Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 9.17.2009

Carbon Foot print
Will Eugene green its sooty foot?
By Alan Pittman

With global warming threatening environmental and economic disaster, the Eugene City Council voted unanimously this year to set an ambitious goal of reducing fossil fuel consumption by 50 percent by the year 2030.

The council voted to create an action plan by next August to meet that 2030 goal. The Eugene Sustainability Commission is kicking off work on the plan with a public event starting at 9 am Saturday, Sept. 26, at North Eugene High School. 

But the 50 percent reduction goal passed by the council was “aspirational,” and whether Eugene will actually do much to clean its sooty carbon footprint remains to be seen. 

Any real effort to reduce carbon pollution in Eugene will have to focus on transportation. The average local resident generates almost 10 times more global warming gases per day by driving alone than by his or her use of energy in the home, based on local data. Because of the area’s mild climate and hydro power, heating, lighting and running homes and businesses produces only relatively little greenhouse gas emissions. Residential electricity use accounts for only about 3 percent of local carbon emissions, according to a city study.

In Eugene, the share of total greenhouse emissions from driving is about twice as high as the rest of the nation. The city has estimated that share at 51 percent, but the actual number is likely significantly higher since the city only counted car trips that started and ended in Eugene.

But rather than working to reduce global warming from driving, the city and state appear more likely to increase it based on recent actions. Here are some examples:

• The Oregon Department of Transportation has begun construction on a $180 million project to widen by 50 percent the I-5 bridge over the Willamette River. The agency refused to consider the global warming impact. 

• ODOT is also starting to plan a massive project to increase capacity on Beltline in Eugene to facilitate more sprawl including a new river bridge, four new interchanges and four miles of new lanes. The total project, which makes no mention of global warming impacts, could easily top half a billion dollars. 

• The regional transportation plan (RTP) passed two years ago calls for a 13 percent increase in driving per capita, spurred by a half billion dollars in new freeway capacity in the next decades. Regional planning staff at LCOG refused to assess the global warming impact of their plan. In contrast to Eugene, Portland is calling for a 50 percent reduction in driving by 2030 to meet its carbon reduction goals. 

• Under current trends, Eugene greenhouse gas pollution in 2020 will be two thirds higher than in 1990, the city estimates.

• A decade ago, Eugene city staff joined anti-environmental groups in a successful effort to thwart a previous state effort to reduce car pollution, the Transportation Planning Rule, by lobbying for weaker regulations. But the city is even failing to meet those weaker standards that are now in effect. A state regulator recently commented that the city is taking twice as long to make half the progress in reducing driving.

• The city goal focuses on fossil fuel reduction rather than the more common standard of reducing greenhouse gas emissions used by most governments. Biofuels would reduce fossil fuels, but a recent scientific study showed they could have little impact on global warming if natural areas are cleared for fuel crops. 

• Judging by public statements, a majority of the Eugene City Council appears opposed to extending a Bus Rapid Transit line to reduce car use along West 11th, a key local strategy in reducing global warming. 

• The council has voted to allow suburban-style parking lots in the center of the city, has voted to require more car parking for apartments near the university and has used tax breaks to push developers to make their university-area projects more car oriented.

• The city plans to move its police station with 350 employees out of downtown to an isolated location in north Eugene, increasing driving by police officers, clerical staff and citizens and sending a message that downtown is a bad place to locate. A majority of the council also appears to support moving 250 EWEB headquarters employees out of downtown.

• Bike commuting has declined in Eugene from 8 percent in 1980 to 5.5 percent in the latest Census numbers. The regional TransPlan allocates only 1 percent of funding for cycling, far less than the percentage of people cycling.

• ODOT is spending almost $200 million to increase capacity of the I-5 and Beltline freeway interchange to spur sprawl on the edge of the city, including moving 3,000 hospital workers to the suburbs. 

• The city’s failed urban renewal plans have focused on building downtown parking garages at a cost of up to $80,000 a space. The council rejected a plan for dense student housing in the Sears pit downtown. The housing would have included a car sharing service. 

• Portland exclusively applied for bike and transit projects from an eco-friendly, $1.5 billion pot of federal stimulus money this month. But Eugene only asked for more dirty road projects from the “TIGER” fund. At the same time, the city trumpeted a $1.5 million stimulus grant for energy conservation, but the non-competitive money was given to every city based on population and energy use and had to go to energy conservation. The city will spend the money mostly on buildings rather than transportation, and it will result in a Eugene emission reduction of less than one 10th of 1 percent, according to city figures.

Another key component of reducing greenhouse emissions will be controlling urban sprawl. More sprawl means more car use and more emissions.

But the Eugene City Council last month voted 6-2 to move toward expanding the local urban growth boundary that reins in sprawl. They voted to study a UGB expansion based on assumptions and an advisory committee sharply biased towards urban sprawl. The committee was stacked 14-2 for developers. City staff assumptions included arguing that the city would grow even less dense than it has in recent years.

In contrast, Portland’s draft climate action plan says the city should “accommodate all population and business growth within the existing urban growth boundary.” Portland’s plan also calls for revising its land use and transportation plans and spending to accomplish its global warming goals.

In a tie broken by the mayor, the Eugene City Council voted this year to tentatively support an environmental bill in the Legislature to require other cities to do something similar in adjusting their planning documents to account for global warming.

Portland’s proposed plan includes charging more for parking to reduce driving. But the Eugene City Council rejected a proposal to charge big box retailers for their traffic impact based on parking spaces to fund road repairs, instead opting for a property tax increase for everyone, no matter how much they drove. 

One of the biggest obstacles to reducing Eugene’s carbon footprint may be the powerful local city and planning bureaucracy. In pressing to use stimulus money targeted for green transportation on more dirty roads, staff at the Lane Council of Governments recently argued that bigger roads would “in turn reduce greenhouse gas emissions from otherwise idling vehicles.” But that argument runs counter to most studies and LCOG’s own regional transportation plan which states: “Experience from cities all over the world suggests that building roads encourages more people to use cars, thereby perpetuating the transportation challenges.”

At the city of Eugene, powerful city planning, transportation and public works staff and the city attorney all argued against the environmentalists’ bill in the state Legislature to have cities actually do something about global warming by addressing it in their planning documents.

Under Eugene’s city manager system, most important transportation decisions are made by unelected bureaucrats meeting behind closed doors. In Portland widening the I-5 bridge was a major debate before city elected officials meeting in public. But in Eugene ODOT only came to the City Council last week to announce it had already begun construction on a wider bridge.

But dramatic reduction in global warming emissions is doable. With rising gas prices, local fuel usage dropped 12 percent in recent years, according to LCOG data. With two-thirds of people in Eugene driving to work alone, simple car pooling could double or triple gas mileage. Walking, biking or busing just a day or two a week would also produce dramatic changes. If Eugene returned to the urban form it had in 1950, it would be almost a third more dense.

Portland has already shown significant success in reducing global warming by funding biking and transit. Its emission levels in 2007 were 1 percent below 1990 levels despite big population growth.

A major argument against reducing emissions has always been cost. But the numbers don’t add up that way. A study by EcoNorthwest consultants this year found that climate warming would have a direct annual cost of $1,930 per Oregon household by 2020. That totals about $120 million a year for all of Eugene.

Driving less would also have other economic benefits. Driving cars in Eugene costs a total of about $1.1 billion a year if all external and internal factors are included, calculations based on transportation research show. Portland estimates that it already has saved $1 billion a year by less driving. That’s money that gets pumped into the local economy rather than going to foreign oil or car corporations.

 Research by the Surface Transportation Policy Project also shows that investing in transit projects creates about 19 percent more jobs than new road or bridge projects to promote driving.

With such high environmental costs and economic benefits, Eugene may not be able to afford to not reduce global warming.