Jefferson Smith (image courtesy Street Roots)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Earlier this month, the three major candidates for mayor - Eileen Brady, Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith - gathered for the race's first debate. Although the trio showed little disagreement on issues like jobs and the economy, the difference came in the Columbia River Crossing, the proposed Interstate 5 bridge.
Despite this being a project that would cost billions, has been vehemently criticized for its design (think flat slabs of concrete), is not supported by a majority of the community and is not even sure to reduce traffic congestion, two of three candidates expressed support for its going forward.
As reported by Beth Slovic in The Oregonian, both Brady and Hales called for immediate action on the bridge, perhaps seeking support from trade unions eager to have the bridge's construction jobs. "We need to build that bridge, you guys," Brady told the crowd of 150. Hales even declared that he would start construction in his first year in office.
Only Jefferson Smith, the state legislator representing east Portland, showed a sane degree of skepticism about this poster-child for pork and the highway-industrial complex. "I know I'm supposed to just say build baby, build," Smith told the debate audience. "We need a Plan B."
Perhaps it's fitting, then, that Smith shares his name with the James Stewart character in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the classic movie about a principled young legislator fighting corruption.
New electoral candidates are usually full of policy ideas, as evidenced by the trio's proposals for other aspects of city government. Hales, for example, suggested cutting mayor's office staff and creating a capital fund for sidewalk construction. Brady vowed to accelerate the permitting process and to bulldoze the remaining natural portions of Hayden Island for industrial purposes.
But not one of the three candidates suggested or even addressed the natural solution for the Columbia Crossing: building a local bridge to Vancouver instead, which would drastically reduce I-5 traffic by creating non-freeway alternative and also cost about half. Not one of the candidates admitted there's another elephant in the room: the fact that the Rose Quarter is the true bottleneck of this stretch of Interstate, not the Interstate Bridge over the Columbia. It's the Rose Quarter where the freeway shrinks down to two lanes in each direction precisely as it interchanges with I-84 (multi-freeway intersections always make for the worst congestion), not on the existing Interstate Bridge with twice as many lanes as as at the Rose Quarter. But perhaps for Brady and Hales, the "Plan B" that Smith spoke of us too far of a diversion from their talking points and sound bytes. It's a messy problem requiring a thoughtful solution, something that doesn't play well to what Shakespeare called "the rabble in the pit".
Charlie Hales (image courtesy Willamette Week)
Let's ask the trio of Hales, Smith and Brady what they'd do if the Marquam Bridge carrying Interstate 5 travelers were the only bridge over the Willamette River. Would they tear down the Marquam and build a replacement Marquam, or would they build a local bridge like the Hawthorne or the Morrison? On this question, it's probable that these candidates as well as other Columbia Crossing supporters would argue that it's all about federal funding, which would be possible for the CC but not for a local bridge. But in this time of Great Recession, the federal funds are far from guaranteed. Hales' promise to build in Year One of his administration, for example, is a somewhat empty one: in this political climate, and in this budget-cutting economy, a major federal commitment of funds is unlikely, especially if Das Republicans take the White House and/or Congress in 2012.
One can see Brady following the wishes of construction and trade unionists who see the Columbia Crossing as a way to go from unemployment to a job. But Hales' enthusiastic commitment to the bridge is particularly disappointing. While a member of Portland's City Council in the 1990s and early 2000s, Hales spearheaded construction of the streetcar system. After leaving office, he helped several other cities build streetcars as well. He has an established record as a leader when it comes to transportation. But if Hales is an unequivocal supporter of a woefully designed, oversized, automobile-oriented bridge that doesn't even solve the problem it heavy-handedly is being built for, it casts his past record in a different light. Supporting the streetcar seemed to indicate that Hales was a proponent of progressive, smart mass-transit-oriented development. But when you take away all but the transit part, and Hales is still cheerleading, it makes one wonder if he's quite as discriminating about what transit projects to support as it seemed when he was in City Council.
This is not necessarily an endorsement for Jefferson Smith as mayor. Over the course of the campaign in the next five and a half months, he and the other two major candidates will articulate their visions on a number of policy fronts. If Brady and Hales have disappointed and induced cringes in their embrace of the Columbia Crossing like football players running towards the wrong end zone, it's still possible they will be out in front on other issues facing the city.
In the years ahead, leadership will be needed to jump-start the building industry, to maintain Portland's role as a sustainability capitol, to bring jobs, and to prudently oversee crises like Occupy Portland or weather emergencies. And any of the candidates may be qualified in that regard. Although Smith is the Harvard graduate, Brady (a grad of Evergreen State, a top regional school) has an impressive record building New Seasons and a family history of public service (her mother was a city councilor in Illinois) and Hales (University of Virginia, also tops academically) has an impressive record as a neighborhood leader even before he became a Portland city councilor.
Still, the Columbia Crossing is not only a huge issue concerning the Portland metro area, but also a kind of litmus test. There's no question that action needs to be taken to address the bottleneck plaguing I-5 day after day from the Rose Quarter to the Columbia. It's just that taking the right action matters here - not just any action.