Should Oregon’s anti-sprawl group have fought a huge highway project harder? Their answer

1000 Friends executive director Jason MinerIf Oregon’s top anti-sprawl organization isn’t pulling out all the stops to block Oregon’s most sprawl-inducing public works project in years, why does the organization exist at all?

That was the deliberately dramatic question I asked 1000 Friends of Oregon two weeks ago. On Friday, the group’s director replied: thoughtfully, frankly, confidently, at length and in terms I’m sure some of his usual allies would dispute.

It’s an interesting read about the history of the Columbia River Crossing highway-rail expansion project, so I’m posting it in full.

"I still wonder why we have a strategy of lobbing our economist at their economist, our facts at their ‘facts,’" Executive Director Jason Miner writes. "Facts rarely win an argument like this – values, story, human angles, it seems to me that can win the day."

Miner’s full response is below. Miner came to Portland in 2010 to lead the organization, which was founded in 1975 to fulfill the anti-sprawl vision of outgoing Governor Tom McCall, a liberal Republican who has since become the patron saint of Oregon land use policy. It’s important to note that 1000 Friends was only one of several local environmental groups that chose not to prioritize this issue – a subject explored expertly last month by BikePortland.org.

In his email, Miner explains the deep dilemma 1000 Friends and its allies confronted in opposing the CRC, which Oregon now officially supports despite the largely tacit opposition of 1000 Friends and other green-minded groups. Boldface and linked passages represent my own emphases.

First, here’s part of my emailed question to Miner and to 1000 Friends’ communications coordinator, Craig Beebe:

I asked Craig if he could offer a tally of Friends’ contributions to the anti-CRC effort in hours, dollars, etc. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll specify with some things it seems like he could turn up easily:

  • Number of times Friends has mentioned the CRC in communications with members in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
  • Number of dollars or hours contributed to CLF/NECN legal effort. (Rough estimate is fine.)
  • Anything else that might capture Friends’ behind-the-scenes work.

Craig also mentioned that Friends made a conscious decision at some point that the anti-CRC case would be more effective if NECN (rather than Friends, etc.) was its public face. I know strategic decisions often coalesce gradually, but more or less when was this one made?

Michael

Miner’s reply:

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the email.  Sorry for the delay in responding. I wish I could answer your questions about dollars or hours, but I can’t. We don’t track our policy staff’s time in a way that I can tell you the precise number of hours or dollars spent in the last three years on the CRC.  That work would fall in two other categories: Cool Communities (urban work related to climate change, health, transportation, and housing) and Lobbying, both of which contain many other projects.  But I can give you a list of things that we’ve have done while I’ve been at 1KF and give you a sense of why we’ve made the organizational decisions we have:

  • I met with the Mayor and President Bragdon a number of times in 2010 to engender support for our alternative: a surface bridge to Hayden Island and retrofitting.  We were unsuccessful in persuading them to work to change the CRC proposal for this alternative. They declared a measure of victory when it went from 12 lanes everywhere to 10 lanes. The meeting which was the fulcrum of those conversations was July 26, 2010.
  • I initially met with Ted Wheeler’s office (Tom Rinehart) February 8, 2011 in collaboration with Mara Gross and Mel Rader from Upstream Public Health, to question the financing.  We had subsequent communication with the Treasurer’s office but it doesn’t appear in my calendar.  I’m glad, and not surprised, that Treasurer Wheeler’s office is now where some of the most serious challenges to the CRC are coming from.
  • Early in my tenure, as the current grassroots efforts was taking shape, I advocated for it to include land use issues, like Oregon exporting its sprawl to Washington.  But the effort instead focused on the cost of the bridge and there was a concerted effort to have people stay on message. It was about that time, 2011, that I began to feel the grassroots strategy was not going to be effective.
  • When Metro issued its land use final order on the project, I felt it was strategic to elevate the health and neighborhood aspects of the project because the land use, transportation, and money aspects weren’t getting us anywhere.  We worked through our Cooperating Attorneys Program to provide the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhood Associations and CLF an attorney. We assisted with initial court filings and provided legal advice.  I still think this was the right strategy.  It was July/August 2011.
  • Mary Kyle McCurdy sits on the CLF board and we are a founder of CLF, which brought the federal lawsuit against the project and works on the CRC on multiple fronts. We believed CLF was the right organization to lead this effort, and still do.
  • Mary Kyle has been part of the ad hoc advisory team these past three months that has been working on opposing HB 2800. She is ensuring that the issues we work on are part of that conversation and strategy.  It may be wrapping up this month.
  • We have offered a rational, affordable alternative to the bridge for many years (retrofitting, phase in tolling first, a surface access bridge, etc.), all three I have been here, opposed the project as designed, and opposed HB 2800.
  • I spoke with Senators who we heard were on the fence about the CRC, before HB 2800 reached the Senate floor. But they were not productive conversations.  The heart of opposition came from Republicans – not those typically persuaded by us.

I appreciate the idea that is circulating that 1000 Friends and other "large" groups have been threatened and that there is a conspiracy of silence. It is an easy explanation, but in terms of 1000 Friends it is wrong. Our legislative agenda has not been threatened, and we have not been threatened, overtly or covertly. I can’t speak for the others, but 1000 Friends has been working on the CRC in the ways I believed would be the most effective. I did not think a grassroots strategy was going to work, nor did I think challenging the bridge on the basis of economics was going to work.

The pro-CRC campaign had more money and was well organized; they would always answer with more phone calls and more studies. Raising questions in the right places, highlighting the human impacts, those were my choices.  I still wonder why we have a strategy of lobbing our economist at their economist, our facts at their "facts." Facts rarely win an argument like this – values, story, human angles, it seems to me that can win the day. Every D legislator I talked to in 2013 was going to vote for the CRC, and most had been supplied with facts.

In addition, as you know, my staff and I have a lot of issues to cover – including many that no one else works on, at least not at so comprehensive a level. We are smaller than many people realize in terms of our staff, and we still believe that several other issues that we have been extremely active on – such as reserves, the Metro Climate Smart Communities program, efforts in the legislature to protect farmland and the public’s right to land use appeals, and Salem’s own troubled big bridge across the Willamette, to name a few – share an important role in the state’s future with the CRC. In particular, the challenge to Metro’s urban rural reserves program has happened at exactly the same time as CRC advocacy. If that challenge didn’t take courage, appealing to the Court of Appeals a flawed agreement touted by all the governments in the region and that took several years of their and our work, I don’t know what does. And if we did not work hard on these issues, there would be no one else to do so.

In retrospect, I could have done more. But if that "more" had been spending the last month or so asking our members – who live all over the state – and the public to ask their legislator to vote against HB2800, I would have been wasting money and time. So while we did mention the CRC on social media from time to time from 2011 to 2012, we did not make it a priority for our website, blog, or newsletter, and it was mentioned hardly at all on any of these platforms. I still think this was a better use of my staff’s time, of the organization’s resources, and of our supporters’ contributions and energy.

Thank you again for your interest in our work.

Debate over the Columbia River Crossing has now moved to the Washington state legislature.

(Miner photo by Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian.)

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