Good morning. Thank you for having me here today.
I want to start off today by telling you a personal story - a story of why this issue of transportation and equity is so important to me.
It’s a story about my mom, who as a young, Mexican-American woman didn’t like to drive, but could take the bus with her two daughters of 4 and 5 years old, while also pregnant with her third, one-hour each way from her house in the suburbs to visit her parents in the city.
For her, the bus was freedom and agency to get where she needed to go without relying on a car. It allowed her to go places with her children in the way she was comfortable with, at a reasonable cost.
But the bus we took from our suburb went through and into neighborhoods that were especially blighted by pollution from oil refineries and steel mills and intersected with freeways and toll roads. These were neighborhoods where people of color, including my relatives, lived.
So for me, I can’t think about investments in our transportation system without also thinking about how our choices impact the people who have borne the worst burdens of the fossil fuel based economy.
I am honored to talk to you this morning about the transportation revolution we’re in, moving from the combustion engine to the electric highway.
And how to be truly successful in this revolution, we must learn from the lessons of the past and place equity and social justice in the forefront of our minds as we enter a clean-energy transportation future.
Because while we’ve undergone many transportation revolutions - from the wheel and the wagon, from sails to steam, from trains to planes, from buggies to BMWs - we’ve often failed to consider the collateral damage associated with these changes.
While steam sped up our transportation system and shortened travel times, it also requires immense natural resource extraction - first in the form of coal and then in oil - two carbon intensive fuels that have subsequently unleashed havoc on our climate and caused immense unrest in oil rich parts of our globe.
The automobile worsened the situation - more than doubling down on our dependence on oil, but also producing issues not seen before: the demise of urban streetcar systems, suburbanization, white flight, and less communal transportation.
I have another story for you - the story of the damage highway construction unleashed on the community you’re sitting in right now, which was once called Albina.
Albina itself was once a separate city, with Portland on the west side of the river and Albina here on the east.
After Portland annexed Albina, it saw in influx of African American families who were priced out of the west side and limited in where they could purchase homes.
During World War II, Portland’s African American population increased rapidly, as the shipyards on the waterfront employed thousands of workers from throughout the U.S.
Portland’s black population grew from 1,900 in 1940 to more than 20,000 in 1945.
Many newcomers resided in what was called Vanport, an integrated housing development along the Columbia River created to accommodate the shipyard workers.
Vanport, however, was destroyed by a flood when a levee along the Columbia broke in 1948 and virtually overnight 16,000 people were displaced.
Due to redlining policies used by banks and real estate agents, black residents had very few areas in Portland where they could live, and Albina was one.
Black residents moved in and white residents moved out.
The new residents started businesses, families, and bought homes when they could, but largely rented in the area.
Popular neighborhoods you may visit while you’re here in town - Williams Ave. and Mississippi Ave. - were the heart of the black community here in Portland.
But that wouldn’t last for long.
Because communities of color - often disenfranchised, lower income and not as politically powerful, were an easier community to ram a highway through.
In 1962, a study published by the City of Portland’s urban renewal agency found the Albina area, which now contained 80 percent of Portland’s black population, to be in a stage of “advanced blight.”
The agency declared: “clearly urban renewal, largely clearance, appears to be the only solution to not only blight that presently exists in central Albina, but also to avoid the spread of that blight to other surrounding areas.”
When this report was published, landlords in Albina began to evict tenants, demolish buildings, and sell the land.
In the 1950s the city cleared land for Interstate 5, as well as what is now Veterans Memorial Coliseum, once home to the Portland Trail Blazers.
In the 1970s the expansion of Emmanuel Hospital further decimated the areas, forcing over half of that neighborhood’s black population to relocate.
A neighborhood that was 68% percent black in 1990 was 28% black in 2010.
The gash that Interstate 5 tore through the black community is one that we are still wrestling with today.
A plan has been proposed by local leaders and advocates to reenvision the lower Albina area, and restitch the community back together with a focus on affordable housing, workforce development opportunities, social justice and diversity and equity in the contracting work.
One key component of the proposal is a cap on Interstate 5 - an attempt to heal a mistake that was made six decades ago, but that we’re still living with today.
Our transportation system can move people around - get them from work to home.
But it can also dislocate - and force people out of their neighborhoods.
After all, one person’s route that connects them from home to work, might be the same thing that severs another’s community.
So we need to look at all angles of transportation, to ensure that we do more connecting of the communities, especially communities that have borne the brunt of past injustices.
What our transportation system does - move people to work, school, home and play, and move goods to market - is vital to our economy and way of life.
But we have to do things differently in how we think about transportation. Because our planet is approaching a breaking point due to the environmental damage we’re inflicting.
We're seeing sea levels rise faster than expected.
We’re seeing wildfire season become longer & more devastating - here in Portland we’ve woken up to ash-covered vehicles as a result of wildfires and experienced weeks of poor quality air days caused by fires as far away as Colorado and southern California.
Droughts have become more frequent, intense & severe.
Species are dying off at an alarming rate, and scientists are warning of an extinction crisis similar to what was seen in massive die offs caused by cataclysmic conditions.
Because of such dire predictions, we’re understandably seeing mobility - a major contributor to climate change - come into direct conflict with concerns about climate.
The I-5 capping project I mentioned a few moments ago illustrates the point.
The project as funded involves adding an auxiliary lane on I-5 to fix a design flaw and terrible interchange system essentially underneath where the freeway capping project would occur.
The state legislature has funded the auxiliary lanes; no one has yet funded the freeway cap.
There are many vocal critics of adding the auxiliary lanes, and they are allied with many who want to see the capping take place as well.
But the idea that we’re going to reduce emissions by grinding our transportation system to a halt doesn’t make sense to me.
We shouldn’t use congestion as a climate change strategy.
People will change their work schedules, forego other activities, and travel for long lengths of time before they give up their single occupancy vehicles, particularly when we lack a fast, reliable transit system.
So one thing we have to do is change the vehicles they’re driving in to electric ones.
But we also shouldn’t widen freeways and expect to see anything but increased demand.
There are other tools available that can reduce carbon emissions while allowing people to get to work and home in a timely manner.
Value pricing - charging people to use the roads based on demand is one such tool. I sat on the advisory group that made recommendations on just such a policy, and now Oregon is working with the federal government to implement such a plan.
But even with congestion pricing on the table, care needs to be taken to focus on racial equity to ensure criteria is built into the system that protects low-income individuals who will bear more of a burden in a regressive tolling system. Transit credits, subsidies for low-income drivers, and investment of tolling revenue into transit and multi-modal infrastructure are some of the ways to do this.
And as we know, another critical tool to reduce carbon emissions, is electric vehicles…
This audience is undoubtedly aware of two facts:
First, sales of EV’s are burgeoning.
Last year, BYD, a Chinese company in which Warren Buffet has invested, sold a quarter of a million EVs.
The company is a major player in the electric bus market and has plans to enter the U.S. car market in the coming years.
Tesla was a close second with just under a quarter of a million vehicles sold last year.
Thereafter there are multiple EV models from BMW, Volkswagen, Honda, Fiat, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, and Chevrolet that have accumulated over 10,000 in sales.
So there is a major shift underway in the market to produce EVs given the rapidly evolving automobile market.
But the second fact we know is that there are over one billion vehicles in use worldwide, so a couple million EVs are the start of a revolution, but it will be a long turnover, particularly considering the change that needs to occur if we’re going to avoid cataclysmic climate change scenarios.
So our mandate is to answer the question: How can we speed this transition up? The answer: Focusing on serving everyone, not just the elite.
Last month, I purchased my first all-electric vehicle.
I’m am so proud to have taken this step - my kids are thrilled that we’re not polluting our environment and contributing to climate change while driving it and honestly, years of Catholic guilt from a lifetime of driving gasoline-powered cars are now over.
But my god - this car is expensive! It’s the most expensive vehicle I’ve purchased.
And having electric vehicles also be the most expensive vehicles can’t be the case if we’re going to strive for broad appeal, widespread adoption, and significant carbon reduction through electric vehicles.
We need to make these vehicles appealing and accessible to all households. That means not only making them affordable, but also making the infrastructure extensive and easy to access.
Here in Oregon, we are working to make EVs more accessible and affordable. Drivers who buy or lease a new, non-luxury electric car can apply for a state rebate worth up to $2,500.
And many utilities offer incentives if you install residential charging stations.
But we know that’s not enough.
That’s why the legislature provided an additional $2,500 rebate for low- and moderate-income Oregonians that purchase a new or used qualifying EV.
And these are just the type of incentives and policies we need to think about.
We need to focus on equity and social justice when approaching transportation issues and the electrification of our transportation system in particular, going beyond what policies might work for the general public and thinking about what policies are needed for communities that have been most impacted by bad transportation policies of the past.
The only reason we have even a chance of staving off devastating climate change is because we’ve already used the policy tools, incentives and technology at our disposal to reduce climate emissions. But we need to step it up.
You’re in a city and in a state known for stepping up.
In 1974, we removed Harbor Drive, a highway that ran along the west side of the Willamette River, and replaced it with a gorgeous park that is one of the key gathering places for our community.
Around the same time, our region decided against expanding its freeway system, and instead became the first city to reinvest in urban rail. We now have 5 different lines and 60 miles of track in our region.
In 1993, Portland was the first city to adopt a climate action plan with a goal of reducing carbon.
And more recently, when I was in the legislature, I led the successful effort to pass landmark legislation requiring the phase out of coal in our energy system by 2040 and championed a bill that reduces the carbon content in our transportation fuels.
All of these milestones and policies are necessary in our work of fighting climate change, and they give me confidence that we do have the tools and can to the work of building a clean energy transportation system.
But we have to ensure we’re doing it in a way that centers frontline communities and making equity a core part of our work.
Last fall, I worked to broaden our equity lens in all of Multnomah County’s sustainability policies through the passage of an Environmental Justice Resolution. That resolution committed Multnomah County to operating under the principles of environmental justice, meaning inclusion and meaningful engagement with front line and most impacted communities whenever we make policies that affect those communities.
Moving forward with the work we have in front of us to electrify our transportation sector shouldn’t happen without centering these same environment justice principles.
This means doing things differently, sometimes radically differently, than we have in the past.
First of all, we need to make sure we’re inviting to the table the people actually impacted by decisions we’re making.
And when you do invite them to the table, do so in a way that meets people where they are at - consider altering the dates and times you usually meet, provide meals and childcare, find out if people need translation services or have accessibility needs, give stipends for those whose participation isn’t covered by an employer.
All of these things can make a big difference in terms of who is able to participate.
Second, we need to make sure the solutions we’re creating are the ones that communities want.
Two years ago Forth was involved in a Community Electric Vehicle Pilot - brought electric vehicle car rentals to an affordable housing development in NE Portland. I was proud to attend the ribbon cutting for this project. The pilot highlighted the need for electric vehicle infrastructure in multi-unit buildings and the challenges that exist for people who don’t own cars to gain access to EVs.
But as I was talking about it with a friend of mine in the EJ community, he said that it was a good start but it doesn’t give us the economic power we need to have in a new clean energy economy.
He was a leader in last year’s successful passage of the Portland Clean Energy Fund: A community of color-created and led ballot measure to fund the building of a clean energy future that addresses social and economic inequity by providing major new economic opportunities for low-income Portlanders, including women and communities of color.
For him, and many in the community, it’s not just about fighting climate change and building a clean energy transportation system, but about being a part of the economic gains of a new system.
Finally, expand your thinking on where and how you need to show up for marginalized communities.
Currently, some in Oregon lack the ability to get driver’s licenses because they can’t show proof of citizenship. This has a huge impact on immigrants communities.
In fact, one of the barriers to use in the community electric vehicle pilot I just mentioned was the lack of a driver’s license.
Right now House Bill 2015, the Equal Access to Roads act, is making its way through the Oregon legislature.
The success it’s having is due in part to the broad coalition working together: labor unions and reproductive rights organizations partnering with communities of color to fight for the passage of the bill.
Those of us concerned about making sure transportation electrification is accessible to the broadest range of people possible should be engaged in this fight too.
So challenge yourself as we do the work in front of us to electrify our transportation system, spread the use of electric vehicles and transit systems, and push for investments in infrastructure.
Challenge yourself to think about ways you can bring in marginalized communities, so they can be creators of the solutions and systems we’re building and beneficiaries of our new clean energy economy.
We have many challenges in front of us in the work we do, but I have no doubt that we will succeed - and that the key to our success is in tackling them in a united and inclusive way.