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Highway spending is needed despite climate change

Climate-change activists are upset with the Oregon Department of Transportation’s massive project to fix the Interstate 5 bottleneck through Portland’s Rose Quarter, along with continued work to revive the Columbia River bridge replacement project. While neither project will magically prompt motorists to stop driving and switch to public transit, both are badly needed and, in the long run, will do their part to help reduce carbon emissions.

Activists want ODOT to stop the $1.2 billion expansion of I-5. The money, they say, is simply going “to facilitate people driving cars and burning fossil fuels,” in the words of one public transportation advocate.

Here’s the problem: People are already driving cars, and will be for the foreseeable future. Trucks are used to transport most of the goods that stock our stores. The work that will be done on I-5, and on the bridge replacement project, is needed to better accommodate the traffic that is already there.

The alternative is miles-long traffic jams that keep vehicles idling for hours in stop-and-go tie-ups. That wastes fuel and increases emissions.

Here in Southern Oregon, the fairly new south Medford interchange uses a design that allows drivers to yield frequently when exiting the freeway rather that stopping at red lights. That design reduces emissions from idling engines. It’s a small step, but one that moves in the right direction.

More public transportation, bike-friendly streets and walkable neighborhoods are needed. Drivers should be encouraged to switch to electric and hybrid vehicles, and that is happening. But it’s not as simple as flipping a switch.

The world’s major automakers have all announced plans to phase out gasoline vehicles, many of them by 2030. Honda will sell only electric vehicles and hybrids in Europe after 2022. By 2040, the company says all its gas cars will be phased out.

General Motors says it plans to stop selling gas and diesel vehicles by 2035. Ford is investing $22 billion to build battery-powered cars by 2025, and plans to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

Guess where those vehicles will be driven? Up and down I-5, including through the Rose Quarter and across the Columbia River. They will need a functional highway system just as much as the fossil-fuel guzzlers do now.

The federal infrastructure funding coming to Oregon does include money for emission reduction programs, although only 10%. That’s not ODOT’s fault.

The legislation also provides $52 million for electric vehicle charging stations. And ODOT officials say the agency’s spending for emission reduction programs such as public transit, biking, walking and passenger rail will total $1.28 billion from 2025-2027.

That may not be as much as activists want to see, but it’s a lot more than nothing.

Eventually, people will drive less and burn less gas and diesel. In the meantime, it’s important to make our existing transportation system as efficient as possible, Because refusing to fix obsolete freeways won’t make it happen any faster.