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Board says Metro's Climate Smart strategy ill conceived

The Clackamas Board of County Commissioners has a message for Metro regional government as it prepares to approve its Climate Smart Communities Strategy: Don’t forget about roads.

The five-member commission expressed concern that the evolving plan to reduce motor vehicle emissions by 20 percent by 2035 puts too much emphasis on new public transit, bicycle and pedestrian solutions and not enough on projects like adding lanes of traffic to increasingly congested Interstate 205.

“I-205 is not Clackamas County’s problem,” says Board Chair John Ludlow, who wants a regional solution to the state-owned freeway that runs from Interstate 5 near Tualatin to Vancouver, Wash. Ludlow says he worries that Climate Smart will be used to push funding for non-passenger vehicle transportation options.

“When they continue to pour in money to bike paths they take it away from roadways,” he says, adding: “Freight can’t use a bike path.”

Two important committees advising Metro on Climate Smart aren’t listening, however. Commissioner Paul Savas repeatedly brought up the need to add lanes on I-205 and other highways to reduce congestion when the Metro Policy Advisory Committee and the Joint Policy Committee on Transportation met last Friday to review the project’s progress. Only fellow commissioner Jim Bernard and Port of Portland representative Susie Lahsene even agreed that such projects could reduce congestion and motor vehicle emissions.

Savas and Bernard were joined by several members of both committees that criticized proposals they thought required local governments to adopt specific plans for reducing motor vehicle emissions. Project staffers promised to rewrite them to stress compliance is voluntary before the elected Metro Council takes the final draft up in December.

Ludlow says that Clackamas commissioners don’t oppose all of the proposal, and are supportive of unique public transit solutions for the county’s rural and underserved areas — such as an expansion of the Mt. Hood Express line — to take automobiles off the roads.

“That alone will be addressing the whole greenhouse gas problem,” Ludlow says. Though, Ludlow adds that he’s not sure it’s a necessary endeavor anyway.

“I am a big-time skeptic of human-caused climate change,” Ludlow says, adding that even if Climate Smart is successful, countries like China will quickly counteract it. “It’s great to do this if one believes in it, but it is just a drop in the bucket on the world scale.”

Commissioner Martha Schrader says there are other benefits to be realized by improving transportation solutions, such as air quality and economic inequity.

“I do think the climate’s changing, I don’t know if we’re causing it or not, but oh well,” Schrader said during an Oct. 21 board meeting.

“I think that’s the issue,” replied Commissioner Tootie Smith. “Whether it’s manmade or not or would it happen anyway, despite our efforts?”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its work publicizing that there is a “very high confidence” among climate scientists that human activity has had a net warming effect on the planet.

‘Broken model?

Commissioner Paul Savas complains that the Climate Smart strategy lumps local streets together with highways and gives improvements to them all the same low one-star rating for their effect on greenhouse gas emissions. Congested local streets might encourage bike trips, he says, but highway trips can’t be as easily replaced by alternatives. Savas feels the biggest “bang” for Oregon’s buck is reducing congestion on freeways by adding more capacity.

“So it’s completely backwards and I feel like it really does not fairly and accurately or responsibly address the climate and the CO2 reduction,” Savas says, “and I think that’s fundamentally wrong and I think if we start wrapping policy around that, then we are really building a broken model.”

Clackamas County Commissioners sent a letter to Metro to that effect.

“...(I)ncreased highway and road capacity has the most obvious co-benefits in terms of increased economic activity and freight mobility. It also relies on less behavior modification and social engineering than other elements of the strategy.”

Metro questions road projects

Metro officials say they also feel reducing congestion is key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but they disagree that building roads is the best solution.

Metro spokesperson Craig Beebe says scientific studies from California show that adding more lanes to a freeway just doesn’t work.

“In the long run, congestion actually ends up being really bad anyway because that lane fills up with more cars.”

Beebe says Metro is placing emphasis on using the existing road network better, increasing connectivity and boosting funding for the transportation plans already approved by the 25 cities and three counties within its border.

Building wider freeways, Beebe adds, carries social, environmental and health costs, too. A multi-prong strategy that encourages people to get out of their cars is more effective, he says.

“In the long-run, congestion actually ends up being really bad anyway because that lane fills up with more cars,” Beebe says. “On its own, it wouldn’t get us to the goal that we need to get to.”

“So?” responds Ludlow. “For 20 years we’ll be able to move more people, we’ll be able to move more freight. It’s pretty lame, I think, to say: well, why do it at all, it’ll just fail eventually.”

Reporter Jim Redden contributed to this report.

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