Climate change? Not our job.  We’re just following orders.

The Oregon Transportation Commission is on the firing line for its plans to build a $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project in Northeast Portland. There’s been a tremendous outpouring of community opposition to the project:  more than 90 percent of the 2,000 comments on the project’s Environmental Assessment have been in opposition (a fact conveniently omitted from ODOT staff’s recitation of its outreach process).

The commission has lately had to endure an onslaught of commentary from young climate activists who–quite correctly–recognize that freeway widening is exactly the opposite of the kind of transportation investment we need to make if we’re to do anything to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Oregon’s global warming commission has pointed out that transportation emissions are increasing, and are now the largest single source of greenhouse gases in the state.  And its a demonstrated fact that wider freeways induce more traffic, longer trips and more emissions, increasing greenhouse gases.   (And, its worth noting, that in just the past four years, per capita greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in the Portland area have increased by 1,000 pounds per person–so whatever we’re doing now is taking us rapidly in the wrong direction).  The people testifying at the Commission’s December 2018 and January 2019 commission meetings have offered passionate, informed testimony on the folly of the freeway widening project.

The commission has sat, mostly silently, through these pointed critiques.

In the end, after listening to the testimony, they shrugged, and basically said:  “It’s not our decision–the Legislature told us to build this road, so we will.”  Here’s OTC Chairman Bob Van Brocklin

We have been mandated by the Legislature to design and build a project, so these are decisions the Legislature and we are not in a position to override the Legislature’s decision on that.  So we have a Legislative mandate to design and build this project. We now, today, are forwarding to the Legislature, at their request, in the bill, HB 2017,  a Cost to Complete estimate that is substantially higher than the amount of money they have dedicated to the project . . .

We’re just following orders.

The claim that the decision is out of their hands rhetorically allows the OTC to absolve itself of responsibility for the climate implications of its actions.  The commission simply isn’t going to listen to climate concerns, or other objections, because (it says) the Legislature has already decided to build the project.  The commissioners are in a tough spot: they lack a plausible direct response to either the emotional or rational aspects of the climate critique of the freeway widening project. So instead of answering these questions, the plan is to dodge them, by claiming the decision is out of their hands.  In their view, climate change concerns, no matter how serious, simply aren’t an admissible argument.

Time and again, through history, this “helpless subordinate” act has been proffered by people looking to avoid taking responsibility for the moral implications of their actions.

If the transportation commission were a row of five junior clerks, they might have a plausible argument. But they’re not.  In Oregon’s citizen commission form of government, Transportation Commissioners are supposed to represent the public’s interest.

Nothing in the statute creating the commission or the law authorizing funding for this particular project prevents the Commission from reporting back to the Legislature that the project is no longer in the public’s interest, for any one of many reasons: it’s going to cost vastly more than the Legislature was told, its going to further damage the neighborhood severed by the freeway decades ago, its going to unacceptably worsen pollution, its going to undercut the state’s adopted legal mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Hell, if they were being honest, they’d also tell the Legislature that the freeway widening project isn’t going to work to reduce congestion either.

That’s what commissions are for:  To dig deeper into the details than legislators have time to do in the press of a legislative session. The commission can bring additional information and advice back to the Legislature. Arguably this is exactly what was anticipated in in the passage of House Bill 2017.  It specifically mandated a legislative check-in on complicated, controversial and expensive mega-projects like the Rose Quarter Freeway widening.  In addition, there’s another legislative mandate, one that predates the authorization for this project, which calls for the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050; that counts as legislative direction as well.  And when legislative mandates are in conflict, and when new information becomes available, its incumbent on commissioners to advise the Legislature accordingly, and not blindly follow out-dated, un-wise and contradictory orders.

Rather than plugging their ears and ignoring the outpouring of citizen opposition, and pretending to be helpless minions of the Legislature, the citizen commissioners of the Oregon Transportation Commission should do their jobs, and reflect back to the Legislature the serious problems that have been identified with this project.