At TriMet board meeting, GM defends his advocacy for freeway expansion projects

At the TriMet board meeting on Wednesday, the agency’s General Manager Neil McFarlane pushed back against claims that he’s a “freeway builder.”

Last month we shared news (first reported by The Portland Tribune) that McFarlane advocated for three freeway expansion projects in the Portland region during a speech to the Washington County Public Affairs Forum on February 20th. The comments were met with strong criticism by transportation reform activists who felt the leader of our region’s transit agency should not be stumping for projects that expand urban freeway capacity and make driving easier.

McFarlane’s comments, combined with growing political momentum to invest in these freeway projects, motivated activsts to air their concerns during public testimony at the TriMet board meeting. McFarlane’s comments also prompted a letter from a new coalition of nine major nonprofit groups — including AARP Oregon — that our region would only support a funding package that included as much active transportation investment as freeway expansion investment. That letter garnered a highly supportive response from the entire Metro Council.

On Wednesday, after hearing nearly an hour of public testimony from people concerned about McFarlane’s comments (and a range of other issues), McFarlane was given a chance to respond.

“I want to defend myself as being Neil McFarlane the freeway builder,” he said. “As the guy who’s been responsible — at one level or another — for five of our region’s six light rail lines and probably more active transportation investments than just about any other agency.”

“The next thing I’m going to talk about might surpise you a little bit coming from the transit guy here.”
— Neil McFarlane during a February 20th speech at the Washington County Public Affairs Forum

He went on to say that his remarks in the Tribune were true, but they were taken out of context. “It was a recognition of a need of a comprehensive transportation solution for this region.” McFarlane urged people to watch a recording of the video available online. “I’d encourage anyone to watch the tape,” he said. “In this era of false news reports, fake news, and alternative facts, I encourage people to look at the original source.”

McFarlane told his board and members of the public that his February speech also mentioned “the importance of sidewalks and active transportation improvements”. “I was just outlining a package,” he reiterated, “Not prioritizing one over the other.”

Since we also reported on his remarks, I went back and listened to the original source. McFarlane is right that he did talk about other things besides the freeway expansion projects — but those comments were not made in reference to a forthcoming funding package. In the part of his speech that dealt with the need to raise funding for transportation projects he only spoke about the SW Corridor transit project and the three freeway projects (I-5 at the Rose Quarter, I-205 at the Abernethy Bridge, and Highway 217 on the west side).

Here’s the relevant part of his February 20th speech:

“The next thing I’m going to talk about might surpise you a little bit coming from the transit guy here. I want to talk about the need to begin to address … there are three big bottlenecks in this region that it would be really nice to make some progress on… we’re hoping that the state legislature will add these priorities in the next year…What we’ve mapped out is a strategy to fund those four big projects.”

McFarlane said he is “optimistic we can get this done.” He said TriMet and ODOT have worked in tandem in the past. “On Highway 26, we built the light rail line and ODOT widened the highway… This is the way we have done things.”

You can watch McFarlane’s speech at the Washington County Public Affairs Forum here and his defense of those remarks on TriMet’s YouTube channel.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and

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