Region’s transportation hopes conflict with greenhouse goals

The Portland area’s $20 billion transportation wish list and its pledge to reduce greenhouse gases are on a collision course.

A new Metro study shows that population growth coupled with a soon-to-be-approved Regional Transportation Plan will result in so much metro-area traffic that greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles will jump 49 percent.

The finding comes just as Portland and Multnomah County embark on a massive, lifestyle-changing Climate Action Plan to slash overall greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Environmentalists say the new Metro analysis confirms the folly of spending $4 billion on a new, wider Columbia River bridge – the largest project in the Regional Transportation Plan – as well as projects to widen some suburban roads to seven lanes.

“We need solutions that don’t lead to more driving,” says Mara Gross, policy director of Coalition for a Livable Future, which represents about 90 organizations.

Metro planners say the 49 percent figure is overstated, because their analysis uses planned projects, plus an expected 58 percent population growth, to estimate future vehicle trips in 2035. The study didn’t try to predict future behavior, policy and land-use changes – or consider inevitabilities such as the coming wave of fuel-efficient and electric cars.

But there’s no dispute about the trend the study shows.

“Does it matter whether it’s 20 percent or 49 percent when we’re trying to get to minus 80 percent?” wonders Rex Burkholder, Metro councilor. “What it shows us is we’re going in the wrong direction.”

Reduced driving sought

An estimated 38 percent of Multnomah County’s greenhouse gas emissions come from all forms of transportation, more than any other sector, according to the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. So the city/county Climate Action Plan calls for dramatically reducing daily miles driven from 18.5 miles per person to 13.4 miles by the year 2030. That will require more bicycling, more walking, more carpooling and telecommuting, better transit, and more nearby groceries and jobs so people don’t have to travel as far.

Since 1990, carbon emissions from transportation have risen a modest 2.5 percent within Multnomah County, despite rapid population growth. TriMet ridership and bicycle commuting have mushroomed during that period.

As Portland city commissioners prepared to vote on the Climate Action Plan on Oct. 28, word of Metro’s new greenhouse gas study shocked many in attendance.

“Our transportation wish list takes us in the opposite direction,” testified Chris Smith, a transportation activist, blogger and member of the Multnomah County Planning Commission.

Burkholder says criticisms from the Coalition for a Livable Future are unfair, based on singling out a handful of projects among 1,000 in line for funding in the $20 billion plan. That list also includes money for Portland’s eastside trolley line, Burkholder notes, as well as numerous transit, pedestrian and bicycle projects that offer people a range of transportation choices.

Roads, bridges and highways stand to get 57 percent of the nearly $20 billion in the Regional Transportation Plan, but transit, pedestrian and bicycle projects are in line to receive 37 percent of the money.

Metro, he adds, appears to be the first in the nation doing this kind of greenhouse gas analysis of transportation projects.

Old style of business?

The Regional Transportation Plan, and some of the “earmarked” highway projects inserted by individual lawmakers into the 2009 state transportation bill, are signs that we’re still pursuing a lot of “old-time” concrete projects, laments Angus Duncan, chairman of the Oregon Global Warming Commission. However, he says it’s a time of transition when it comes to combating global warming, and it’s hard to move fast in the public policy arena.

“First, we have to turn this ship around, before we can accelerate it into the other direction,” Duncan says. “Collectively, our minds aren’t there yet.”

Another sign of the challenges ahead is an estimate in the same Metro report that projects how many trips will remain by a single person driving alone in a car. Metro calculates that 46 percent of all trips in the downtown Beaverton area are now made by a single person driving alone, and that will drop to 43 percent by 2035.

Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle says the greenhouse gas report shows the need for more transit spending in Beaverton and Hillsboro, and for more money to facilitate midrise housing in downtown Beaverton.

Doyle acknowledged the new analysis suggests a closer look at whether seven lanes are needed on Tualatin Valley Highway, which links Beaverton to Hillsboro. However, he hopes that new technology, such as electric cars, can be “the salvation” to help the region meet its greenhouse gas goals.

Clackamas County Chairwoman Lynn Peterson, a former traffic engineer, suggests the region adopt the Regional Transportation Plan, but then spend the next six months amending it to address the carbon emissions goals.

Peterson would like to see more emphasis on heavy rail and freight issues, and find ways to get people to drive at different times. That way, the region wouldn’t need to put so much money into making highways accommodate traffic for the worst 15 minutes of the rush hour, she says.

Washington County Chairman Tom Brian says the region needs to address traffic problems and greenhouse gas reductions with a variety of strategies. He cites a public education campaign, first suggested by Washington County, designed to get people to bundle errands in one trip, to cut down on traffic.

But the region is clearly growing, Brian says, and road capacity is essential, especially to carry freight.

“We can’t put freight on a bicycle or light rail.”

Metro now in charge of emission goals

Metro’s greenhouse gas study highlights an emerging new role for the regional governing body, which is sometimes criticized for trying to impose Portland values on the suburbs.

In House Bill 2001, the huge transportation package enacted by the Oregon Legislature this year, lawmakers ordered Metro to help meet the state’s aggressive greenhouse gas emissions goals. So even as some suburban leaders complain openly about Metro’s “mission creep” – the agency’s penchant for taking on more and more powers – the regional government is newly obliged to use its transportation-funding and land use powers to stem carbon emissions that worsen global warming.

That means that Portland and Multnomah County’s ambitious greenhouse gas-reduction strategies in their newly adopted Climate Action Plan must “be on the table for the rest of the region,” says Andy Cotugno, a Metro senior policy adviser. “The other two counties have not done anything” similar, he says.

Washington County Chairman Tom Brian says he’s not at all worried about Metro taking on a new role in greenhouse gas reductions. Collectively, tackling carbon emissions is something all jurisdictions should be doing, Brian says.

– Steve Law

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