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Journalist Ryan Packer and the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project
Episode 3118th October 2021 • BikePortland Podcast • Pedaltown Media Inc
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In this episode I spoke to Ryan Packer, a journalist based in Seattle who covers transportation issues for The Urbanist. Their name might sound familiar, because Ryan is also BikePortland's special correspondent on the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project, or what we often refer to around here as Columbia River Crossing 2.0.

Ryan recently visited Portland, so I thought it'd be fun to sit down, talk a little shop about what it's like to be an advocacy journalist in the transportation space, hear his latest thoughts about where the project is headed, ask him why — despite all signs showing that we should do otherwise — transportation departments continue to arrive at a "solution" that involves widening freeways, and much more.

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The BikePortland Podcast is a production of Pedaltown Media Inc. and is made possible by listeners just like you. If you're not a subscriber yet, please become one today at BikePortland.org/support. You can listen to more episodes and find out how to subscribe to our podcast at BikePortland.org/podcast. Our theme music is by Kevin Hartnell.

Transcripts

Jonathan Maus: 1:20

So.... What do you call yourself, Ryan?

Ryan Packer 1:25

I call myself an advocacy journalist. I put that front and center. There's a lot of people who would probably distinguish what I do from straight transportation reporting that you might see in the Seattle Times or The Oregonian, but honestly, I don't really see us as doing very different things. Okay, so

Jonathan Maus 1:43

how did you even get into this wonky little niche that we all know and love?

Ryan Packer 1:47

I think the thing that basically got me into writing about transportation was just trying to get around Seattle, I walked to work on one of the most unpleasant streets in town. And every day, I couldn't depend on the bus because I got stuck in traffic. And so I would just walk and lament how the priorities were all out of whack on that street. And it was just unpleasant for everyone. And that sort of was my animating principle in terms of looking behind the curtain and saying, why is this like this, and then now I'm 50 layers deep, basically, and trying to figure out how all these parts work together, I think that sort of become clear to me all the aspects of our transportation system, and how they, how they work together, or rather, do not work together all the different levels of government and advocacy and bureaucracy and all those layers.

Jonathan Maus 2:47

And you're in deep because like, you're going to meetings you're covering, like the deepest stuff, and specifically this huge project that that we've that you've been covering for us on by Portland, which is this. Let's see interstate bridge replacement program. Does it annoy you that they call it program, but

Ryan Packer 3:05

I think what annoys me more than that is referring to the IVR solution. That's the overall package of what will be proposed is ultimately the IVR solution.

Jonathan Maus 3:18

Is it reasonable for me to be just completely skeptical of these word usages?

Ryan Packer 3:23

Absolutely.

Jonathan Maus 3:24

This just seems like such propaganda from these agencies. But talking about a solution and IVR program, it's like, Why don't they call it a project? strangely, I

Ryan Packer 3:34

put a lot of thought into it, which makes sense, they have a lot of people working on this. They do

Jonathan Maus 3:40

umbia River crossing fail, so:

Ryan Packer 5:07

I mean, obviously there is the great coinage of that is the auxilary lanes. And so the program administrator Greg Johnson is is constantly saying that, you know, I five will have three lanes on one end and three lanes on the other end and, and all of the the extra lanes will be auxilary. So those aren't real lanes, those are just sort of there for safety. I know when we I talked to him. Earlier this year, he said that if they could do a two lane bridge that they would do that if it was if it was safe.

Jonathan Maus 5:40

Did he actually say if it was safe, like that was his thing? Okay, so let's back up. Let's kind of like unpack this. This project. Well, you asked

Ryan Packer 5:47

me how I started digging into it. So in Washington State, basically, all of our, our highway department, the Washington State Department of Transportation, which used to be called the Department of Highways, which basically still is, they they say that they don't make policy that the state legislature makes policy. And so that even even our great Secretary of Transportation who used to be the head of an urbanist organization, smart growth America, he says he doesn't make policies, it's all up in the legislature. And so okay, who makes the policy then, and you go to the legislature, and obviously, we have two houses. And in the Senate, we have our one of the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus represents a area up in Puget Sound called Lake Stevens. And he voted against the clean fuel standard last year. But he is in charge of assembling a transportation package, which we've now gone through three sessions without passing, you know, it's a huge bucket of highway expansion projects,

Jonathan Maus 6:56

just sounds so similar to the Oregon experience that we've had, they're very similar organs. And I'm sure they, they learn from each other, I'm sure they have drinks together on occasion, and trade notes on how to get this stuff through over an increasingly, you know, increasingly strong opposition. I think as we as we as we go, you know, down the line of like, you know, people getting more worried about climate change, and all these other issues, like this whole thing of when they say, it's up to the legislature that is constantly being said, by, you know, ODOT and the Oregon Transportation Commission, which is another layer, which is supposed to be this like independent oversight. Does Washington have that to

Ryan Packer 7:35

our our Transportation Commission is apparently less involved than yours. They set toll rates and vary rates, but they don't seem to have to actually vote on projects like yours does, which is interesting to me. So it's actually a little bit less transparent. Up in Washington, they just sort of voice support or not.

Jonathan Maus 7:55

Yeah, and so the idea that somehow the D o t, people are not influencing what these senators and other people in the legislature think and do just seems so far fetched To me, it's so bewildering for like advocates to try to weave through, like, Where is the right place to put pressure, and, like, evenly I like how you can even influence what projects come out at the end of that, like pipe. You know, like, I always think of like Dr. Seuss illustrations or it's like, something goes in to the box of like, you know, maybe there's like values and things we actually need, and then it goes to this black box, and it comes out the other end is like, wider freeway,

Ryan Packer 8:33

and then once they get their funding, the D o t, turns around and you know, produces an environmental impact statement that says, This project is gonna save how many tons of greenhouse gas because we're going to be moving more efficiently, even though increasing science is showing that that that's just false.

Jonathan Maus 8:52

Right, and it's only one of the impacts of having to move like large steel vehicles, you know, that, that move one person, like through space, right? Yeah, the similarities are really, really frustrating. And then it all comes together in like the, at the interstate bridge project, you know, because you have both of these agencies, then you have another layer of like, bunch of consultants and stuff that are like, kind of managing things. So it's, I'm glad you're sitting in on those meetings and like trying to figure out what's going on. So for people that are like, you know, worried maybe they're hearing that the serious CRC is coming back, where where do things stand right now?

Ryan Packer 9:27

want to start construction in:

Jonathan Maus:

I mean, so to go back to Lynn Peterson, I just feel like she's an interesting figure, because she is she sort of appeals to like this progressive base in some ways. I mean, being the president of Metro, you would just assume and it's it's true. I mean, she she there's a lot of progressive people that I think ostensibly are like in support of Mr. Peterson. I mean, sorry, Counselor, Peterson, but like you said, so from your view, she is certainly not doing anything to prevent CRC 2.0. At this point, it seems like she's asking some hard questions, maybe

Ryan Packer:

she is walking a very fine line. And I definitely think she is asking the right questions at times. But sometimes you have to do more than ask questions. And so there are certain aspects where we're just in wait and see mode. And that seems like a recipe for disaster. Because her current talking point to the rest of the metro Council, which is fairly, you know, has some skeptical voices. And maybe soon we'll have even more, what she's saying right now is that the environmental documentation from the CRC that they're attempting to recycle basically sets the maximum size for the project, but that they can make it smaller. I'm not confident of anyone's ability to actually navigate that and ensure that it's actually right sized, in terms of a with the budgets are being thrown in this before we even have a design and be just the political dynamics involved.

Jonathan Maus:

So that's been her attacked to try to throw some cold water on it is to try to stand up and talk about right sizing.

Ryan Packer:

That's what she said to the metro Council and their last work session on this to the actual internal group that she's a part of at the executive steering group. It's, it's really more about talking about reducing greenhouse gases, talking about integrating the regional condition pricing,

Jonathan Maus:

it seems to me one of the big, one of the big fears of these projects, so is just inertia and times, like the longer they can bake, and just sit there and move forward. And another meeting and another meeting, it seems like it, it helps. Well, in some ways it helps the project, because it's still alive. But then I guess in some other respects that, you know, delays can end up killing these things as well. And so I guess for someone like, you know, Councillor Peterson, she could she could be aware of that maybe I'm being too, being too optimistic about the way she's going about it. And maybe there should be a little bit more, you know, stronger words in terms of like, okay, Counselor Peterson, it's time to like, step up, and really, you know, either fish or cut bait with this thing. You know, what I'm saying? Do you think she's being savvy and trying to, like, delay it by asking questions? Or do you think she's just trying to appeal to like a progressive base, but not doing enough and ultimately, just gonna get rolled over with this project?

Ryan Packer:

I think she is going to get to the end of this and say we did the best we could. And at this point that looks like it's going to be a lot like the CRC with a few, a few tweaks. But it's going to be you know, it's going to be framed as as a compromise between between Portland metro and, and Clark County, Washington.

Jonathan Maus:

Yeah, I remember there being like a strong vein of that last time. There was some really, like, you know, progressive voices here. I remember Rex burkholder being one of them, who was trying to convince you know, his base, so to speak, or the people that supported him, I mean, this is a person who, you know, started the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, right? But he supported the CRC and he just thought that people that were against it weren't seeing the forest you know, through the trees and that it was our only chance to get light rail and I guess he just thought that that was you know, such a big victory that you know, it was worth supporting now, I think things have changed since then I think like those kind of like compromised views are not no longer as palatable to the base as they used to be like, you know, the, the external ills of widening a freeway even with a light rail line is Probably even not palatable to a lot of people that oppose this project. So yeah remains to be seen what what do you think about? Like the opposition? Do you think that's getting through to the executive steering group? or any of the any of the project leaders? Are this just just like some thing they're just like shooting away like a little like a little fly?

Ryan Packer:

I think that it's very Yeah, it's not we're not getting through. I think as the as the public slowly wakes up to the reality of, of all the highway spending, basically, keeping us at the same spot we are, it's just a fool's errand to to continue to spend all these money, this this, these insane amounts of money on new road infrastructure. I think the public is slowly waking you up to that more and more. But I think this is still being framed as a special project and a, a unique one, you'll have even the most sort of, you know, safest safe seat Democrats, in districts that are nowhere near the project, talking about how important is to replace the ifI bridge. And I think that is a product of the political era we're in right now where it's like, we have to be able to do this basic thing. We're Washington, we're not Washington DC, we're, you know, we're Cascadia. We're not the dysfunction of the nation. And so we can come together and, and do this important project and get this bridge fixed. While not really paying too many attention, much attention to the details. And if they're saying Oh, it has to have seven interchanges, and it has to have 10 lanes, and it has to have all these bells and whistles. It's like oh, it's just part of the package. We got to do it, like it's just a drink, drink or medicine and get it over with and then and then move on. Without looking at the entire picture we have of the rose quarter. And then on the other side of the border, basically a continued plan to to wide I might 95 between Canada and Oregon, you have you have that happening on your Tacoma, you have another project on the horizon near Olympia in the squale Delta those, there's some bridges there that are on there saying need to be replaced, and they're gonna add lanes. Yeah,

Jonathan Maus:

I'm curious what you think about like what's going on with the five rose quarter in terms of not just like the governance of the project, but like the opposition. I mean, there's obviously way more organized opposition in that project is a little more further along, but like, how does that rose quarter piece of it figure into like your view of what's happening on the Columbia,

Ryan Packer:

I think the rose quarter is a very special project, very different projects, there you have, you know, a very urban area, and you have a lot of dynamics that are really echoes of the highway planning of 60 years ago, whereas a lot of the expansion projects now, I think do to recognize that if they're going to do a project like that, they have to come with a lot more mitigation and, and, you know, community benefit you have washed out in Seattle, expanding their 520 Bridge through the middle of Seattle and and that's coming with 10s of millions of dollars in in highway lead funding, which is it's basically you know, you're putting up with this wealthy neighborhood you will be getting this in return but I feel like the roads quarter is the sort of project that we don't really do a whole lot anymore.

Jonathan Maus:

Yeah, so you're saying that like, like what's happening with the interstate bridge project? Because it's not like in a central dense city. It's over a river. It's just like it's like apples and oranges. It's like just a different animal. And a lot of ways then what's happening like the roads quarter How should How should just like regular Joe, whatever, advocate person, link these two projects, should they do you think the the deities are linking them? Do you think I mean, I think that's part of the oppositional like conspiracy theory is that they've got to get one because they want the other you heard you probably like heard that right? Or, like heard people thinking that there's this nefarious plot, you know, they have to get both, so they'll do whatever it takes. Do you think do you link them in your mind as well?

Ryan Packer:

Or? Um, I don't I definitely link them but I don't really i don't think i think it's a pretty obvious you know, I think it's a fairly it's a fairly transparent just process that when they have one bottleneck they need done doing the next one. We see this all over. And so I just feel like that, you know, Highway Department winds, highways, that's what it does. They need to find the next one. And you can continue to frame I five and oh, this is the second worst bottleneck in the country. Oh, it's the eighth worst bottleneck in the country like there's obviously a whole industrial complex Round quantifying that and saying, Here's we have to do. But what's not being said is what do you get? If you don't do that? What can we do with the money that could go to that and it's, you know, we have all this language around, oh, we have gas tax money, and it has to be spent on quote unquote, highway purposes. But first of all, you can take a very broad approach to what that means because frankly, building light rail is a highway purpose in my mind, because you're giving people an option to the highway, but that's obviously not with the D o. t departments one here, so

Jonathan Maus:

yeah, yeah. I mean, you describe yourself as like an as an advocacy journalist. So how does that like manifest in how you approach your work in covering this stuff?

Ryan Packer:

Um, I think, as an advocacy journalist, I think I just, I give myself license to just say what I see in front of me, and not have to couch it in the language of reporting on what's happening, or just what people are saying, and not the actual subtext, or context or any of those missing aspects that I feel like just kind of are left unsaid in a lot of mainstream journalism. If I'm looking at a presentation at the Transportation Commission, that's been given by washed out on a brand new freeway that they're building in the middle of Spokane, and trying to frame it as as placemaking. We're gonna call that out as absurd. And I'm not I'm not ashamed to say that I'm, I'm letting my my, my feelings show.

Jonathan Maus:

Yeah. Have you ever? Have you experienced like sources and people that do tease like, treat you differently? Because of that? Because, you know, you're not like the newspaper of record, or just some more sort of mainstream channel?

Ryan Packer:

Yes. Yes, I have. I have encountered that.

Jonathan Maus:

Do they? Is it like, and I'm asking this, because I just, you know, I've had similar experiences. But like, I just curious if, if that's something that you feel to where it's sometimes can be harder to get comments, and then just kind of like, it's easier for them to ignore you, or what has been anything off the top of your head, like in terms of how that's happened, or what they've done that's that you think is like really different because they know, or they assume that you're out to get them or something like that, that dynamic.

Ryan Packer:

I have definitely encountered the representatives of certain transportation agencies, being very paternalistic about our approach, and verging into lecturing us about how to do our jobs. That has happened, there was an instance where we decided not to seek official comment, we had the whole story we got we got a comment from one level of government that was involved in the story that we're working on, we decided not to get comment from another level. And when the story came out, we got an email number one asking for us to take the story down. And number two, lecturing us on how to be journalists. But ultimately, there was no correction that could be offered or more meaningful counterpoint that could be provided by that representative in terms of what the story was. And the story did not change.

Jonathan Maus:

So yeah, that's always I think that that's a response I always hope I can use and can use and like, try to use as much as possible. It's like, I'll stop someone if it's like one of those angry phone calls or emails, and I'll be like, his story wrong. Is anything inaccurate? Is there a mistake in the story about, you know, a fact? Oh, there's not. Okay. Thanks for I understand, you're upset. But right. It's like, if it's not inaccurate, they really don't have much of a beef in my mind, a lot of times, they just don't like how it sounds

Ryan Packer:

correct. And half the time their complaint is usually with the headline? Well, I think

Jonathan Maus:

as I think as reporters and like, I would put myself in a similar boat of, I wouldn't, I don't like call myself an advocacy journalist anymore, just because I don't want the heat I don't, it's just too complicated. So I just say journalists and let people say whatever they want, but people like you and I in our shoes, the stuff we see in terms of like being in meetings, dealing with these government, people and policy people. And also, you know, interfacing a lot with advocates, you know, the more sort of like, you know, traditional advocacy groups, the nonprofit's. I mean, is there something that comes to mind for you in terms of like, How the heck can we change this big machine that keeps coming out with these outcomes that we know are not the right ones? we obviously don't like these outcomes in terms of like bigger always, always freeway expansions, like, what do you think is the answer to shifting this dynamic? Is it throwing the bums out in the legislature and like getting involved in the political process? I mean, that could be more than one answer.

Ryan Packer:

Ultimately, what I think is, even though we might be losing the battles, we are winning the war And that things are moving in the direction that we want them to. And, and that's actually why we have such a rush for these projects to look like they do is because they are the people who are moving these forward understand that the window is closing for a $5 billion highway project and that there's not going to be a political appetite for that anymore. And ironically, it's the projects that we should be spending money on instead that we need so urgently that our, our what we would I would actually benefit us the most. Right now in terms of seeding to that new reality of a changing climate and a totally different different world. Basically,

Jonathan Maus:

they're kind of in the last gasp of this, like highly industrial complex, old way of doing things. It's kind of how you see it in a more broad, like a higher level.

Ryan Packer:

I do. Um,

Jonathan Maus:

I think like the clock is ticking on this whole cash cow just like massive, as big as you can get freeway stuff.

Ryan Packer:

everyday people are starting to understand that spending money to expand a highway means you just get traffic.

Jonathan Maus:

And I'm really curious to see on this interstate bridge project, if any elected person emerges to help like hasten shift, right? Because it's gonna take so much longer for for us to get over this era of freeway building. If it's like just people yelling and just advocates pushing. It could be so huge to have a leader stand up and go Hey, folks, jig is up. And so

Ryan Packer:

I think we have some gold stars to hand out already on that, but we'll see if we can actually see how those people see this through. But I need you to remind me, Gonzales is on the council.

Jonathan Maus:

Yeah, he was who I was thinking of more on the roads quarter thing, he's actually given a really specific way to make the change, which is like, let's neglect freeways and overspend on urban arterials basically, like, that would be a nice way to I think frame it. Like let the freeways rot to some degree. You don't want people falling in rivers I guess. But maybe you do. You know. But then yeah, let's let's get to where we're overspending on these orphan highways and making those super nice and adding like superfluids like speed reader boards, which is what the D o t 's are doing on freeways. Like drives me crazy, like we, we don't have streetlights in some neighborhoods. You can't get across the street to your school, yet, they have so much extra money throw around that they do these stupid little messages that say traffic ahead and 10 miles or 20 minutes to the next interstate. Those things are so that to me is such a symbol of waste and just like how over built these freeways

Ryan Packer:

you're getting at something which is becoming so pervasive, which is every single project that God does is has a safety benefit. And oh it reduces crashes. So it's a safety benefit. Okay, what are those crashes? Are they fender benders? How many serious injuries? When do they happen they happen during congestion and that just as it's a side issue, it's not really addressed and whereas we have these urban urban highways in Portland in Seattle and every city in between that our state responsibility and it's just it's literally you can set your watch to someone being killed. You can just set your watch to it it happens every like arterials Yeah, every so every so many weeks. But we're over here saying that this is the safety benefit and it's infuriating because it just feels like gaslighting

Jonathan Maus:

you know what really what really chafes me about that is how these the D o t leadership and the legislature people to some degree, they're just like chameleons with their arguments for like why this stuff should be bill depending on what the audience is they'll totally just change and they have all these different priorities they can just make the number one priority like early on especially like the rose quarter thing when that was first you know, like being shopped around it was all about freight bottlenecks getting those wheat farmers through freight freight congestion because you know that was like the most salient obvious thing for like a legislature person who is you know a part time right they're not super steeped in this stuff. That's an easy sell everybody's like yeah, I can have a bottleneck on the interstate but but then you know, you talk to in front of advocacy crowd you have to they try to say safety is the number one thing if you like in the Rose quarter they're saying this is an economic development thing we're going to put money back into the black community that we decimated, right? I mean it's so it's just like whatever audience they're talking to, they're going to change their number one reason for being that is so frustrating to me. Okay, so you actually want to walk across it, and that would be would that be your first time walking across I five bridge

Ryan Packer:

is going to be my first time walking across the bridge. Yeah. I Never had a reason to.

Jonathan Maus:

Yeah. Oh, cool. It's probably too early, but I'll still be really interesting to walk across just to like, get a sense of, you know, what's passable and what's there. Now,

Ryan Packer:

obviously, the the, you know, best proposal would be a separate pedestrian bridge. And that was discarded before, it's essentially already been discarded now, in my view.

Jonathan Maus:

So where do things stand now,

Ryan Packer:

it's just a, it's a pretty critical time right now the committee that the the two state legislatures have to discuss the project is ramping up into monthly meetings. And so they're going to be meeting every month to talk about different aspects of the design there, they're basically trying to get this signed, sealed and delivered back to them by the end of March, which is going to be a very, very heavy lift, but that's the timeline they're trying to use. It's just wild that we're having a conversation about basically designing the IVR solution, again, whatever that means, in a three month period.

Jonathan Maus:

So what's the thing they're trying to get written off? And they're trying to get sign off? For what exactly like the parameters or like the the purpose in need? Or the scope? Like what is that that thing for March?

Unknown Speaker:

The design?

Jonathan Maus:

Okay, explain what you mean by that.

Ryan Packer:

The actual what the bridge is gonna look like so will, whether it will have light rail, whether it will have 10 lanes

Jonathan Maus:

wide between between now in March, I think people are going to be really surprised at that timeline. I mean, most advocates are just like over, you know, sitting around like thinking these things take so long. I mean, you think people really need to pay attention, then is there is there any levers to to push to kind of like influence that at all?

Ryan Packer:

The biggest lever is your your state legislator, particularly if you're in the Portland metro, or, or suburban Clark County, because those people are on the committee. You know, I'm hearing from, from specific Portland legislators who might be on the on the side of killing the project that they think it's going nowhere. But it's my opinion that this is, this is going to be a fully designed project before we know it. And it's almost going to be too late for us to sit until turn around and say, Wait, what happened?

Jonathan Maus:

I feel like there's like a fundamental error if they, they don't do something distinctly different than something that failed so spectacularly. mean, what am I missing there? If a If it's going to be CRC 2.0? Don't they know that that's not going to pass muster? Or do they think people won't notice or that the machine is so large, no one can turn it off.

Ryan Packer:

I think they are trying to frame it as a foregone conclusion that this is like, this is the thing that solves the problem. And so because we have the same purpose in need, we have the same thing we have from 20 2011, we decided that we were not going to add climate change, we're not going to add equity. And that's been done too. Or we can't do that because it will derail the timeline. And we have to replace this bridge. Because if we if the bridge collapses and an earthquake before we get it replaced, then that's the end of the world and so many carbon emissions would be emitted by that is what Greg Johnson said. So it's basically eliminating all the things that we're not going to do and oh, what do you know, we're left with this 10 Lane bridge that looks exactly like the CRC. And they've been told to reuse all that documentation. Yeah. And so that's where we are.

Jonathan Maus:

Okay. Well, hopefully we're gonna end on a high note, like maybe on the bridge or something. Okay, awesome. I'm glad you're you're looking at it so closely. Ryan, thanks for sharing it with us.

Ryan Packer:

Yeah, thanks for having me.

Jonathan Maus:

After our conversation, Ryan and I went out to the I five bridge and walked across from Portland over the Columbia River to Vancouver, and then back again. And we we returned, I asked him what he thought about the experience.

Ryan Packer:

It's great that it's available as a lifeline for people I guess. But it's not really a choice that a lot of people would make. And like I said, it's it's any improvement will be exponentially better. But I think we have to ask ourselves what the goals for the project need to be around the bike and pedestrian facilities on this project. And you know, what is not good enough. And that sounds like when you're just comparing it to this, a very easy bar to clear in a region where you know, Oregon and Washington to two states that have some of the most robust climate change targets in the entire country, the transition on its primary freeway between the two states, it should be world class, it should be amazing to walk across and the distance between what it should be and what it is right now is. It's hundreds of traffic lines, basically.

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