Oregon’s climate change hypocrisy on full display in transportation bill debate

The transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon.

The news this week was full of stories about how Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler were beside themselves about President Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. They vowed to remain committed to climate change prevention.

Yet both of our local leaders support spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the single largest source of greenhouse gases in Oregon: emissions from cars and trucks.

“The Committee’s approach does not reflect and fairly allocate the full range of costs imposed by different vehicles, and will have the effect of slowing, not accelerating, the shift to low-emissions vehicles.”
— Angus Duncan, chair of the Oregon Global Warming Commission

Oregon has set clear goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, yet lawmakers are putting the final touches on a bill that includes over $900 million in earmarks to widen highways.

The most expensive project that would be funded by this bill is an expansion of Interstate 5 through Portland’s central city. Lawmakers want to spend $338 million on that project alone.

Everything else in House Bill 2017-3 pales in comparison to the resources committed to making it easier to drive personal motorized vehicles. This makes no sense, especially for a state that’s already failing to meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. A report by Oregon’s Global Warming Commission released in February found that transportation emissions are the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases in our state. “Oregon will not meet its 2020 emission reduction goal,” the report states. “More action is needed, particularly in the transportation sector, if the state is to meet our longer-term GHG reduction goals.”

The Commission went so far as to recommend that the legislature use the transportation funding debate as a way change course. “Use the occasion to devise and adopt measures that will bring transportation GHG emissions under control and aligned with Oregon’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Goals,” they wrote.

But that’s not what lawmakers chose to do. They’ve thrown just enough scraps at biking and transit to provide them with media sound bites so they can act like this is a “balanced” package. It’s not.

Experts who are independent of the political sausage-making that has created HB 2017 can see the flaws in the bill very clearly.

Chair of the Global Warming Commission Angus Duncan submitted testimony to the Joint Transportation Preservation and Modernization Committee this week. He said the committee should think twice before adding highway capacity in the Portland Metro area. Here’s an excerpt from his letter:

“Highway congestion results in greater GHG emissions per mile traveled, as vehicles idle or inch forward in heavy traffic burning fuel and releasing emissions. Adding lane capacity is a dubious response, however. Committee Members understand by now, along with the rest of us, the concept of induced demand filling added highway capacity, often on the day the new facilities are opened for use. The Committee should examine carefully the cost-effectiveness of the proposed added capacity at the three major congestion relief targets in the Portland metropolitan area.”

Duncan also said that taxing bikes and charging more in registration fees for electric vehicles isn’t a smart policy. “These higher added costs on carbon-efficient modes of travel are counterproductive and reflect a misreading of relative costs imposed on the system.” Duncan worries that HB 2017 will hasten climate change. “The Committee’s approach does not reflect and fairly allocate the full range of costs imposed by different vehicles, and will have the effect of slowing, not accelerating, the shift to low-emissions vehicles. I encourage the Committee to reconsider these counter-productive signals.”

Joe Cortright, a Portland economist and founder of City Observatory, echoes Duncan’s views. “If we really care about climate change, we shouldn’t spend a billion dollars widening freeways,” he wrote on Twitter this week. And on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud radio show he said the highway widening projects in the bill won’t even reduce traffic.

“In urban areas there’s so much demand for travel – particularly when it isn’t priced — that if you add more capacity, more people drive. And no analysis has been done on any of these projects to show that they would have any measurable effect on congestion in the Portland area.”

Oregon Senator Lee Beyer was also a guest on that show. Amazingly, after Cortright eviscerated the rationale for the highway projects in the bill, Beyer didn’t even bother defending it. “I don’t completely disagree with Joe,” Beyer said, then went on to tell the show host about the bill’s investment in transit and the nods it gives toward a potential congestion pricing program in the future.

No matter how you slice it, Oregon’s transportation funding package isn’t what we need in 2017. Unfortunately, the only climate lawmakers and lobbyists seem to care much about is the political one.

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

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