I have called out elected officials who support the idea of big carbon reductions but end up supporting huge highway projects. Now I am calling out Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder—a very close friend of Sightline and a personal friend of Alan Durning—for falling into the Sustainability Gap. Burkholder supports reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. But he also supports the CRC project, a multibillion dollar highway expansion across the Columbia River north of Portland, which would likely increase greenhouse-gas emissions for decades to come.
Burkholder has a much-deserved reputation as a champion of sustainability in Oregon. He co-founded the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, the Northwest’s most effective advocate for sustainable urban mobility. He was biking to and from his elected post on the Metro Council when Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn were a political staffer and an activist lawyer, respectively. So Burkholder clearly gets it.
But when interviewed by Bike Portland, Burkholder had this to say about how he would respond to a hypothetical, disappointed constituent, upset about his support of a big highway project:
I just say well, I’m sorry, we have to do something and this is the smartest thing to do. We spent three years going through all these same questions and doing nothing is not an option. It’s my job to do something and I’m sorry if you’re not happy, but guess what? I can’t let nothing happen, so that’s how it goes.
Burkholder is not alone. The CRC has split sustainability advocates—and voters generally—in greater Portland. Like the Alaska Way Viaduct did in Seattle’s 2009 mayoral race, the CRC has become the dividing line in greater Portland politics.
In his defense, Burkholder could make some compelling arguments. For example, he could argue that the CRC proposal is the best that we can hope for. Or he could argue that it is a small price to pay for much larger benefits. Without a new bridge for (mostly) cars and trucks, for example, he may believe that metro Portland’s grand bargain between cities and suburbs in favor of rapid transit expansion will collapse.
He might also argue that the CRC is the price of winning. Even if the CRC proposal is a bad idea, he might contend, it’s what voters want. Opposing it won’t stop it. It will just throw the election to someone who supports the CRC. So supporting it is the path to power, this argument would contend, and the power can be used to win many other battles.
Any of these arguments might be compelling. But they are all political arguments—not arguments that the CRC is the best policy option.
The best policy option would lead to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, better land-use, and healthier communities. And it seems increasingly likely that the CRC—at least when considered in isolation from other projects and deal-making—may move the region in the wrong direction on these measures.
Yet the best policy options —that would advance sustainability in the Portland region—seem out of reach. In other words, we need to figure out how to bridge the Sustainability Gap.
In his keynote speech at a recent conference in Seattle on climate change, Seattle Mayor Michael McGinn (a lonely opponent of the tunnel during last year’s Mayoral campaign) offered a suggestion. According to McGinn, part of the way we can bridge the Sustainability Gap is to get people better organized to hold elected officials accountable for supporting projects—like giant tunnels and expanded bridges—that are antithetical to reducing carbon emissions, growing our cities up rather than out, and kicking our addiction to oil. It also means backing those officials up when they take hard, and sometimes unpopular, positions against such megaprojects.
As Burkholder says, doing nothing is increasingly not an option. That’s urgently true for climate change. And it’s as true for advocates of carbon reduction as much as it is for elected officials.