With only two more agencies set to approve the controversial Columbia River Crossing Project, time is running out for the public to give input on the $4.2 billion project.
The projected increase in traffic along the I-5 corridor will have a much greater impact on Portland's North and Northeast neighborhoods – neighborhoods with a greater percentage of minorities and people of low-income. This is exactly the reason people like Jeri Williams say it's essential for residents near the highway to get involved.
"We got involved in the first place because we have a high asthma rate," says Williams, the former executive director of the Environmental Justice Action Group, who has been involved with I-5 freeway expansion projects for nearly a decade.
Along with more cars comes more pollution, and a recently unveiled letter from the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as feedback from the Multnomah County Health Department, spell out the reasons residents should be aware that more vehicle trips on the highway will affect their future health.
Proponents of the expanded bridge say cleaner burning vehicles in the future will cause a decrease in air pollution. Not so, says Multnomah County.
"A recent report by the Health Effects Institute cautions that the alternative fuels and emissions control technology being adopted may themselves contribute to increases in other mobile source air toxics and particulate matter," says a letter from the county health department.
According to studies completed by the now-defunct EJAG, areas in North/Northeast Portland near the freeway have two times the number of asthma cases as the general population has.
"No one wants to compare their bad health with sucking diesel and noxious fumes," says former EJAG member Sylvia Evans. "My kids have asthma … and I see my (African immigrant) neighbors struggle to communicate about what's wrong with their child. It's the freeway."
A letter from the EPA that was leaked to the public nearly a week ago criticized the Columbia River Crossing's Draft Environmental Impact Statement, saying among other things that projecting future emissions was difficult, environmental justice measures were not properly being taken and public involvement efforts were questionable.
"We believe that that the potential mitigation concepts presented in the Draft EIS may not go far enough to address the magnitude and scope of potential impacts to these disadvantaged neighborhoods," wrote Christine Reichgott, EPA manager, in the agency's response to the document. "The direct and indirect environmental, human health, social, and economic project impacts would likely affect the low income, minority, elderly, and disabled populations disproportionately as compared to populations that reside outside the project area and throughout the region."
But Evans says Clark County residents should also be concerned for their health.
"Not only are they polluting themselves being stuck on the freeway," She said. "What's going to happen to the Boise and Piedmont neighborhoods?"
Another issue is the fact that the Draft EIS indicates travel time across a new bridge wouldn't increase all that much compared to the old. The increase in vehicle traffic reaching the Rose Quarter bottleneck would also likely affect traffic traveling southbound from the larger bridge.
The EPA also criticizes the Draft EIS for not indicating how children in schools and child care centers would be affected by the increase in air and noise pollution, along with the increase in traffic.
While a 12-lane bridge would undoubtedly increase car pollution, the option of a toll bridge could help increase public transportation use. If the new bridge is approved, it is almost assured that the light rail option would be a mandate – as indicated by several key votes by the Portland City Council and TriMet.
According to the EPA "it is not yet clear whether affected individuals were adequately informed or involved. The fundamental question is whether or not the community members are satisfied with the level of participation, quality of information and the responsiveness of the CRC project proponents to their input. We would also like to know more about how the Community and Environmental Justice group evaluates the quality and effectiveness of its interactions and outreach efforts."
Williams, a member of the Crosssing Task Force, isn't pleased. She says the way public involvement was handled by Columbia River Crossing was anything but open. And the June 24th Task Force vote on a bridge recommendation was taken before the public comment period ended, effectively invalidating about 15,000 comments.
"Those 15,000 public comments need to be heard," she said.
Have Your Say
The final two agencies to vote for conditional approval of the project – and their upcoming public meetings — include:
• Metro, which meets July 17 at 2 p.m. at the Metro Regional Center, Council Chamber, 600 NE Grand Ave. in Portland.
• The Southwest Regional Transportation Council, which meets on July 22 at 4 p.m. at the Clark County Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St. in Vancouver.