Patience, persistence and understanding the process are key to activist's success
Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles on the Southwest Capitol HIghway Project as design work continues and construction approaches. Watch for stories in future issues about citizens who persevered through two decades to get the project going.
It's been suggested that when the major improvements to Capitol
Highway - sidewalks, bike lanes - are complete two years from now,
the improved three-quarter-mile stretch of roadway should be named
for Marianne Fitzgerald.
That's not going to happen but the fact that it's even mentioned bears
testament to her role as a private citizen who on her own time fought
for these last 25 years to rebuild Capitol Highway from SW Garden Home to SW Taylors Ferry.
That project will build sidewalks and bike lanes on both sides of
the roadway. Currently there's an uneven, unpaved path of sorts on the west side and barely a shoulder to walk on on the east side. The estimated cost
is $25 million and actual construction is currently set to begin in November 2019.
This is how far back Fitzgerald's involvement with this project goes. On November 1, 1993 she sent a letter to a Portland Commissioner named Earl Blumenauer. She highlighted the consensus priorities of SW Neighbors Inc. for road improvements. Of Capitol Highway from Taylors Ferry to Garden Home she wrote, "High speeds, narrow roadways, poor sight distance, and lack of virtually any sidewalks…make this a very hazardous
place for pedestrians."
So how does she feel now that the project is fully funded and set to begin?
"I'm finally optimistic." she said.
"This is one of the most complicated infrastructure projects ever attempted on the west side," said Fitzgerald, who's been involved with many other projects, "in the sense that the two main bureaus, PBOT and BES, are working closely to align the street and stormwater system and the water bureau added a water project to it, and ODOT controls the south end, so there is a lot of inter-bureau cooperation. And it's one reason why it's so expensive."
No one has been as involved as Fitzgerald over the years. "Patience and persistence," she says, are what it takes to see an effort such as this through the process.
It helps to know one's way around City Hall and the State Capitol as well says
the retired Department of Environmental Quality Natural Resources Specialist.
""Because I worked in government, I understood how government worked."
She worked through the coalition of neighborhood associations called Southwest Neighborhoods Inc.She was President of SWNI for years and prior to that she chaired its Transportation Committee. She's lived in SW Portland since 1977, has raised two children here and "I care about it a lot," she says.
She credits the voter's approval of a gas tax increase to fund infrastructure projects with providing a crucial boost. She also thinks then-Commissioner Steve Novick made a big difference. The $3 million earmarked for the project through Fixing Our Streets is a tiny slice of the entire cos,t but Fitzgerald says that funding was essential to leveraging other funding.
That's where the Bureau of Environmental Services enters the picture. By combining water quality projects with the road work the project made more sense financially.
"BES (Bureau of Environmental Services) getting involved was tremendous," she says. "It put us over the top. Under Commissioner Nick Fish and BES Director Michael Jordan, City bureaus started working together, there was a lot more cooperation."
Hopes were high as the Legislature voted to chip in a small but significant amount of funding. But then disaster loomed as Governor Kate Brown threatened to veto that $2 million earmark. Losing that money would have doomed the project.
Fitzgerald was in Eastern Oregon when she heard the news on the local OPB station.
"I was at a park in Prairie City in Grant County," she recalls, "and there was no cell service. I finally got a line out and called Randy (fellow SWNI activist Randy Bonella) and told him 'We can't let this veto happen."
Bonella recalls, "Yes Gov. Brown was going to veto the Capitol Highway funding but we did rally the troops and make sure that it remained funded. Gov Brown got some really bad advice on that one. It took at least 6-9 of us talking to a lot of people to put our full force behind the change to agree to funding."
As for her role in fighting for years to keep the Capitol Highway project alive, "Marianne was absolutely critical in making the Capitol Highway happen," said Bonella in an e mail.
As final planning for the improvements gets underway people who live along Capitol Highway are learning about how their lives will be affected once the work starts. "Most of the homeowners I've talked to are doing pretty well. There are going to be some big changes but they're pleased that when the work is done they'll be able to walk to Multnomah Village and other locations they have to drive to now," Fitzgerald said.
The most opposition to the project has come from those "who love SW Portland for its more rural feel. They love trees and don't want to lose any along Capitol Highway. We have agonized over this but the same thing happened when SW Oleson Road was widened and 400 trees were taken out," she said.
There's no final estimate of how many trees will be cut down to make way for the improvements but Fitzgerald thinks it may be as many as 1,000. "A few key trees will be saved," she said, "we're setting aside some really big birch trees and doug firs."
Now that the project that has consumed her for the last quarter century is really happening Fitzgerald is ready to move on. She was an active participant in a recent session put on by Metro to talk about options for someday moving light rail trains through the "Crossroads" at the intersection of Barbur Boulevard and SW Taylors Ferry Road. She also testified before the Portland City Council that she and others worry that the SW light rail scheme will not result in any more sidewalks, connected streets or bike lanes beyond the improvements to Barbur Boulevard.