Eugene Weekly : News : 2.5.08

Bridge to Somewhere
Will big stimulus trickle down green and wanted?
by Alan Pittman

The $800 billion federal stimulus package working its way through Congress could have a big impact on Eugene. But whether the money will hurt or help the environment and whether local citizens will have much say in how its spent remain unclear. 

If distributed evenly by population, Eugene would get roughly $400 million from the stimulus package. That’s more than double the city of Eugene’s annual budget. 

But it’s unclear just how the money will be distributed. 

“Right now we don’t know what the rules will be,” said city lobbyist Brenda Wilson. “The Senate is changing it on an hourly basis.”

One big unanswered question is whether the federal transportation money will go to projects that reduce global warming or to more of the same sprawl, smog and climate change inducing freeways.

Elected officials from President Barack Obama to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski to Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy have called for sharp reductions in carbon pollution. In hydropowered Oregon, most greenhouse pollution comes from driving. But there’s been little apparent effort to cut back on the freeways that induce more driving.

The local Regional Transportation Plan adopted a year ago includes hundreds of millions for new freeway construction and projects a 13 percent increase in per capita driving.

Stimulus and lobbying wish-lists that Eugene and other local governments have compiled include many of these same global-warming and oil-dependent projects. Examples include:

• $7 million for connecting Chad Drive to the I-5/Beltline interchange

• $20 million for Gateway/Beltline intersection widening 

• $50 million to add lanes to the Beltline freeway

• $20 million for Territorial Highway 

• $12 million in sewers to subsidize Springfield urban sprawl.

Springfield is also seeking more than $90 million for two new freeway interchanges for Highway 126 to serve sprawl in east Springfield and $10 million for a new freeway to serve sprawl in southeastern Springfield.

The Oregon Department of Transportation, an agency widely criticized for ignoring local opinion in pursuing anti-environmental freeway projects, could control how the local transportation stimulus money is distributed.

Wilson said the money won’t be earmarked for specific projects and may be under ODOT control. “It’s been quite the struggle” to get money from ODOT for local priorities, she said.

The local project lists do include greener projects, such as: $50 million to expand Eugene’s riverbank bike path system; $5 million for Alton Baker Park canoe canal improvements; $6 million for enhancing the Delta Ponds; $5 million for a county bioenergy project to convert city and farm waste to energy; $3 million for weatherizing rental housing; $17 million for a Glenwood riverfront bike path; about $100 million in sewage plant improvements; $26 million for LTD; and $4 million for a Middle Fork bike path.

But the lists do not prioritize projects. At a Jan. 21 meeting, Eugene Councilors Mike Clark and Alan Zelenka said widening Beltline was the city’s top transportation priority. 

Ironically, city staff said the Beltline project is at least two to three years away from construction and may not meet the stimulus criteria of putting people immediately to work.

The stimulus wish-lists, potentially involving some of the largest expenditures of taxpayer money in local history, appear to have been created by local government bureaucrats without public input or deliberation.

Councilor George Brown questioned how $100 million for widening Franklin Boulevard got on the list. “I’ve never heard of anyone talk about Franklin” as that big of a problem, he said. “These are supposed to be widely accepted local priorities.”

Brown asked why the list didn’t instead include a homeless shelter downtown. “I think taking care of people is a much higher priority,” he said. He said the list should have things that are “more beneficial to the whole town.”

Former Councilor Bonny Bettman questions how $24 million for a police station that has failed three times at the ballot wound up on the stimulus list.

Councilor Betty Taylor said, “I would hope that council could suggest things that could be on the list.”

Wilson said the lists were preliminary and “illustrative” and could be amended later. Wilson said staff needed to prepare a list because of the rush in Congress to address the recession. “When the money starts to flow, we get in line with our buckets and we get it. We figure out what to do with it later.”

Mayor Piercy said she supports the Franklin project and said it will be a challenge for the city to be ready to take advantage of the fast moving stimulus. “Nimbleness is not our middle name,” she said. “We have to be ready to jump.”

In any case, most of the local stimulus money is likely to come in the form not of freeway projects but of millions of dollars for education, food stamps, unemployment benefits, health care and tax breaks.