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Eugene Weekly : News : 12.15.11

Transportation Plan

Billions to increase driving, sprawl, global warming

The region will spend up to $2.3 billion to increase driving 25 percent over the next two decades under a Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) quietly adopted unanimously by local officials last week.

The RTP flies in the face of city of Eugene plans to dramatically cut global warming pollution and increase livability by reining in urban sprawl and increasing biking and walking.  

The Metropolitan Policy Committee, a little-known group of regional officials including Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy and councilor Alan Zelenka, approved the huge RTP unanimously in a Dec. 8 meeting attended by only two members of the public. According to the RTP, 69 percent of the $2.3 billion will go to freeway and road projects, 26 percent to transit and 5 percent to bikes and pedestrians.

The city of Eugene adopted a plan calling for cutting greenhouse pollution, the largest source of which is driving, 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 RTP approved last week calls for increasing regional driving by almost a million miles a year, tripling road congestion. 

A draft Eugene Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan calls for a 100 percent increase in biking and a 100 percent increase in walking in the next two decades. The adopted RTP calls for a zero percent increase in biking by 2035 and only a 3.6 percent increase in walking.

The draft Envision Eugene land use plan calls for convenient, walkable neighborhoods to “promote compact urban development and efficient transportation options.” But the RTP envisions continuing urban sprawl.

One of the largest projects in the RTP — at least $65 million — is to expand the capacity of the I-5 interchange near Lane Community College. Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz and his staff have recommended that Eugene expand the urban growth boundary to allow subdivisions, suburban office parks and perhaps big box stores in the wetlands, meadows and wooded hillsides south of Eugene.

The freeway work and UGB expansion could give a profit bonanza to land speculators if the area becomes another version of I-5 Beltline. There taxpayers have subsidized moving thousands of jobs from downtown Eugene with a quarter billion dollars in roadwork. 

Other sprawl freeway interchanges that the RTP will subsidize with hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money are at Beltline and Delta highways and at two huge new interchanges in east Springfield along Highway 126.

Mark Robinowitz, a local greenhouse and peak oil activist, criticized conservatives on the MPC for a lack of fiscal conservatism in backing the billions in government spending and faulted environmentalists for failing to put teeth into their stated climate and energy goals. 

“You have phony fiscal conservatives and phony environmentalists wasting our money,” Robinowitz said during public comment. “Are you trying to make it look more like Los Angeles for people to move up here from Southern California? If so, you are doing a good job, but you really want people to pay for this?”

Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy said, “it’s true that finite resources and access to fossil fuels is changing ... but for at least the foreseeable future, we do believe people will be using transportation on our roadways, and that they need to be safe.” 

But human safety doesn’t appear to be a primary motivator for local transportation planners. An online map of traffic fatalities in the last decade (bit.ly/vLdfKS) shows 20 pedestrian and cyclist deaths in the last decade in downtown Eugene and along Main Street in Springfield. The I-5 Beltline Interchange, where the region is investing a quarter billion dollars, had two motorist deaths and the I-5 interchange at LCC, where the RTP calls for another huge interchange, had no deaths.

Lane County Commissioner and MPC member Jay Bozievich, who wore a Tea Party colonial outfit before his current job, objected to money in the RTP for LTD’s bus rapid transit system. “There is significant public opposition to that plan in places and also there is a significant budget issue in Washington, D.C., relative to the ability to fund that kind of thing.”

But staff pointed out that blocking the RTP — Eugene, Springfield and Lane County have veto power on the MPC —could block funding for the big freeway projects. “It could create real issues,” LCOG planner Paul Thompson said. 

Zelenka said congressional inaction in not passing a new transportation funding bill could also impact highway projects. “The federal uncertainty is not just related to the EmX,” he said.

Bozievich argued that EmX would require a larger share of federal money than the highway projects. 

But Thompson said that’s not true. For Beltline and other big highway projects, “I actually think the federal share is larger.”

LTD planner Tom Schwetz said the West Eugene EmX is moving forward with federal approvals. Like light rail in Portland, EmX will seek state lottery money from the Legislature for its local funding match, he said.

Duncan Rhodes, a board member with the local GEARs bike advocacy group, urged the MPC to increase funding for bike infrastructure. “You get a pretty good bang for the buck with bicycles, and I encourage you to support it,” he said.

Rhodes said gas prices rising with depleted reserves amid rising demand in China will make continued car-centered transportation unrealistic. “We have very little alternative other than to look for alternative ways to get around,” he said. “EmX is one way, bicycles are another.”