Zupan (left) and John Herberg carry signs to a 2000 hearing on TransPlan.
highway killed by a TransPlan
congested with costly road projects. By Alan
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
Rob Zako speaks
out against TransPlan at a rally. .
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
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.
join protesters against TransPlan last year. .
"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
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,"
Springfield and county conservatives reacted angrily to the Eugene vote. Commissioner
Bobby Green accused the council of "setting a bad tone for this meeting É apparently
you wanted to make a political statement."
Springfield Councilor Lyle Hatfield agreed with Green that the council vote was a
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