go back as well to the statement I made before, which is in these documents that these state DLTs are putting together. They seem to find no significant impacts related to their expansions. And I think that obviously, you, you all know that not true, and you’re pointing it out quite eloquently, but why is it that, that they are continuing to kind of ignore the science and ignore the facts of the matter that they’re polluting children’s lungs?
Joe Cortright (26m 55s):
Yeah, I think you’ve hit on, what’s really, really an important point. And it’s very in a, in the sort of technocratic infrastructure of the way these projects are justified and probably the most critical pieces is traffic modeling and the dots have developed and continue to use traffic models that we know are unrealistic, but they produce exactly the answers that the DOD want and they’re, and they’re biased. And a couple of really specific ways, the first way that they’re biased, they tend to overstate the amount of car traffic that that will be if nothing is done, they build these models that basically say car traffic will always grow. It will grow forever. It will grow without limit.
Joe Cortright (27m 35s):
So that creates at least in their projection of what the future looks like. A world where roadways are just crowded beyond all ability to handle. And in this project, they went a step further and they assumed that another project, the Columbia river crossing this 12 lane, five mile long freeway that happens to cross the river, which is about two and a half miles North of this project was built and was built in 2015. So they created a fictitious bridge and tens of thousands of fictitious cars and put those in their model and said, if we do nothing, there’ll be all this traffic in this area at some point in the future or not in the future in the past, they inflated the current level.
Joe Cortright (28m 17s):
So that was the first thing they did. And then the second thing that they did is they’re not allowing for what everybody knows is the proven science of induced demand. We know that when we build additional capacity in a roadway, it tends to lead to more traffic and fast. The best available evidence says there’s a unit of plasticity of travel demand with respect to capacity, a 1% improvement in capacity leads to a 1% increase in traffic. That’s not reflected in any of their models. So ODAT and other deities have created a world where if you do nothing, you get lots of traffic. And if you build something, it has no effect on traffic. And we know both of those things are wrong.
Joe Cortright (28m 58s):
And one of the things that were challenging in our lawsuit, and we hope that other freeway fighters around the country look at, and we hope that secretary Pete Buddha judge looks, looks at because these projections are being done to justify the expenditure of federal money and are done. As part of the EIS is an EIS, the environmental assessments for these projects to sort of prove that they won’t have adverse effects, but they’ve been clearly rigged by the modelers at the transportation departments. And that that technocratic cheating has to stop.
Jeff Wood (29m 33s):
I can’t be any more. I can’t be more, any more articulate than Joe on all of the, these like tiny little details. And it’s, I’m, I’m always grateful to have Joe be able to just run it down
Aaron Brown (29m 42s):
Right at that tout like that. I, but it was interesting hearing. That’s how Joe responded, because the original question was like, well, why are they doing this? If they’re lying? You know, if the results say, you know, the other thing, and you know, I come back to the political issue here, right? There’s $800 million at least of government contracts on the line, right? Like the science is all just kind of a sham. Like the science is just this like artificial justification, quantified nerd game, this, you know, calculator put out that says, yeah, we got to build more lanes here. We, Scott traffic sucks. We gotta do it. And everyone’s like, yeah, traffic sucks. This has gotta, we gotta fix this. Right?
Aaron Brown (30m 22s):
Like it’s this whole artifice that is ultimately justifying this perpetuated infrastructure machine that believes that people that get the, you know, whether you, whether it’s oil, whether it’s cars, whether it’s suburban sprawl, the homebuilders, whether it’s diesel or whether it’s freight, like there’s this coalition that has hoodwinked America into thinking that this infrastructure is relevant. And they massively handsomely profit from being able to build this stuff. Right. And these massive consulting firms just get these big checks to do it. The PR machine has all of these little technical, it it’s the public sectors reviewing these numbers. But at the end of the day, it’s, it’s all a sham trial.
Aaron Brown (31m 4s):
And behind the scenes, you know, is some wizard of Oz type stuff going on. I wouldn’t even be opposed to contractors profiting from building good infrastructure. If the infrastructure we were building like meaningfully served our communities, right? Like this isn’t inherently a critique of like burn the man, all capitalists institutions are terrible as much as there’s just such a grift going on that, selling America a false bag of goods that is not actually building us the infrastructure we need, like sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, buses, electrified buses, high-speed rail, commuter, rail, light, rail, subways, maintenance, spinal fixing, all of that sort of stuff. We could be building with the money that is instead going to this grift machine.
Joe Cortright (31m 47s):
And the most profound problem with this, I think in a way is they’re going to spend, if they do, if they expend spend the $800 million, it won’t fix the problem. It’ll make it worse. We know, thanks to induce, demand that in, when you widen a roadway in an urban area, it attracts more traffic and that, and very quickly, usually within space of a couple of years, you see congestion levels returned to the level that they were, and you tend to amplify bottlenecks elsewhere in the system. So essentially is like, like Oregon DLT will spend this money and congestion will not, not get any better. And you know, we at city observatory of the classic example of the Katy freeway in Houston, which is now famously what 22 lanes wide, you know, less than a decade ago, they dropped $3 billion.
Joe Cortright (32m 36s):
Widening it the last time. And within a few years, the travel times on the freeway were 30% longer than before they widened it. So it’s, it’s futile really to throw money at more freeway capacity. And worse than that, we know it makes, you know, sprawl worse makes pollution worse, makes climate worse and hurt cities. So it’s just something we shouldn’t be doing even, even, or especially if we care about transportation. But if we care about any of these other things as well,
Jeff Wood (33m 5s):
The funding mechanisms are so interesting too. I mean, I was reading a couple of bike Portland pieces and maybe even the Willa Willamette week pieces that are talking about, well, they want to reduce congestion. That’s their stated goal, right? Quote unquote stated goal, but they tend to oppose things like congestion pricing that we know would actually work at reducing congestion. And instead go towards things like tolls, which would just raise money to do more expansions of freeways. So does that kind of give their hand away in terms of what they’re after
Joe Cortright (33m 32s):
Four years ago at the same legislative session that authorized this project, the legislature directed the Oregon department of transportation to start working on implementing congestion pricing on these same freeways I five and I two Oh five in Portland, as well as others. And that’s been dragging its feet that whole period of time there, their plan now is maybe by 20, 27, they might do some version of that. So clearly they’re not interested in it. And one of the ironies is, Oh, DOT’s own consultants who looked at the, at congestion pricing, came back to ODAT and said, if you do congestion pricing on I five, this stretch of we’re talking about, you will not need to Biden the freeway.
Joe Cortright (34m 13s):
You can save yourself $800 million and get the same improvement, at least as much improvement in traffic congestion just by implementing congestion pricing. And yet ODAT is going to build the freeway first. And then maybe talk about, as you said, totalling it, and there’s a shift here going on where Oh, dot is essentially going to go with what I call kind of the classic Robert Moses strategy of issuing a bunch of bonds, building big projects, and then perpetually rolling the tolls back into more and more highway projects.
Jeff Wood (34m 41s):
Yeah, it’s so frustrating. I mean, I’ve, I’ve harped on this, on my show for the last few months, especially when talking about Austin and Houston, Austin just voted $7 billion or so for a transit expansion. And they could have paid for that by just congestion and taking care of the other 7 billion, they were going to spend on expanding by congestion pricing. maybe even moving some of the free freeway traffic that goes through town onto , which is another toll road that’s just outside of town. And then they could have paid for their transit expansion. And then we wouldn’t have, they wouldn’t have all this money, extra money spending on this road expansion that goes through the whole story back and Brown neighborhoods and has already seen the problems of expansion over the many decades past.
Jeff Wood (35m 21s):
So, you know, this thing keeps on happening and we keep on giving the solutions that would actually work, but it keeps on getting turned down by the as if it w as if they believe it wouldn’t work, which is completely silly and, and frustrating. Yeah. That’s America right now, right? Like we’re starting
Aaron Brown (35m 38s):
To have all these meaningful conversations about all the ways we’ve screwed up. And the clock is really ticking on all of these existential threats that we face. You’re. We are, we, we are not meaningfully making progress on them, and it’s requiring a bunch of us spending a bunch of volunteer time and, and, you know, raising money 50 bucks at a time by sending people buttons and handwritten, thank you cards to go up against ODAT, which has spent at least three to $4 million on this freeway already just started the Oregon department of transportation and WashDOT spent $160 million planning for the Columbia river crossing project and nothing ever got built, right? Like all these contractors got all of this money to study all of these clearly unacceptable designs and the like, you know, try and hoodwink the community into just being on the hook for dozens of years of, of paying and bonding for this awful stuff.
Aaron Brown (36m 26s):
But, you know, there’s no, there’s no constituency for congestion pricing. That is well-resourced enough to overcome the whitened anti-tax anxiety and the good faith in some places it’s critiques. I mean, I I’m, you know, an unabashed proponent of congestion pricing as public policy. And I want to see it passed everywhere. There’s good faith concerns. Anytime you’re raising taxes in a society as to Kenzie and as American right now, we need to have some end where gentrification and displacement has pushed low-income folks further out. And, you know, you’ve got gig economy, folks spending a lot of time in cars, like I’m a hundred percent on board with like, let’s make sure that this is implemented effectively and thoughtfully, but there’s simply no iteration of American society where pricing our roads is, is an equitable outcome as it currently is, right?
Aaron Brown (37m 15s):
Like people are miserable driving all over the regions. And that’s even in places like Portland that have had at least some motor comes of investments in, in urban planning and land use reform, right. It’s, it’s just impossible to imagine what we could be doing instead if we were not under the complete PR spin of this freeway, industrial complex, that is just assuredly saying, Oh, well this one freeway, this will be the one unicorn project that is in fact going to solve congestion. Right. And we need to have spaces. I mean, we’re, we’re honored to be on your show today, right? Like we have to get the word out in these spaces that there are alternatives. And again, it’s organizing at the speed of trust, right? A bunch of, you know, communities of color advocates here in Portland have every reason to be skeptical of a very white led group.
Aaron Brown (37m 57s):
Like no more freeways. And we just have to be able to say like, yeah, like I get why you’re skeptical of some of the stuff we’re saying. And here’s how we believe our cause relates to yours. And here’s how we can show up for your work. And here’s how we understand that climate justice and housing justice and transportation justice are also racial justice. And it’s really critical that you ground and are able to build relationships with people so that when you say something that might take them off guard at first like, Oh, congestion pricing is actually equitable if you do it right, like invest the money in transit, not more freeways, if you can demonstrate that you have other people’s good, good wishes in your intentions and have been able to demonstrate that over time, they’re much more likely to listen to you and work together and collaborate.
Jeff Wood (38m 39s):
So where are you all right now on this, in terms of getting folks on board, I imagine that some of the recent news about the ODAT lies about the footprint of the freeway have been helping the cause a little bit. I’m curious where you all are at, in terms of that building of, of trust and, and, and collaboration with other folks, as well as kind of where you are in the process of, of the lawsuit as well. You just filed it obviously, but what’s been the response.
Aaron Brown (39m 4s):
So the response has been positive. I mean, in the last week, Oh, that’s been largely muted. The only notable thing that their, their statement that they put out after it was essentially like we trust our numbers, which of course the numbers that we just, Joe, just debunked here a couple minutes ago, right. They also, at one of their meetings spent 45 minutes with one of their advisory committees rolling out like some new logos about how they can rebrand the Rose quarter freeway project by making it look a little bit more woke, but we had a huge turnout, a rally, and we’ve had nothing but really positive press in the last couple of weeks. And Joe can speak a little bit to the letter he wrote to secretary budaj that I think is really exciting in the context of what the S the feds have done for Houston. And, you know, there’s more news.
Aaron Brown (39m 44s):
That’s about to drop in the weeks ahead. So stay tuned, but it’s really just about continuing to keep this drum beat of this agency is not accountable. We can’t trust ODA and getting a lot of the local elected officials that don’t like this project necessarily, but being an elected official in America right now is pretty miserable. There’s so many things happening right now. And so, you know, commissioner Joanne Hardesty the transportation commissioner here in Portland has been a longtime freeway skeptic. And she said a lot of great stuff. And also Portland’s going through navigating their, their contract with the police and commissioner harvest. C’s also been a vocal, like she spent her career on cop accountability. So, and similarly like Portland, public schools has a lot to lose with this expansion.
Aaron Brown (40m 24s):
And they’ve increasingly been really critical. They’re busy reopening right now, right? Like finding the bandwidth for local officials to engage in good faith on this has been tricky and both having the time to process it and to decide you’re going to expend the political capital and fighting it. But the more that we can just continue to get this drum beat of look there’s community effort here, there’s support. We trust you keep shooting these spitballs, keep making public statements, keep demanding that ODAT study alternatives to freeway expansion with a full environmental impact statement.
Joe Cortright (40m 51s):
Just one thing where we are on the lawsuit is that that Oregon department of transportation who prepared all the documents on behalf of the federal highway administration has gone the kind of light route they’ve done just an environmental assessment. And they filed last fall, a what they call a finding of no significant environmental impact of funds, which basically says nothing to look at here. Folks, there aren’t any environmental consequences worth considering. So they, they did not do the full, full bore EIS environmental impact statement. And literally that’s what our alarm litigation is saying. Is there are significant environmental impacts here.
Joe Cortright (41m 31s):
You haven’t looked at them adequately and you need to do so. So that’s, that’s sort of the context of our lawsuit separately, as you know, and I know you’ve reported at overhead wire, you know, there’s been a lot of encouraging signs out of the new administration secretary budaj, you know, has suspended the Houston. I have 45 project. We know he’s meeting with folks in Milwaukee who are challenging. I think it’s at 94 there. And he said a lot of things that really acknowledged the devastating effects that that USDA projects have had on communities. We know there’s new funding in the proposed infrastructure package to help repair some of that damage. So this is an administration that we know is sensitive to this issue and is also concerned about climate change and what we are judged in a letter to secretary budaj was it was really time to take another look at this project based on this administration stated values and to demand a full environmental impact statement.
Joe Cortright (42m 30s):
And in particular, as Erin alluded to earlier, look at the idea of congestion pricing, which would be a way of achieving all this project’s objectives, doing a better job with congestion, saving money, reducing pollution, and then creating the resources that we can use to repair a lot of the damage that’s been done and provide meaningful transportation alternatives to people.
Jeff Wood (42m 48s):
Yeah. It’s been fascinating to see what the administration has done since, since February, basically looking at what’s happened in Houston, what’s going on in, in Austin, Maryland, Los Angeles, Milwaukee. I even got a note about somebody in Anchorage, that’s working on some of this stuff. So it’s been interesting to see kind of the discussion changed tone to a certain extent and move in the direction. I think a lot of people were nervous about secretary budaj and what he was going to do, and have been a little bit surprised at, at how kind of forcefully he’s come out in this direction, which is I think really a positive step forward for, for the movement of trying not to build any more new freeways through cities, which we should have learned our lesson a long time ago, but it seems we’re still fighting that fight.
Aaron Brown (43m 33s):
Yeah. I mean, I, wasn’t a huge fan of his in the primary, but I I’ve been really impressed. I mean, it’s, it’s clear that he’s got really exceptional values and commitments of what he’s trying to bring to the state to, to, I think that it’s actually great having an ambitious politician in the sort of a position where he’s going to be a player in the democratic party for decades to come. And that means that there’s an extra emphasis on him to like really be a leader on climate. Right. Like some of our older politicians don’t have quite the same, like mechanisms of accountability of, Oh, you still want to be in opposite 10 years from now, you better have something that you can prove to that you were a leader on and really like put some skin in the game. I’m just really grateful to see. I mean, you know, we’ll see what’s happening with the, the infrastructure package and there’s a litany of efforts underway to really try.
Aaron Brown (44m 15s):
And then it just the tiniest of policy sliver changes, but ultimately amounts to pennies on the dollar of what the feds can do in terms of biking and pedestrian safety stuff. I mean, look at our, you know, my hero Angie Schmidt, right? Like what it would mean for a 50% increase of money that goes to bike pad would just save, you know, tens of thousands of lives, potentially over the course of a decade. If, if you’re able to just make some of these minor changes. But again, the, our elected officials don’t operate in a vacuum and we’re up against these enormously well oiled political machines with bipartisan support. And it’s very important that our fights against these freeways have that local support. So that politicians feel the pressure and, or see that there’s an opportunity, right?
Aaron Brown (44m 57s):
Like you need to provide them. If they’re going to jump into this river, you need to have a place for them to land. Right. And we’re, we’re really pleased with how politicians just locally here in Portland, you know, back in 2017, the mayor was sort of like, well, I think I’m probably still in support of this it’s I have some concerns, but we got to do it. And now to the point that virtually every local official has expressed various levels of skepticism, you know, just has immense distress for odod because of our work. And I think that, you know, it’s just a matter of continuing to start small and build your way up, like, okay, great. You got your city on board. Can you get the County on board? Can you get your region on board? Can you get your state legislators on board? What pressure can they put on the governor? It’s a very complicated political, you know, in every state and, and highway project is different in terms of who their champions are and who wants them and where those, you know, governing coalitions in politics lie.
Aaron Brown (45m 45s):
But there’s just something to be said for just making sure you’re doggedly showing up to every one of those meetings saying those statements tracking what said, and having someone like Joe do this immense financial and quantitative background, digging to disprove all of what Odette’s selling. One final thought. I just wanted to kind of throw out there. There’s been two spaces just as an organizer that I’ve really engaged with that have been immensely powerful here in Portland. And I think are really crucial to the long-term longevity of just the freeway industrial fight complex fight first is that we were really honored to have neighbors for cleaner join as plaintiffs on our lawsuit. I think that transportation advocates in general should be spending a lot more time building relationships with their clean air advocates, clean air.
Aaron Brown (46m 30s):
Like do you think people should breathe? Clean air is one of those things that pulls it like a thousand percent. And so people that might otherwise have really strong feelings about cars or really strong feelings about freeways and not really want to support this, especially in the context of, well, these, this is environmental justice. It’s always like low-income communities of color that are getting this terrible air pollution. So I just, I’m really honored that we’ve gotten built the trust and supportive neighbors for clean air. And I would really, I noticed that the folks in Houston have built, you know, alliances with air pollution advocates as well, cleaner air advocates, just on all things, right? Like I was talking about fighting the ODA on state deities and arterials, right? Like the same people that are breathing crappy air are the same people that are getting hit by cars when they’re trying, because of the people that live in the multi-family apartments that are right on this nasty road that has never gotten a crosswalk where it deserves one, right?
Aaron Brown (47m 22s):
These are the same victims and we have the same enemies. And so at the very least we should have, you know, B building relationships where we’ll sign onto each other’s letters. Right. And just understand our cause at the same thing as, as part of this larger refiguring, what our society should look like. And second, I’ll just say, you know, back in 2019, I, I sent an email and, and showed up at the first inaugural meeting of the sunrise movement hub here in Portland. And just what being in a room full of people that were like all under the age of 35 and many of them substantially under the age of 35 that were talking about climate, you know, just in, in the moral reckoning terms of, of, of yachts. We have 10 years to figure this out, just folks fundamentally radicalized by the IPC report.
Aaron Brown (48m 4s):
And you know, it’s one thing and, and, and I’m not, this is not a slam on an older listeners to this podcast. And, you know, I’m really grateful for all of the boomers that we’ve got on our freeway fight. But the look on elected officials faces when high school students show up to testify that like, I will be 27 years old in the year of 2030, and you’re planning to do this when we have to reduce carbon emissions by 50% and 40% of Oregon’s carbon emissions come from transportation. Like, how dare you like that level of just indignation and righteous, like moral clarity and fire, just having these high school students channel their inner Gretta is just remarkably powerful stuff.
Aaron Brown (48m 45s):
Those are fun, fiery, fundamental questions that we need as the jolt to help shake off the complacency or the pragmatism that guides a lot of life.
5 (48m 58s):
That’s just a couple lanes of freeway or, Oh, like, this is the last one. Like, no, we don’t have time for any more
Aaron Brown (49m 3s):
The last ones. Right. I just wanted to say that, like, you know, in some of the transportation advocacy spaces, please go get to know your local sunrise movement chapter or your local three-fifty chapter, your local Sierra club chapter. And they may not always hold exactly the most wonky, perfect opinions I’ve watch on Twitter. And sometimes like people get like, wow,
Aaron Brown (49m 21s):
Oh, the local sunrise hub is prioritizing caring about free transit or like they want to put in a rent control cap that is not meeting my like YIMBY visions of stuff. And I agreed sometimes, you know, like,
Aaron Brown (49m 31s):
Yeah, I, I hear that sort of like, okay, like maybe they are third kids,
Aaron Brown (49m 36s):
So you don’t have degrees in urban planning. They’re new to some of this stuff.
Aaron Brown (49m 39s):
You can work with them again, building that trust. They will come around to fighting for the good stuff down the road. But in the meantime, just understanding what that moral clarity and that firepower what that means to moving the political agenda and to pushing the Overton window, I think it’s, and every community is going to have those different voices. I mean, I think in Houston, there’s a lot of like, you know, really bringing racial justice advocates of like, you’re tearing down my house. Like, are you kidding me? Like we have to empower those folks to be the spokespeople of these movements. And a lot of that just takes time and effort and, and good faith collaboration, but it it’s essential. And the work is, is ultimately sort of worthless without, without making that investment.
Jeff Wood (50m 26s):
Well, I know you all are super busy. I want to be mindful
Jeff Wood (50m 28s):
Of your time. If folks want to get a hold of you and are doing similar work in other places, or just maybe need a little bit more information out there, how can they get ahold of you or, or reach out
Aaron Brown (50m 39s):
Are robust on social media, because that’s where all of the other dorks are that love this sort of stuff. No more freeways on Twitter and Instagram, and it’s no more freeways PDX on Facebook. You can send me an email at info at no more freeways, pdx.com. We will mail you some buttons. I kind of have been thinking about how, you know, doctors give out all the like pens from like, you know, the pharmaceutical company knows, like if you give a doctor a pen, it’s a good way to get that doctor to prescribe that pill or whatever, awful stuff farmers up to. I operate on different terms I operate on, on political buttons. And I think we’ve printed at least four to 5,000 buttons at this point. And we’re just consistently turning out buttons and stickers. So we would request a donation, whether it’s $5, $500, whatever you got, we’re not just reach out.
Aaron Brown (51m 20s):
We’d love to donate some buttons and time. And, and yeah, there’s definitely in our advocacy. We’ve been in touch with folks in Minneapolis and, and, and Houston and down in California. There’s a handful of other people that are starting to pay attention to the freeway industrial complex. And I’m really excited for what it looks like to arrange a, a larger national network that can coordinate on providing the tools necessary to fight back.
Joe Cortright (51m 46s):
I think we’ve done like 45 commentaries on various aspects of Rose Porter at city observatory. And anybody can find [email protected] Awesome. Well, thank you all for joining us. We really appreciate your time and your efforts and good luck.
Aaron Brown (52m 2s):
Yeah. Thank you. I’m a long-time fan. So this has been an honor. Thanks
Every morning, Jeff, every morning. I appreciate it. I appreciate it. No, no. I always see a big bump when you feature one of our stories. So thank you.