Bypassing Inconvenient Truths
Hidden highway history and the mayoral election
BY MARK ROBINOWITZ
The Piercy-Torrey mayoral election includes two flavors of misinformation about the West Eugene Parkway, a highway first proposed in 1951 and officially canceled in 2007.
Jim Torrey promoted the WEP as city councilor and mayor. However, in June 2001 he was part of the “West Eugene Charette,” an intergovernmental consensus of the city, Lane County, ODOT, the BLM and the Federal Highway Administration. The group selected “no build” because the WEP was too illegal and too expensive. County Commissioner Bobby Green and Oregon Transportation Commissioner Randy Papé (brother of then City Councilor Gary Papé) were also part this agreement.
Shortly after the charette, Torrey, Green and Papé changed their minds and pushed through an advisory vote on the November 2001 Eugene ballot. Even though federal aid highways are federal decisions, pro-WEP politicians used the 51-49 percent vote (which promised “the money is there” even though it wasn’t) to say “the people voted for it.”
Between 2002 and 2006, ODOT spent a couple million dollars to “study” the WEP even though the agency privately knew it could not be built. If Torrey, Green and Papé had honored their June 2001 “no build” consensus, the millions spent on additional studies between 2002 and 2006 could have fixed West 11th intersections and aided other efforts to mitigate west Eugene traffic flow problems. From their perspective, they hoped that their highway activism might have persuaded ODOT and FHWA to approve the project despite its countless legal and financial flaws; or if not, then they could use it as a wedge issue to blame liberals for supposedly blocking the project instead of accepting responsibility for wasting public funds chasing a failed project.
Perhaps the main environmental accomplishment of Kitty Piercy’s term was her tie-breaking City Council vote to remove the city’s support for the WEP, along with her vote at the Lane Council of Governments to remove the WEP from the Regional Transportation Plan.
The city’s change of position was the excuse used by FHWA to cancel the WEP via a “no build” Record of Decision in March 2007. Privately, the transportation agencies knew the WEP would violate nearly every transportation law; the highway was not needed; it was overpriced; and fixing cracked bridges on I-5 is a bigger priority for ODOT and FHWA.
In November 2007, Piercy voted for a new Regional Transportation Plan that contains $817 million for more road expansion during the remaining decades of the petroleum era. The other Eugene representative at the LCOG committee that decides this plan, Alan Zelenka, voted against this proposal. The city of Springfield is now pressuring Rep. DeFazio to appropriate pork barrel funds to pay for its highway expansions on Route 126 in Thurston. This is not “sustainability.”
After the WEP’s demise, Piercy created the West Eugene Collaborative, a group focused on transportation and land use. The WEC includes bureaucrats, politicians, Chamber of Commerce members and Friends of Eugene, but it does not include west Eugene neighborhood organizations.
The WEC’s reports ignore the WETLANDS alternative — West Eugene Transportation, Land and Neighborhood Design Solutions — even though the WEC’s primary convener Mary O’Brien privately called it “brilliant” and the consultants told this writer that it was well presented.
In March 2008, the WEC had its first “design storm” exercise to solicit suggestions for solutions. The map prepared by the “collaborators” included a new proposal to build the eastern half of the Parkway through Bertelsen Nature Park as long as it included a Bus Rapid Transit component and new development (in wetlands!) around the bus stops. This map is preliminary and unofficial, but it is similar the Crandall Arambula option, a worse version of the WEP promoted in 2002 by Mary O’Brien, Rob Zako and Rob Handy. The Crandall Arambula option (named after the Portland architects who consulted on it) would have built the WEP plus an express bus and commercial development in the wetlands around the bus stops. Crandall Arambula would have paved more wetlands, forests, homes and farmland than ODOT’s version. No environmentalist who publicly opposed Crandall Arambula was invited to be part of the alleged “collaborative.”
Kitty Piercy has united Eugene — against her downtown corporate welfare plan, which was equally rejected by all sections of the city last November. I look forward to the day when most politicians who talk green implement policies consistent with their rhetorical statements.
Mark Robinowitz is a “road scholar” who prepared technical details of WETLANDS vs. FHWA, a lawsuit to prevent the WEP if it had been approved. Details are posted at GreenwashEugene.com.