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Metro Council Candidate Ashton Simpson
Episode 3622nd March 2022 • BikePortland Podcast • Pedaltown Media Inc
00:00:00 01:04:31

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This week you'll get to know a rising star in local political and advocacy circles, Ashton Simpson.

At just 34 years old Simpson is running for  Metro Council, and with no challengers for his east Portland district seat, he's now Metro Councilor-elect Ashton Simpson.

Simpson will be just the 2nd Black man to ever sit on Metro Council, following in the footsteps of Ed Washington in the early 1990s. It will be the start of his career as an elected official and the culmination of a whirlwind life journey that has seen him bounce through many life experiences, both highs and lows, that are on par with someone twice his age. After growing up in tough urban neighborhoods in Houston, texas and dropping out of college his first go-round, Simpson found work as a mall cop. When he declined a promotion in the mall security business, his boss urged him to join the Air Force and he served stints as a civil engineer at bases around the world before moving to Portland in 2015. In the relatively short time he's been here, Simpson has worked as a project manager with a construction firm, earned a community development degree from Portland State University, been a community organizer for a nonprofit in east Portland, and has had his current job as executive director for Oregon Walks for since January 2021.

In addition to all that, in the past two years he's lost several close family members to Covid and other causes, navigated America's racial reckoning as a young black man and has been a doting father to his nine-year-old son, who he lives with in his home in east Portland's Russell neighborhood.

Given his role with Oregon Walks and his volunteer activism on many transportation-related advisory committees around town, I've already interviewed Simpson several times for stories on BikePortland. So going into this one, I wanted to learn more about him and for the first half of the interview or so, you'll learn a lot about how his life has shaped his values and perspectives.  The second half of the interview has more  policy and project talk and we touch on issues like housing, I-5 freeway expansion projects, 82nd Avenue, Portland's tragic record of pedestrian traffic fatalities and more.

But as you'll hear from him, Simpson doesn't see a fine line between projects and people. To him, you can't build up one  without the other.

I really enjoyed this interview and I think you're  going to love getting know Councilor-elect Simpson.

***

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Transcripts

Jonathan Maus (:

Ashton Simpson, thanks for coming down to the BikePortland cave here in the studio.

Ashton Simpson (:

Good to be here.

Jonathan Maus (:

All right. So how would you... think of some memories of being a kid and moving around, getting around your neighborhood, and then even later on up until now, what's your relationship, your memories with transportation all throughout your life?

Ashton Simpson (:

Absolutely. So growing up, I grew up in Houston, Texas. I grew up on the Northeast side of Houston. So homestead area, not a lot of sidewalks, still not a lot of sidewalks. Both my parents were public transit drivers. And so I remember plenty of Saturdays and Sundays or spring breaks actually riding my mom or dad's route all day, just sitting on the bus all day. But when it came to hanging out in the hood and stuff, I always was walking and biking.

Ashton Simpson (:

My grandfather, his name was Freddy Sanders, by the time I was of age, he had retired. He worked in asbestos mines and so he started to get Parkinson's and Alzheimer's mixed. And we went and did a lot of walking. We went to a lot of parks and I remember vividly when I was in elementary school, because it was only like two blocks away, he would drive his truck to pick me up. When I get out of school or got out of school, he would be sitting, talking with the crossing guard, but I'd look in the back of the pickup truck and it was like a 1980s, Ford Ranger, nothing, just what we look at now on the road-

Jonathan Maus (:

Yes.

Ashton Simpson (:

... super huge. And I'd see our bikes on the back and we would go, there was a park, Tidwell Park, not too far away from the school. We would go down to Tidwell Park and he'd park in the parking lot and we'd just ride around, right? And then as I got older, I got a bigger bike, but I would hang out with my friends in their neighborhood. And so I would ride up and down the street of [Allwood 00:05:42] and Burkwood and Flint, all these streets, just connecting with my friends and like you said, go to the park and hoop, right?

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah.

Ashton Simpson (:

That's that was our primary move, it was [inaudible 00:05:52] and bike. And then when I got into high school, still wasn't driving, but I got chaperones. And so my stepdad and my mom would take me everywhere. And then my mom got to the point... I went to Upward Bound at Texas Southern University. And so every Saturday morning that required me to take like two buses to get there, sometimes. Sometimes it took one if I got there on time. And that was my life around transportation because it was heavily influenced by cycling, walking, and riding transit.

Ashton Simpson (:

It helped me give me perspective on a lot of things, but also, it gave me confidence to go out into the world and be able to engage with these different things without fear. I think now my son has also, since we moved here... So we moved here in 2015. Not that long ago. And when we moved here, we moved into [Wallaton 00:06:54] and we were right on Grahams Landing or Grahams Ferry Rd 96. And so line 96, my son knew how to get to PSU, where to get off and how to get back home on that line because he rode with me everywhere. He knew because we would talk about the journey and he was infatuated with buses.

Ashton Simpson (:

And so he's like, "Line 96," and I was like, "Yep." And so we'd get on, right there in front of the house and we get off right at the art museum. And get back on at the art museum and get right back off at home. And it was a straight shot. That really helped shape him even now to this day, at nine years old. He wants a car, but he's just like, "I like having transit available." Yeah.

Jonathan Maus (:

I love learning of that, about your past, because you didn't know back then, obviously, that you would be working as a transportation advocacy professional.

Ashton Simpson (:

No idea.

Jonathan Maus (:

And there you were doing all those things. But it's also interesting because... and I want to get to it later in our interview, but how that experience where you grew up in that Houston neighborhood was similar and different to the place you live now, in the Russell neighborhood of East Portland. So I want to get into that. But real quick, just to help folks with your background, you are a air force veteran.

Ashton Simpson (:

Yes.

Jonathan Maus (:

And you were in the civil engineering side. You said that you walked in, you noticed one of my maps here and you said you did some cartography mapping related stuff. So how did you go from that to... well, you worked at a construction firm, Coals, right?

Ashton Simpson (:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jonathan Maus (:

Then you fell into community planning, you got your degree at Portland State in community development. Tell me a little bit about, how did that transition happen from this air force to the hard hat, to the books, to the nonprofit world.

Ashton Simpson (:

Yeah. Yeah. So it actually went, military, right? And so did a lot of map-making, GIS work, construction management on that side, but also readiness. I think a lot of people don't know that about me, but I'm all about emergency readiness and preparedness. [crosstalk 00:08:58]-

Jonathan Maus (:

And you had a hurricane in Houston while you were there, right?

Ashton Simpson (:

Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

Jonathan Maus (:

And so you've got some real, both professional experience, job experience and lived experience with disasters.

Ashton Simpson (:

We never left during hurricanes and tropical storms. My dad was the type, bolt the windows and we stayed, put. For the life of me, I would see my neighbors' houses around us flooding out. And so I got to see the devastation it had on my neighbors and how that recovery... even now my mom in her current home, she is still recovering from Harvey. But-

Jonathan Maus (:

So yeah, that's really interesting. But I did interrupt you, you were telling me how you ended up in the nonprofit world with Oregon Walks.

Ashton Simpson (:

It's a roundabout funny way, but I think it's perfect for this. So after I retired out of the air force, back in 2015, I wanted to bridge my skills from being a civil engineering technician of infrastructure, but also building up communities and people. And so I had traveled around the region, and went to Seattle. I was like "... Seattle." And then I came to Portland and I was like, "This place is beautiful. I like it." There was something appealing about it to me.

Ashton Simpson (:

And so I do dug a little deeper and I was like, "Oh, Portland State University, what it this? Never heard of it." And I looked at their community development program and I was like, "That's it. That's how I'm going to bridge my infrastructure knowledge with helping communities." And so I retired... well, I didn't retire officially until like March 30th or something like that, but I had enough vacation time that I left my base up in Spokane Fairchild Air Force Base back in like January 31st, 2015.

Ashton Simpson (:

And I came here, packed up everything, U-Haul truck. I drove one car. At the time, my wife, we're divorced now, she drove the other car and we switched my son back and forth. And we just drove down from there. And I got here, got enrolled, went through all the courses, which by the way, I will gladly say this, we need more community developers in the communities. It should be everybody's job to be a community developer because it really... All it is, is being involved.

Jonathan Maus (:

And when you say community development, you're talking, building up organizational power within a community. You're not developing building. You're talking about developing people, going into a community that needs help maybe getting organized, having a louder voice and then stitching that together, getting people to represent.

Ashton Simpson (:

Social infrastructure.

Jonathan Maus (:

Social infrastructure. Great. Got it. And you did that at Rosewood, right? Rosewood Initiative.

Ashton Simpson (:

So yeah. So then I graduate in 2017, two years after enrolling, couldn't find work in the nonprofit sector. So I'm just out handing resumes to folks, just trying to get a job, trying to get a job, face some discrimination within one company that I applied for, within construction. I was out slinging resumes one day and I happened to pass by a shoe shop and I was like, "Oh yeah, I'm a sneaker head too. I love kicks." So I was like, "Let me stop by and see what's going on."

Ashton Simpson (:

And as I'm looking, I look out the window and I see across the street this Colas construction truck. And I see these two gentlemen, very dapper, nice looking men. And I say, "Well, let me go see what's going on." Turns out it was Hermann Colas, the founder and Andrew Colas the president. And I got a chance to talk with them right there on the spot, and then we got to talking about my background and I pulled out a resume and they said, "Well, hey, why aren't you hired yet?" And I explained to them what happened with other companies. I won't name them.

Ashton Simpson (:

And they said, "Wow," that I'm not surprised. And so two weeks later I had a interview and I was hired and I worked at Colas. I did... so a project at 11th and Lincoln called Abernethy Flats over on the Central Eastside. And I began the process of the bridge housing project on Williams and Tillamook. And that's when I got the call from Rosewood. And that's when the plan came together, infrastructure, working with community, and it was perfect.

Ashton Simpson (:

So they hired me to be the community asset director to help plan the community through the Rosewood Equitable Neighborhood Development Plan, which last year was funded through ARPA dollars, through rep Valderrama's allocation, one and a half million dollars. So I was very proud of that. And what that plan did was, it looked at the half mile radius in and around the Rosewood area to look at the development potential of five sites to anchor and stabilize that community. And you know how nonprofits work. You know how nonprofits work, but then also COVID happened.

Ashton Simpson (:

And when COVID happened, it kind of slowed that project down just a bit, but it also took away a lot of funding from my position because it was a set amount of time that I had to get things done. And so I sat on the board of Oregon Walks at that time as I was transitioning out and I was urged to apply for the executive director position. And I did. And the board was ecstatic. They loved the background.

Ashton Simpson (:

They loved, again, this marriage of social infrastructure with physical infrastructure. And how can we improve that in communities? And that I was already working on it, from various things. I was already sitting on the Fixing Our Streets Oversight Committee, right? I was already involved-

Jonathan Maus (:

And that's the City of Portland Bureau of Transportation committee that is figuring out how to spend the 10c/gallon local gas tax, right?

Ashton Simpson (:

Yep. I was involved with EPAP, right? I was very, very heavily involved in community work. And so that's how I transitioned over. And I'll be honest, it's been one of the greatest years of my life. I've started January 4th last year and the things we were able to do for the community... because that's all I care about.

Ashton Simpson (:

I care about uplifting community and making sure folks have access and are having resources allocated to their improvement of life. Outside of that, man, that's where I'm at. And that's how I got here. It's this roundabout way to say, "Hey, this guy's professional," but I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get there.

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah. It's all a journey that's setting you up for where you're at now. But I want to talk a little bit about your neighborhood, specifically, the Russell neighborhood. For people that don't know, it's about a 20 square block neighborhood bordered by I-84 in the north, Halsey, right? In the south.

Ashton Simpson (:

From the south.

Jonathan Maus (:

And then like 122nd to 142nd?

Ashton Simpson (:

48.

Jonathan Maus (:

148th or so. All right. If you've ever been to gateway green, just go east like 20 blocks or so and you'll be at the western edge of the Russell neighborhood, if you haven't been out there. So I wonder if you could describe your neighborhood though, what it's like to live and be there. How would you describe it to someone who's never walked or biked or been there?

Ashton Simpson (:

It's a very quiet neighborhood. I'll start there. You wouldn't think it's East Portland. It's kind of like one of those pockets that exists of like, "This can't be real," I like to put it. But it's also this place... single family, single story homes, mostly, [inaudible 00:16:32] canopy, I'll say that, great connectivity in terms of sidewalks. There is some gaps that need to be filled. A lot of ADA concerns in terms of intersections, but we are seeing improvements, in terms of ramps and curb ramps and things like that.

Ashton Simpson (:

But it's a community that, I'll be very honest, I think I was the first black person ever to move on my street. I know I was the first black homeowner in the house I'm in. There was the original owner, the people I bought it from and then myself. And that's a huge deal because I know a lot of folks don't get an opportunity to be homeowners. I know my mom, she didn't get a chance to. She just inherited my grandparents' house. And so I always often say, I'm privileged and blessed because I was able to buy my home... How old am I this year? At 34.

Jonathan Maus (:

But that must have been wild because you came from a place in Houston that was... a lot of the places you grew up, that was predominantly black. You were in black spaces, everywhere you looked. And you get to Portland and it's kind of the other end of the spectrum in terms of that?

Ashton Simpson (:

Yeah. But I think, you're right. I went to an all-black school district. I didn't have my first white teacher until I was in the 10th grade. I didn't have another white teacher again until I was in the 11th grade, and those were the only two white teachers I had. All of my teachers were black men and women, primarily women. And I move up here and I'm in this space, I feel like... and a part of me feels bad because my son is missing out on all of this enrichment.

Ashton Simpson (:

I see it as enrichment, not just culture, because it's one thing to learn about these things in a classroom setting, but it's another thing to be immersed in it. The music, the smells, the sights, the sounds, the storytelling, all of these things are now pop culture and things like that, but that was just normal to me. And sometimes I think about my son in this environment, knowing that our community is so broken up and spread out and it's not a big population. And his neighbors to the left and the right and in front of him don't look like him.

Ashton Simpson (:

How is that impacting his development, but also how is that impacting his development so that he can be a leader? Because I often say, I do great things, sure, fine, but it's in pursuit of a better world for him. He's going to be the one, because he's sitting back absorbing all of the things. He's with me. I think this is the first time he has not come with me on something like this because he's normally sitting right next to me absorbing or getting on my nerves saying, "I'm bored. Can I have your phone?" "No, listen."

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah. I hear you. Actually, when I interviewed you once for the website, I think your son was kind of in the background or something like that and you were apologizing for it. I was like, "No, it's okay. It's okay." So on that note, one thing that stood out to me is, I did a little bit of research before talking to you today, was I heard on a podcast recently when you were describing... and tell me if I'm wrong here, but you were describing your experience at Portland State when you were getting your community development degree.

Jonathan Maus (:

And it sounded to me like the things you were learning in those classes about displacement, about how cities are built, how land use patterns happen, sometimes intentionally things like food deserts, segregations, land use, all that stuff. It sounded to me like you were saying that it had kind of this visceral impact on you. It was like this cathartic thing where you started to realize, "Dang, that was my life in Houston." And it dawned on you the impacts. And then there you are learning about it in a classroom. Did I hear that right? Is that kind of how that happened?

Ashton Simpson (:

I mean, you see this bald head, I lost all my hair, just obsessively stressing about it. [crosstalk 00:20:30]-

Jonathan Maus (:

The fact that you learned about these things and how they had an impact on your life, it had that impact on you.

Ashton Simpson (:

Yes.

Jonathan Maus (:

Wow.

Ashton Simpson (:

And it still does. I mean, I don't know how else to say this, but as a black person, once you know, you can't unknow. And once you are tuned in and you know about things, you view the world differently. You see it for what it is. And I'm not shy about calling things out, especially now, because how are we going to get better as a society, as a world, if we don't? Right?

Ashton Simpson (:

My goal is, how do we teach... Well, number one, let's follow Maya Angelou's lead, tell the sheltered babies the truth, all the truth, so that they can work together to find solutions, not only for themselves, but for their children, because you got to remember, that cycle goes on. I think we often get caught in our own web of our mortality and we only think about where we are in the world, not really fully thinking about, we have to pass this stuff on.

Ashton Simpson (:

And what does that look like? If my son is 30 years old, well, 34 years old, and we are still talking about, it's not a theory, critical race, and how it impacts... This is actually fact, because a lot of us have had to live that life and have been on the wrong side of it. If he's 37 and he's still having to teach his son and my grandson or grandchildren that, we've failed miserably. We should be at a better place by then.

Jonathan Maus (:

And if he's still organizing and pushing and yelling and screaming about the conditions in his neighborhood...

Ashton Simpson (:

Right. I mean, what does that say about us and what we have done to prepare them?

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah. Yeah. I hear you. Yeah. That's deep thinking, about that class at PSU, and then now you're up and you're living in the Russell neighborhood, which... I was looking at it on a map, but there's two streets in that whole neighborhood that really go through the whole entire block.

Ashton Simpson (:

San Rafael and Sacramento. That's it.

Jonathan Maus (:

So that's not great from like a... I've heard you talk about how important it is to make it a 15-minute neighborhood and all this kind of stuff. It's going to be hard to do that unless you drive, which [crosstalk 00:22:48]-

Ashton Simpson (:

Well, I mean, e-bikes are the thing now.

Jonathan Maus (:

No, I hear you. Oh no, I definitely [crosstalk 00:22:51].

Ashton Simpson (:

We see a lot of bikes share and scooter share out there.

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah. Is the new expansion Biketown hitting your neighborhood now?

Ashton Simpson (:

I don't think it's hit my neighborhood, but you see some of the bikes as far... Because I know, at least right now, the station I can see is at a 102nd and Halsey, right at Gateway. But you start to see more and more bikes parked and locked further down as you go. I mean, the neighborhood is nice and that's one thing I will say, in stark contrast to my neighborhood. When I was growing up, we had... I mean, we called and crackheads, but that's what we had in our neighborhood.

Ashton Simpson (:

We had pimps, we had hustlers, we had shootings. I mean, you name it, we grew up in it. Sometimes it's hard for me to talk about, but not with my partner because she grew up here. She grew up in Medford. She's a black woman, but it's Medford. Right? And she often tells me, "Man, you grew up in a hostile environment. I can see how that shapes you." And I was just like, "Yeah. It teaches you about people."

Ashton Simpson (:

When you grow up in that kind of situation, not knowing who you can trust and who you can't, that carries. Even to this day I don't keep a lot of people around me. I keep a small, tight knit circle of friends. I try to stay to myself because you never know who's got it out for you. That's...

Jonathan Maus (:

You're going to need that sixth sense if you get elected to Metro Council, maybe, because entering the more political realm, knowing who you can trust will be even more important than before.

Ashton Simpson (:

Absolutely. Absolutely. But I'm thankful because, again, at nine years old, what I knew versus what my son knows, stark contrast. He's getting to grow up in a neighborhood he takes pride in, he loves it. He doesn't want to leave. He's like, "daddy, I'm never leaving. I'm going to stay here forever." And I'm like, "If you so choose to," right?

Jonathan Maus (:

And if you get elected to Metro, it'll maybe be a little bit better as he grows up too. The neighborhood will be even better. The place that he grows up will be even better. So if you do get elected, you'll be the second black man on Metro Council. Do you care about that? Is that a thing for you? Do you think representation matters at that level?

Ashton Simpson (:

Absolutely, it matters. I mean, we got to see more leadership that looks like that. How do you give communities hope? How do you inspire? That's the goal of not only sitting in those positions, but you never know who you're going to touch. And I think as of the deadline, I didn't have an opponent, so I think I'm it.

Jonathan Maus (:

Is that right?

Ashton Simpson (:

No opponent.

Jonathan Maus (:

I should stop saying, if?

Ashton Simpson (:

Yeah. I think that's it.

Jonathan Maus (:

Well, I guess I made a little mistake in my preparation then. I didn't even realize that.

Ashton Simpson (:

Yeah. Nobody hopped in and so-

Jonathan Maus (:

Oh, wow. Okay. Well congratulations Councilor Simpson.

Ashton Simpson (:

Not quite. We'll call it elect, right?

Jonathan Maus (:

Okay. Right.

Ashton Simpson (:

I won't celebrate just yet. We got to wait till May 18th, but you're right. Representation does matter. I know for me, Ed Washington, was it. Right? I had an opportunity to chat with Mr. Washington about... he gave me his blessing. He said, "Go forth and be a great young man." And that's what I intend to do. I know often these positions, again, even in my day job at Oregon Walks and I'm giving input on the [inaudible 00:26:32] even sitting on [inaudible 00:26:34], anything, I'm often the only black person in the room.

Ashton Simpson (:

And that is a problem because then you're expected to answer for, and be the end-all be-all for issues within the black community. And that's just not how shit works. I'm sorry. I live differently than the next household, and the next household lives differently than that household. And you have to open up, that's what inclusivity means, open up these processes, first to those who are underserved and vulnerable because those experiences need to be lifted up first. Because you take care of them, inherently everybody else will benefit.

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah. And in these last few years we have seen from the government agencies in the region a much stronger attempt to reckon with racial justice. I mean, at one point the PBOT, the Portland Transportation Bureau, they said their goal was to be anti-racist. So that was going even a bit further than some of the other agencies. So you served on all these different committees, Metro PBOT.

Jonathan Maus (:

You've done tons of work really closely with these government agencies. I'm just curious from your perspective, what's your assessment of the job they've done in these last two, three years here, that this has been such a really top of mind issue?

Ashton Simpson (:

There's always room for improvement. I will say, it took us decades to get to the point where we needed to recognize there needs to be a better job. And as we employ and do better, like you said, there's been a stronger effort, sustaining that effort and building on those engagement opportunities, building relationship. Metro is the glue that binds our jurisdictions together, right? But they also are the one who have the systems approach in looking at everything.

Ashton Simpson (:

No one project is a project on its own. It's connected. It's linked into an entire system. And I think that, that's where people... we have an opportunity to engage with folks. For me, that's what I want to do because... And I know they can do it, case in point, they get their transportation measure.

Jonathan Maus (:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). You sat on the main committee that helped put that together and unfortunately didn't pass.

Ashton Simpson (:

Pass. Right.

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah.

Ashton Simpson (:

Right. But when I was at Rosewood, right before COVID, we held a open house where there was about eight different languages being translated. Imagine doing that on a quarterly basis, engaging with our non-native English speaking and refugee and immigrant communities about Metro. These are some of... again, you got to remember, our highest users of transit, park space, and green space, things like that. Having them be involved in a way where you're not just asking them for things, but you're educating folks.

Ashton Simpson (:

And I think that that's the gap we need to fill so that future measures like that can pass so they can see like, "Oh, okay. Now I see why I need to support this because the last measure, when it didn't pass, it bumped us back to square zero." And we know that there's a lot of work to be done on those high crash corridors.

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah. Yeah. And when I talked to you about... I talked to you for the site in an interview a bit ago, and this is before the measure didn't get supported, before the measure had failed, and you said, even at that time, "the journey is often more important than the destination." And I think that's what you were talking about, right?

Ashton Simpson (:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jonathan Maus (:

Was the way people came together to craft that measure and the way Metro and everybody else kind of went about it. There were more people of color on those committees, right? Is what I understood from seeing it evolve. So it sounds like... and you kind of answered one of my questions I was going to ask, it was like, lessons learned from that, but it sounds like that ended up being true in your mind, even though it didn't pass. Do you feel like the process that went on, at least lifted things up a bit for the next time?

Ashton Simpson (:

Exactly. Now we know. Again, we reach out to those community-based organizations again. Right? COVID-depending, because we don't know what that thing is going to do. I know masks are off and people are like, "Woo hoo," which I get it. We've been cooped up for over two years. I get it. And we've lost a lot of folks. I know in my case, I've lost my grandmother. I've lost a cousin. I've lost, not-COVID-related, my dad... my stepdad, excuse me.

Ashton Simpson (:

And it's heartbreaking because at least in the case of my cousin and my grandmother, I'll never forget it, it was the week we found out about George Floyd. So we found out about George Floyd that Thursday, my cousin, Kevin, he contracted COVID that Wednesday and he was dead by Friday. And it still hurts. I still grieve over it, I'll be very honest.

Jonathan Maus (:

That's a lot to lose.

Ashton Simpson (:

Yeah.

Jonathan Maus (:

And on your campaign website, you say, if you're elected to Metro Council you'll... Let's see. It says, "As a black man, I will bring my lived experience to ensure that Metro works for everyone." Are there things on Metro that you're looking forward to working on issue-wise?

Ashton Simpson (:

Transportation measure, number one. We have to modernize our system. We have to create alternative modes of transportation. I don't know, again, I think I have the space to talk about this because of my military background, oil dependency is a national security issue. Think about the affordability for folks prior to all of this, those hovering, or are at, or below the poverty line and how they're feeling the pinch now.

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah. And speaking of affordability, one of the big things that Metro has responsibility of is not just... obviously transportation and land use planning is a big one, but another one in there is housing. Affordable housing and just housing in general, they're making a lot of decisions about where housing could go, where it can't go. Obviously they control the urban growth boundary as well. And I'm just curious if you've thought about that issue.

Jonathan Maus (:

I'm sure you know that where housing goes has a direct impact on bikeability and walkability, right? Because as soon as trips get above two and a half, three miles, people don't ride bikes. They are jumping in their cars. But the big question is, as the population grows where... Actually I asked a friend of mine who is a real housing expert, his name's Michael Anderson, just to give me some information about what Metro's working on housing-wise. So he was pointing out that the region needs like 225,000 more homes by 2040.

Jonathan Maus (:

And that's directly related to affordability, of course, because as people come here, if there's not enough places to buy, the bidding wars start. So as you start to think about being on Metro Council and being involved with decisions... actually Metro's right now updating the Regional Transportation Plan [crosstalk 00:33:59]. There's a whole chapter in there about some of these things and they're going to be making some decisions about this, so it's really relevant. I'm just curious from your perspective, where should that housing go?

Ashton Simpson (:

So if we're talking dense housing, for sure, within range of transit. We need folks. And when I say transit, not every 30 minutes. We're talking frequent service, seven to 15 minute headways.

Jonathan Maus (:

So get it as close as possible to existing transit and maybe build more transit if it's not. Yeah.

Ashton Simpson (:

There you go. In terms of the single family housing that we need... Because we need all types of housing models. We need more home ownership opportunities. We need to find available lots within urban growth boundary. I know when I did my study at Rosewood, the actual site they sit on is six and a half acres. And we did some design in there that included not only dense housing model types, but also single family incorporated in there. And I know you said, what was that number, 225,000 by 2040?

Jonathan Maus (:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ashton Simpson (:

In the Portland Metro area? It's doable. It's doable within the urban growth boundary. Well, when I think about the urban growth boundary in region one, I think about how the fires have impacted folks as far as Damascus and Boring, right? If we begin to build and cut down the hinterland, that is the buffer to protect us as a city, and we begin to build on that, we're essentially setting up families to fail by moving them that far out there, number one, but then two, in a situation where they're in a fire zone in harms way and we're having to evacuate or they're losing everything. Right?

Jonathan Maus (:

So I'm hearing you right. You definitely wouldn't want to... You wouldn't be open to supporting an expansion of the urban growth boundary to fit more housing necessarily. It's not that simple to you.

Ashton Simpson (:

Right. Unless it's smart growth. Right? And we're talking about smart in terms of equitable, meaning we're close enough to resources or to transit or to job opportunities, where it makes sense, right? But if we are just talking about building to build, no.

Jonathan Maus (:

Well, I think that's where the debates will happen is, who decides on what the definition is of, makes sense, right?

Ashton Simpson (:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jonathan Maus (:

That could be part of the gray area that you're discussing.

Ashton Simpson (:

Well, I mean, and that's the thing about it. We are council. So I'm anticipating and hoping to work with my council, as well as staff, to look at real solutions. If we need to expand, where does it make sense to do so? What's the environmental impacts it's going to have on the surrounding communities and the ecosystem? If it makes sense, then we go ahead with it. If it doesn't, and one of those measurements fail, then we don't.

Jonathan Maus (:

Speaking of whether or not things make sense, you've been an outspoken critic of ODOT's I-5 Rose Quarter Project. And since you worked in the construction trade, I'm really curious to get your thoughts about this tension. I mean, I know your construction job at Colas was a real fundamental part of your life, right? It helped you buy your first house. It was a real important thing for you.

Jonathan Maus (:

So I'm curious how you sort of weigh or think about the fact that these freeway expansion mega projects, when the DOTs are saying that we really must do them, one of the things they put out to the community is saying, "Look at all the jobs we're going to create."

Ashton Simpson (:

Yeah.

Jonathan Maus (:

Especially these days, I think we've seen even more of this, "Look at all the jobs we're going to have to the black community that's been displaced by these freeways," and stuff like that. How does that weigh in your mind? Obviously these freeway expansion projects, one actually recently was at Metro Council. They voted to support some planning of one of them. How will you weigh both of those needs for jobs and for sensible transportation projects?

Ashton Simpson (:

That's a good question. I wrangle with that daily, honestly. There's days where I'm just like, "We need folks to get to work." I don't know if you've been out to East Portland, seeing the violence that's happening on our streets. We need to give our young folks some opportunities. That's one way of doing it. But then I also think about, well, how do we take a road like, I don't know, say 82nd Avenue. If we invested that level of investment in a arterial, the development potential would last beyond the project of a freeway expansion.

Jonathan Maus (:

So you mean one of the ways around that would be to impress upon the DOTs that freeway expansions aren't the only way to get really good jobs.

Ashton Simpson (:

Exactly. You can talk about the flat work that needs to happen in terms of active transportation, bike lanes, things like that, but then what happens behind that land use development, businesses, housing, things like that. Continued growth. Right? But then also what happens behind that? Maintenance, yes. Maintenance on both ends of the spectrum. But I feel like you can employ more folks on an arterial like that over a longer period of time than on a freeway expansion project, which by the way, already ripped wealth out of black families.

Ashton Simpson (:

Because a lot of the families I'm going to be serving in district one were displaced and moved out East. So now you want to expand on the idea of displacing them after you've ripped away their generational wealth and they have nothing, and then buy them back into the system that, "Oh, you can get your wealth back up with this project." But what's the opportunity? And I'm not opposed to getting people to work. Look, I support union workers because my mom is still a union president down in Houston, local 262 TWU. She will get on my butt if I take jobs out of people... take food off of people's tables. Right?

Ashton Simpson (:

That's my value, but I know that there's other jobs and work to be done in our communities to make them whole, that we are missing the opportunities on. And you build a lane on a freeway, it'll clog, because especially considering we see an increase in population over the 2035 Comprehensive Plan. I'm sure we're going to outpace what they expect folks showing up here, right? So when they show up here, they show up with their cars. What happens then? Oh, we got space. Then the lanes clog up, and then we're back at square one again.

Ashton Simpson (:

That's why I'm in support of not only making sure those... well, those freeways work for what they are now, but building out our transportation system completely to include those alternative modes of transportation. We have to invest heavily in public transit and in active transportation infrastructure.

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah. It's interesting though, because there are... to go back to that Metro Council vote on this planning funding for the Interstate Bridge Replacement project. I like to call it the...

Ashton Simpson (:

Oh yeah.

Jonathan Maus (:

... the Portland of Vancouver I-5 Freeway Expansion Project, but they call it the Interstate Bridge Replacement. Just to go back to that, that was just in January. The vote-

Ashton Simpson (:

You said Rose Quarter. So I have a different take on the I-5.

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:41:58] so I guess I'm switching here. So just specifically on that one, that they voted to basically give the, go ahead, to the DOT, to go ahead and spend $36 million more in planning of this, right? That's just for the consultants and the open house managers and stuff like that. That was a 5-1 vote on Metro. There are other councilors I know that I think share... I would just say, share your perspective on freeways, more broadly in terms of whether or not we should have them.

Jonathan Maus (:

But in the case of one of the councilors, they voted in favor of this planning money. So that's that really weird nuance with these projects and how just sort of insidious they can be for politicians to decide on. You can have your values about the freeway project, but then the way these things come up and the way that they're able to continue to kind of go down the field can be tricky. I'm just curious. I know you were aware of that vote. In your mind, would you have supported that or would you have joined Councilor Mary Nolan and said no?

Ashton Simpson (:

So where I'm at with the I-5, I sit in a different place on the I-5 bridge... I know it needs to be replaced. That's number one. It's outdated. We need to build into the future. Now, I'm not about over-engineering and overbuilding something. We build it to scale. So we still get people to work, but we need a new bridge. I think that Councilor Nolan is right, but also I think about like, well, how do we get folks opportunities right now? Because right now that is going to be one of the biggest sources of income and jobs for a lot of people of color.

Ashton Simpson (:

A lot of people learning new skills and getting right into the trades and then getting into the job market. So like you said, it's a fine balance. And I think it's our job as Metro councilors to not only help this part of the region, because that is a chain that moves our goods, it moves our people, but also for me, again, national security. We need to have a functioning bridge that works into the future. I would've voted to continue the planning, right?

Ashton Simpson (:

And in that planning, I would've asked to identify, are you including pricing options? Are you including a climate assessment, an ecological assessment? Are we making sure that we are also including the variables of public transit?

Jonathan Maus (:

So in general, you think you can trust the Oregon Department of Transportation on something like this? To me, it often comes down to trust. I've heard you say you believe the bridge should be replaced. That's what I hear from everyone. I think everyone agrees the bridge should be replaced. That's not, I think, where the debate is.

Jonathan Maus (:

I wonder if you are concerned that they actually want to expand five miles of freeway along with replacing the bridge. And does it bother you that they... or do you think that they purposely sort of show the project as being about a bridge when its really about something much larger?

Ashton Simpson (:

It remains to be seen. I don't want to start to speculate when I'm not there yet, but I can tell you, people are watching. I'm watching closely. I can tell you right now, again, I hope they're not doing that because that would be a real disservice and distrust within the community and that's some hell of a backlash to take on.

Jonathan Maus (:

I hear you. I want to switch gears real quick to 82nd Avenue. You were part of a coalition of advocates that helped push that over the finish line in terms of getting a bunch of funding together and getting ODOT and the city of Portland to the table to have it transfer from state to local control. So now that the planning phase of what that's going to mean, where that big injection of funding, what's it going to do to 82nd.

Jonathan Maus (:

Now that that's underway, I wonder if you can share any thoughts about what you think might be possible for the future of 82nd. Do you think the community should push for something radically different than what's there now? Do you think the community would support a lot less space for driving on 82nd? What are your thoughts on the design?

Ashton Simpson (:

So I think, and this is where we are as Oregon Walks, because we have been tasked to do the re-imagining of eighty... excuse me, of 82nd Avenue. First and foremost, we always say this and I say this, it has to be a community-led process, right? We need to listen to community on what they want because I don't live off... Sure, I visit 82nd. I go to [inaudible 00:46:56] all the time. I have to go see my folks over at APANO. See my boy Duncan. Right? I'm a visitor and I play, but there are folks who actually reside there that should have the most input on how that works.

Ashton Simpson (:

And I think that if community says, "Well, we want frequent service transit, and we want bike lanes, and we want improved crossings and lighting," that's what should be provided. And then if they say, "We want safety by design, and we want to uplift community culture, and we want to include arts and vibrancy to this area," that should be included. And if they say, "We want more dense, affordable housing along here, and we want businesses to support our lives," that should be part of that conversation.

Jonathan Maus (:

I think what's going to happen is, people are going to say they want all those things and it's going to be the challenge of everyone, advocates and elected officials, to figure out how to prioritize those things and which things can actually... because I think they're all going to ask for all that stuff, but then if they look at the drawing and it shows a lot less space for driving their car, they may... I don't know. What's going to be the answer to that, right? They're not going to want to give more space and sort of start tearing buildings down.

Ashton Simpson (:

Right. Right.

Jonathan Maus (:

And so it's not going to be possible necessarily to fit all that stuff. Better bus service, better bike access, that [crosstalk 00:48:17] sort of thing.

Ashton Simpson (:

The bus line that runs down 82nd is the most utilized bus route in the system. It makes sense for it to have a bus only lane, BRT. It makes sense.

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah.

Ashton Simpson (:

In terms of what active transportation looks like on that road, it remains to be seen. We need to look at all design options. And I think we have an opportunity with so much funding just sitting there for this project, we should be able to do that. We should be able to throw the [inaudible 00:48:50] at everything and see what sticks.

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah. I hear you. Okay. You are the Oregon Walks executive director, so I did want to talk about some of the pedestrian-related issues that are going on. In the year or so that you've been ED, it's been one of the deadliest years in history for people walking and getting hit and killed in traffic. I just wonder... It's also like you mentioned before, gun violence is at an all time high.

Jonathan Maus (:

I just wonder what it's like to be an advocate for walking at a time when people are just afraid to leave their house. People are afraid. And walking, in some ways, I mean, it's the most vulnerable thing you can do, in some ways, putting yourself out there with your feet. What has that been like for you as the leader of Oregon Walks just such a violent year?

Ashton Simpson (:

You know, it's been... and I'll go back to this one. So when we did 82nd avenue, when we did all that work around there, we had lost two folks. I won't say their names because I have not gotten permission from their families, but we lost two folks in the span of two weeks.

Jonathan Maus (:

This was a year ago now, April.

Ashton Simpson (:

Yeah. April.

Jonathan Maus (:

Last year. Yeah.

Ashton Simpson (:

Yeah. And it was less than 200 feet between both. Right?

Jonathan Maus (:

Basically the same intersection.

Ashton Simpson (:

Right. [Wiggin 00:50:17] and Alberta. Right? I think when that first happened, I mean, my heart sank to my bowels. It was just like, what's going on here? Where's the urgency on making these streets safer? And we actually went out and did some observations. A couple of our board members, Scott Kocher, came out with me with his radar gun and we shot radar down that road. We looked at some of the conditions. It was only one side of the road lit. We actually almost saw a near miss... a few near misses while we were just out making observations.

Ashton Simpson (:

I just sat back and I looked and I said, "Wow, goddamn, something needs to be done about these roads." I get disheartened sometimes. I mean, how can you not? But I also know that if I don't speak up, if I don't get out there and do stuff, if I don't say anything, if I don't give people safe access to go... routes to go walk through our NeighborWalks program or WEWALK program, what are we doing as advocates?

Ashton Simpson (:

We should be able to go toe to-toe and at-bat to fight for the things that we need, but we also need to have this component of us where we're softer and we come across to the community... When I say softer, like cushion wise, and say, "Hey, we're having this event." We did a walk for Ahmaud on the 23rd, which, that brother lost his life and he was minding his own business. He was just trying to exercise.

Jonathan Maus (:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. I'd written down on here, if it's frustrating to you that... I feel like whenever I see you in the media, it's tragic.

Ashton Simpson (:

Yeah. Oh my gosh.

Jonathan Maus (:

Stuff is really bad.

Ashton Simpson (:

Yeah.

Jonathan Maus (:

And you have this really serious look on your face, because you're sad. You're genuinely sad, but it also fits the moment because it's usually because they call you and want to talk to you when people are dying. So you've been a busy man these last couple of years and I just thought is it frustrating to you that you don't get a chance to share this positive vision of what could a great walking city look like? What else could we do?

Ashton Simpson (:

Well, number one, I will say this, every transportation agency and bureau needs to have age-friendly policies when it comes to transportation. Age-friendly, meaning our elders, our youth, folks with mental and physical disabilities, have connectivity and access... safe access to move around or roam however they need to, whether that's by ADA device, foot, cycle, right?

Ashton Simpson (:

You put that level of language into policies as we roll out in the future, you'll start to see community... And that's what I mean by going to fight, because what we're looking for is infrastructure equity in communities where we don't see it. And so yes, I do get pissed off. I get angry because I'm like, "Come on." And then you start to see things change. So I don't know when is the last time you've been down Halsey, backside.

Jonathan Maus (:

Been a while.

Ashton Simpson (:

There will soon be continuous, at least on the north side of Halsey, sidewalk from a 102nd all the way down through the 162..

Jonathan Maus (:

So you bring up Halsey because it's been some progress of late, is what you're saying.

Ashton Simpson (:

It has been some progress of late.

Jonathan Maus (:

The city's putting... [inaudible 00:53:49] Halsey safety project, right? They're putting several million bucks into it, doing sidewalks and probably a few crossing, stuff like that.

Ashton Simpson (:

And guess what?

Jonathan Maus (:

Hmm.

Ashton Simpson (:

Even though it's not complete, you see people walking on them, you see people engaging with the infrastructure, you see more people biking now, people of color. And so I'm like-

Jonathan Maus (:

Imagine that. You got a safer street, people come out and use it.

Ashton Simpson (:

And, and for me, my whole mindset is this, again, no matter what you're building, you're putting people to work. [inaudible 00:54:20] gets a lot of work through fixing our streets, oversight committee on that flat work, affordable electric, same with the signals and stuff like that, right? People are getting to work and there's more of that work to be done. We have a lot of curve ramps that need to be redone. There's opportunity for some minority contractors to prove themselves with these smaller projects so that they can learn the business and go after and bid after bigger jobs. We're talking about equity now. We're talking about worker equity and business equity.

Ashton Simpson (:

That's where we need to push and move towards, because again, we have to create complete streets. Complete streets that are embedded within age-friendly communities. You build out that level of infrastructure, and in that way, I would love to see how a program like Vision Zero works then. Because right now Vision Zero is operating on like a [Mac 89 00:55:21], right? That's our infrastructure out there, right? Until you upgrade the actual hardware, implement the software now and see what happens.

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah. If you can, in these next several years, as you see your scope of your leadership opportunities, expand, if you're able to connect your lived experience, the different things you've done, even professionally, especially the jobs one, and bring that into the safer infrastructure one, because you know how it is, when you're in politics, jobs, jobs, jobs, if you can do that, if you can connect those things with the other experience, that would be really great. That would be really exciting.

Ashton Simpson (:

I mean-

Jonathan Maus (:

The next Metro funding measure attempt that you all are going to take, which is going to be fun, we'll be talking more about that as it comes up. Maybe there's a real intentional specific jobs component, you know?

Ashton Simpson (:

Yeah. No, community-

Jonathan Maus (:

But the right kind of project.

Ashton Simpson (:

Right. Right.

Jonathan Maus (:

Not expanding things, but making them better for different things and more paths, more place to walk. Yeah.

Ashton Simpson (:

Again, when improvements happen in the right way, what often follows? Land use development, improvements, things like that. Buildings start to be erected. That's carpentry, that's everything, right? That's more work. Move on to the next one. Move on the... You see how the developments are going up and within a year, a year and a half they're done and they're moving on to the next one. That's the type of progress we need to see in our communities out in Outer East Portland and in East Multnomah County. And it's happening go to Rockwood.

Ashton Simpson (:

Rockwood is developing quickly. Now, the other piece around all of this that I think that we have to acknowledge is, how do we not displace folks?

Jonathan Maus (:

Well, yeah, we've done that all the way to the edge of the city now. There's just a report that came out today saying Portland's the 12th least affordable place in the country.

Ashton Simpson (:

Yeah. My mom asks me how the hell do I afford to live here often.

Jonathan Maus (:

Yeah. Housing costs went up 30% last year and cost of living... I mean, it's obviously not keeping up.

Ashton Simpson (:

Right.

Jonathan Maus (:

So you're you're right. And I mean, well, the answer to that, I don't know if we have time to get into the answer for that, other than I would... What would you say? How should we approach that? Because you're right, definitely even with the 82nd Avenue design, I think people are worried about that already.

Ashton Simpson (:

So there are some solutions out there. I don't know if you've heard of the Purpose Bill Communities.

Jonathan Maus (:

Mm-mm (negative). N.

Ashton Simpson (:

Jot this down. There's this community, it's called East Lake, but it's ran by the East Lake Foundation. Got an opportunity to go check it out. It's in Atlanta. A community much like Rockwood, Outer East Portland, very depressed, under-invested in. Some philanthropists, Tim Cousins and others, had a golf course that they would frequent that was in the poor neighborhood, kind of like Glendoveer, right? Only Glendoveer is a public course. And they would go and golf, but they would also see across the greens, this rundown community.

Ashton Simpson (:

And they say, "Well, why is that? Is there something we can do?" And it took this level of back and forth engagement with community and community groups before they finally set terms, but they started development. You go there now it's one of the most desired places to live in Georgia. And they have set up policy where they serve the community that was there first. Right? So I got an opportunity to go look at some of their housing that was mixed income housing. A third was market rate. A third was partially subsidized and a third was fully subsidized. And you didn't know who was on what.

Ashton Simpson (:

Those apartments looked just like what we build out here at market rate. And people were living... I think the only thing I think I did not see out there that I wish I saw was sidewalks and crossings, but other than that, I'm talking about, they had a school, [inaudible 00:59:28], that was like [inaudible 00:59:31] for black kids. They were walking around with their blazers on with... I mean it was a full STEM school. The whole basement area was... you name it. They had labs, they had music rooms, they had this, they had that. They had a grocery store, Publix, that served that community that was operated by that community. They had boys and girls club, YMC. I mean, they had all these things.

Ashton Simpson (:

They built a community and they stabilized it. We can do the same thing. We have wealthy dollars here. We have dollars here. Right? I think it takes a little bit of the moral courage to actually do this work because if you really wanted to have a better world and better society, you take care of folks because oftentimes when folks are cared for and their basic needs are met, and then they can elevate and go do other things, they will do it. They will go spend the money. They will get out and shop. They will get out and have fun and frequent things.

Ashton Simpson (:

And I think that, that's the connection we need to make with those that have, so that they can understand those without, you start to provide more opportunities for them to have and give them space to do that, they will then be a part of the system fully. And everybody's happy because guess what, business is thriving because they are spending, they're happy. They have the things that they need for their lives. I can tell you that because a couple years ago, prior to me buying my home, I was homeless. Didn't have anywhere to stay. If I didn't have a mentor to look out for me, I would've still been living out of my car.

Ashton Simpson (:

And to go from homeless, to having a job, to having a house within six months, the stability... And I love using myself as a model because I can't speak for anybody else, but that stability, that peace of mind, that presence, it's nothing like it. It's gold. I never have to worry about my son not have been somewhere to sleep. That's home. His comfort. All of his creature comforts are there. I'm able to keep the roof and the lights on. I'm able to go do more things because guess what? Nobody's raising our rent.

Ashton Simpson (:

Our mortgage is set. We just pay it and go. All of our bills are stable. We pay it and go. We have more money now to go and do things that he wants to do or get involved with. That's what I want to see happen for more folks. I want people to be able to have the same opportunities I have.

Jonathan Maus (:

And I love how you are able to take a question or something about a project or a policy, and take it all the way down to the person and the people, and how those things can impact each other. So I hope you get a chance to... You got your work cut out for you, but I hope you get a chance to do it and to do it well on Metro Council. So Ashton, thank you so much for sharing. I appreciate you being here.

Ashton Simpson (:

Thank you. Thank you, Jonathan. Look, I'm happy to be here. Thank you for y'all support. It's been nice to know that we have a paper that's dedicated to active transportation. I'm often times... you keep your ear to the ground on a lot of things.

Ashton Simpson (:

I mean, there's only so many things you can keep your eye on the ball at one time, but I know that if I miss something, I could always go to BikePortland and there's an article there. And I may not agree with the article itself, but at least it's linked to the original content and I can go back and judge for myself. So I appreciate that. Thank you.

Jonathan Maus (:

You're welcome, Ashton. Thank you very much. Go out and get some of this nice spring sunshine.

Ashton Simpson (:

I'm going to try to. I got to go cook dinner.

Jonathan Maus (:

That was Oregon Walks, executive director and Metro Councilor-elect Ashton Simpson. Be sure to check our show notes for links and resources mentioned in this episode. The BikePortland podcast is a production of Pedaltown Media Incorporated, 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 at bikeportland.org/podcast.

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