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Eugene Weekly : News : 11.3.11

Road Overkill

$1.5 billion in freeways planned

Two months ago an obscure but powerful local committee held a hearing on $1.5 billion in government spending, but no one testified. 

The hearing before the Metropolitan Policy Committee (MPC), an intergovernmental group of local elected officials, was on a Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) that would largely ignore local concerns about global warming, livability and urban sprawl by investing $1.5 billion in highways over the next two decades.   

In the past couple years, the city of Eugene has held dozens of public hearings and meetings involving thousands of citizens to develop plans to reduce climate pollution from driving, increase bicycling, increase walkable, 20-minute neighborhoods and envision a city with less sprawl. But the RTP ignores all of that, envisioning a metropolis dominated by massive freeway projects.

Here are some of the biggest:

• $60 million to add lanes and interchange capacity to Beltline from River Road to Coburg Road at a cost of $34 million per mile of freeway.

• $110 million to add freeway lanes or interchange capacity at or near the I-5 Beltline interchange. 

• $36 million to expand the I-5 interchange near the city of Coburg.

• $50 million for a new interchange at Highway 126 and Main Street in Springfield.

• $40 million for a new interchange at Highway 126 and 52nd Street in Springfield.

• $30 million to expand the Gateway Beltline intersection at I-5.

• $32 million for eight new arterial projects for the Jasper/Natron land speculation area in West Springfield.

• $32 million for a four-lane arterial bridge over the Willamette north of Beltline.

• $45 million to expand I-5 interchanges and widen the freeway at Franklin Boulevard and at Glenwood Boulevard

• $65 million to expand the I-5 interchange at 30th Avenue and widen the freeway.

• $25 million to widen Beltline from Roosevelt Boulevard to West 11th Avenue.

•$22 million to expand the 126 interchange at Pioneer Parkway.

• $29 million to widen the 126 highway from I-5 to Mohawk Boulevard.

• $8.8 million to expand the Delta Beltline interchange.

• $20 million to widen McVay Highway near Goshen and I-5.

The draft Eugene Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan calls for doubling walking and biking in the next two decades to 36 percent of commuters to reduce pollution and obesity and make the city more livable, but money for bike and pedestrian infrastructure makes up only 3.5 percent of the money spent on highways in the RTP.

“What we are looking for is really just a few crumbs,” said Tom Schneider, a volunteer on the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Schneider marveled at an item for $55 million to save a few seconds of delay for drivers on an I-5 Beltline off-ramp, while he said $3 million could fix almost all of the city’s biggest sidewalk deficits.

The RTP’s massive freeway investment also conflicts with the city’s adopted Climate and Energy Action Plan. The plan calls for cutting greenhouse gas pollution in Eugene to 10 percent less than 1990 levels by 2020 and 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and for cutting Eugene fossil fuel use 50 percent by 2030.

The city’s Envision Eugene process is working on a plan focusing on convenient, walkable neighborhoods to “promote compact urban development and efficient transportation options.” But the massive freeway projects the RTP envisions may leave efficient land use planning and Envision Eugene as road kill.

Big freeway projects are a major driver of urban sprawl. Land speculators know this and for decades have snatched up land around new freeway interchanges. The hundreds of millions of dollars of public money invested in the I-5 Beltline interchange spurred the move of thousands of jobs out of central Eugene to farm fields on the edge of the city. The Register-Guard, PeaceHealth and Symantec all relocated from downtown Eugene to build huge parking lots near the interchange. 

That’s the opposite of federal and state regulations on how transportation plans are supposed to work. Transportation plans are supposed to follow local land use plans, not make them irrelevant. 

So where did the RTP come from? It was prepared by unelected local transportation bureaucrats who serve on an obscure but powerful regional Transportation Planning Committee. The MPC group of elected officials almost never changes decisions made in TPC meetings, which are almost never attended by the public.

It’s even unclear if the obscure subcommittee of the obscure committee is actually making the decisions involving hundreds of millions of dollars in government spending. Many of the decisions appear to be made by unidentified ODOT and federal highway administration bureaucrats who live nowhere near Eugene.

On a state and national level, there’s no political representation for controlling sprawl and greenhouse pollution by controlling freeway projects. Gov. John Kitzhaber and President Barack Obama are driven by union jobs for huge freeway projects. Republicans are driven by huge contractor and trucking company profits on the public spending. 

Public comments on the RTP can be emailed through Nov. 7 to mpo@lcog.org. The MPC plans to approve the RTP during a meeting at 11:30 am Thursday, Nov. 10. in the Eugene Public Library Bascom-Tykeson room after little discussion. After that, the RTP could be amended somewhat by the MPC next year to conform to local bike, pedestrian, Envision Eugene, transportation and climate change plans. The next major update isn’t scheduled for another four years.