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David Zupan (left) and John Herberg carry signs to a 2000 hearing on TransPlan.

Parkway Pickle
Wetland highway killed by a TransPlan
congested with costly road projects.
By Alan Pittman

Despite a strong push by development interests, the Eugene City Council isn't likely to reverse itself on a decision to effectively halt construction of a four-lane, $88 million highway in the west Eugene wetlands.

Council conservatives were hoping that Councilor Gary Rayor would provide a swing vote that would allow a decision to refer the question of the wetland highway to voters. But Rayor, who works at an engineering firm contracting for work on the project, says he'll continue to abstain from voting because of a "really obvious" conflict of interest. "I'm sure I'm not going to be at the table."

Councilor David Kelly says it looks like three councilors want to put the West Eugene Parkway back on the council agenda this month, but "I would expect the vote to be the same." The council voted 4-3 last month to not pursue the project as part of the region's 20-year transportation plan, TransPlan.

"It was a fiscal responsibility vote," says Kelly. The Federal Highway Administration recently told the city that to build the highway, the city had to include all $88 million of the four-phase project in a financially constrained project list in TransPlan.

 
Following other federal requirements, the constrained list can include only those projects that the region reasonably expects to be able to find funding for in the next 20 years. The council had already decided to include $17 million for the first phase of the parkway on the list, which includes $142 million in projects. But adding the other phases of the parkway would have eliminated funding for all but a few other projects, according to city planning staff. If the region funded the wetland highway and a new I-5 interchange for the Gateway Mall, only $6 million would be left for all other road projects in the next two decades.

"It would have basically sacrificed every other project in TransPlan to build the parkway," says Kelly. Safety and congestion-relief improvements to existing roads such as Belt Line and the Washington-Jefferson Bridge in Eugene and Highway 126 and Jasper Road in Springfield as well as many other projects would be lost, Kelly points out. "It's an incredibly dramatic tradeoff."

Councilor Bonny Bettman says many of the other projects would produce greater improvements to safety and congestion at less cost. "It was basically choosing this [parkway] project balanced against the existing list of projects. Which was going to provide the most transportation improvement for the dollar?"

The parkway was proposed to relieve congestion on West 11th Avenue. But congestion on the street is expected to get worse with or without the parkway. Fifteen years from now, higher congestion levels are projected to be only 8 percent less on West 11th with the parkway, according to city planners.

The $17 million in state funding the council will save by canceling the first phase of the project could be transferred to improve sections of West 11th and other roads to better handle congestion in the area, according to city planning staff. Councilor's have discussed limiting the number of driveways accessing the busy street, for example.

Transferring the funding isn't guaranteed, but in the past, the state has transferred money to other local projects as plans evolved. The parkway itself is just the latest iteration of unpopular plans that go back 40 years to build a highway through west Eugene. In the early 1970s, community opposition to the neighborhood and riverside impact of a proposed Roosevelt Freeway through the area killed the project even after the state had begun buying rights of way for the project.
Voters did approve a route for the West Eugene Parkway in 1986 by a wide margin. The vote was held to satisfy a charter requirement that new freeway projects be approved by voters, and doesn't legally bind the council to fund the highway.

The Chamber of Commerce and local Home Builders Association angrily charged that progressive councilors subverted the will of the people expressed in the earlier vote. A half-page "Road Kill" ad by the groups in The Register-Guard listed councilor phone numbers and called on citizens to call those who opposed the project.

But the Chamber and developers weren't nearly as concerned about the "will of the people" expressed in another vote that year. In 1986, voters passed a local nuclear free zone initiative that was later substantially weakened by council conservatives at the urging of the business community.

Councilors who voted last month to not fund the project note that since 1986 the fiscal reality of competing road projects has changed, the highway route has changed considerably, the economy is dramatically different and there is much more awareness of the extent and value of wetlands in west Eugene. "It occurred before we were really aware of the wetlands," says Councilor Betty Taylor.

The environmental value of the acres of wetlands that the parkway will destroy and divide has long sparked heavy criticism of the project from local environmentalists.

Barbara Kelley of Save Our ecoSystems (SOS) wrote that the state's plan to fill 34 acres of wetlands with 1.2 million cubic yards of dirt and gravel for the parkway would destroy a "moist Garden of Eden ... filled with autumn rains, teeming with life seen and unseen, complemented with 'uplands' to serve the land needs of turtles, foxes, beaver, raccoons, even deer and bear, as well as thousands of birds and waterfowl."

 
Rob Zako speaks out against TransPlan at a rally.
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The parkway would contribute to urban sprawl, "attract cars in the way Los Angeles did by building more and more freeways," and create water, noise and air pollution, Barbara Kelley charges.

Even the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a frequent target of environmental critics, has voiced strong concerns over the highway project. Diana Bus, the BLM's acting Coast Range field manager, wrote to ODOT recently to express concerns that the highway would destroy west Eugene wetlands that the BLM has acquired for conservation. "This natural ecosystem, that now serves as the largest open space within the urban growth boundary, provides habitat for many plant and animal species, some specifically protected by federal or state regulations. It is the functioning of this broader wetland/upland ecosystem complex that is at issue here. How would the [parkway] impact the overall functioning of the multiple values inherent in this now existing system?"

Bus notes that mitigation for destroying the wetlands by creating or enhancing wetlands elsewhere may not be adequate because the proposed mitigation sites "are far removed from the presently functional wetlands."

The BLM's plans to provide educational and nature viewing opportunities on trails and bike paths in the wetlands could be severely impacted by the parkway, writes the agency's recreation specialist Joe Williams. "The [highway] will become the dominant feature in the West Eugene Wetlands," Williams warns. "The ability of visitors and school classes to enjoy the wetland's natural features and to communicate with one another at the interpretive overlooks and environmental education sites will be interfered with by traffic noise on the parkway. The noise combined with the visual effect of automobiles and large trucks passing on the parkway will substantially affect the visitor's experience opportunities in the wetlands."

TransPlan's other big project, a $54 million, up to four-level interchange at I-5 and the Gateway Mall, isn't in wetlands, but it may still run afoul of the same financial problems that shot down the wetlands highway.

Current proposals call for spending a minimum of $54 million on the massive project and perhaps as much as $100 million. But TransPlan includes only $38 million in funding for the interchange. If federal officials decide TransPlan must include funding for the entire project for planning for the interchange to proceed, it may kill the project, says Councilor Kelly.

But Kelly says proponents of the interchange may be able to make a stronger case for phasing the project. The first phase of the wetland highway builds a middle section and is "a road to nowhere," says Kelly. But the Gateway project "is something that lends itself to phasing" with a first, cheaper step perhaps addressing some of the weaving and ramp improvements needed at the interchange, he says.

The Gateway Mall interchange has been strongly criticized as a leading example of the failure of TransPlan to address its stated goal of promoting alternative transportation. ODOT has counted 27,300 cars a day driving down the street in front of the mall. Only 370 people a day take the bus on the same route and only five to 10 people bike.

ODOT has acknowledged that the sprawl of the mall and the surrounding development off I-5 on the edge of the city created the need for the expensive interchange improvement. The agency also acknowledges that improving the interchange could attract even more development and traffic to the area and the need for spending even more money on bigger roads.

The phenomenon of road projects "inducing" more traffic and congestion has been confirmed by mainstream researchers. The Texas Transportation Institute, a national leader in highway research, studied congestion in 70 cities across the U.S. and concluded recently that for cities that "pursue only road additions as the way to stop the growth in congestion and improve travel speed, the recent record is not encouraging." Another recent study by UC Berkeley researchers of 30 California counties found that for every 1 percent of new lane miles added, traffic increased by a nearly equal 0.9 percent.

TransPlan will add 8 percent more miles of major roads to the region at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. But computer models run by local planners predict that traffic congestion will still increase 75 percent over the plan's 20-year life. Bus ridership, a major TransPlan goal, will increase from 1.8 to 2.4 percent of all trips and bicycling's share of trips is expected to drop 5 percent.

TransPlan's emphasis on expensive road projects and failure to increase alternative transportation has sparked protests from local environmental groups. Last October, 100 citizens rallied and marched to call for a TransPlan that doesn't emphasize roads over alternative transportation, the environment and quality of life.

 
Neighborhood groups join protesters against TransPlan last year.
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"When you follow the money the only things that are truly being funded now are a lot of new road projects," Rob Handy, a River Road neighborhood activist, told the crowd. Handy warned that what happened with the Whiteaker neighborhood and the Washington-Jefferson freeway bridge could happen to more neighborhoods under TransPlan. "The Whiteaker neighborhood had its guts ripped out of it with that project."

Rob Zako of Friends of Eugene told the crowd that officials had failed to change TransPlan despite testimony from hundreds of citizens concerned about the livability and environmental impacts of sprawling road construction. "Their failure to improve TransPlan is a gross breach of the public trust," he said.

The protest march ended at a joint meeting at the Hilton Conference Center of elected officials from Springfield, Eugene and Lane County who must all approve TransPlan for it to go into effect.

At the meeting, alternative transportation supporters clashed with conservatives on the County Commission and Springfield City Council. The Eugene City Council voted 5-2 to support a statement from south Eugene County Commissioner Peter Sorenson calling for strengthening TransPlan to promote "real" transit-friendly development and increases in alternative transportation.

The draft TransPlan is "by and large very, very weak" in promoting alternative modes, said Kelly, noting that in earlier joint meetings, the county and Springfield had rejected almost all the suggestions from Eugene with little discussion.

TransPlan fails to meet its own stated goals of reducing traffic congestion by promoting transit, said Eugene Councilor Scott Meisner. "I've grown more and more discouraged," he said.
Springfield and county conservatives reacted angrily to the Eugene vote. Commissioner Bobby Green accused the council of "setting a bad tone for this meeting apparently you wanted to make a political statement."

Springfield Councilor Lyle Hatfield agreed with Green that the council vote was a "political ploy."

County Commissioner Anna Morrison compared the Eugene council to "a child that's throwing a tantrum."

Eugene Councilor Nancy Nathanson voted against supporting the Sorenson statement but took Morrison to task. "Eugene isn't probably going to appreciate the metaphor of we're dealing with a child," she said. "We're the largest city in the region, the second largest city in the state. We have a lot at stake here."

The elected officials voted to have the regional Metropolitan Policy Committee (MPC) try to hash out the differences and report back to the councils and commission with proposed revisions. But the MPC is dominated by local conservative politicians with little interest in alternative transportation.

Zako says that from the MPC meetings he's attended, the group "hasn't seriously considered or responded to the concerns in Sorenson's letter."

Councilor Kelly says the MPC shouldn't be "ignoring the elephant in the living room." Kelly says he and other Eugene councilors are willing to compromise but want the county and Springfield to give "reasonable consideration" to their ideas for strengthening TransPlan. If it comes back without any real changes, "It's something that I'll vote against, and I suspect, that the majority of the council will."


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