Adah Crandall has three minutes to convince the Oregon Transportation Commission of a simple truth: Our highways are killing us, and every day that goes on without us addressing the problem will only make the ongoing climate disaster so much worse.
If we don’t change something, Crandall, who is 15 years old, will live to see more of this grim future than the older members of the commission she is speaking to.
The large digital timer occupies the entire Zoom call screen. It is set to three minutes. The countdown begins.
“I want to reiterate that I’m a teenager, and honestly I’m really tired of having to hunt down these obscure government committees to explain to adults why expanding freeways in the middle of a climate crisis is a bad idea,” she says.
Because the July 15 hearing was conducted online, all anyone watching could see was a giant clock, ticking down from three minutes, the amount of time each public commenter gets to speak.
Now Crandall had two minutes and 48 seconds.
“It really shouldn’t be this hard to make you understand that. Forty percent of our state’s emissions come from transportation. You know that, I know that. It’s been in almost every testimony but it clearly hasn’t sunk in yet. Maybe it would help to know that as a result of those emissions, two weeks ago over a hundred Oregonians died in a climate disaster. It was 116 degrees in Portland and the scariest part is this is probably the coolest summer for the rest of our lives. It will only get worse from here and continuing to expand freeways is setting us on a deadly path of irreversible climate destruction.”
Two minutes and 15 seconds.
“I fear that by the time that you realize the reality of this crisis it will be too late, because for so many people it already is too late.”
Last April, Crandall started the Youth Vs. ODOT rallies every other Wednesday outside of the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) Portland headquarters. She takes the bus there after school, sometimes carrying props with her. Around Halloween, the theme of the rally was an elaborate skit where someone represented capitalism, someone else ODOT, and a pumpkin represented Earth. Crandall, dressed as ODOT Director Kris Strickler, picked up the pumpkin and smashed it on the pavement.
“She’s pissed,” Aaron Brown, a local urban planner and activist with the group No More Freeways, said of Crandall. “This is somebody that is not a loud chatterbox extrovert, at least by nature. But when put on a stage, and with preparation, she knows how to summon how she feels about things.”
Or, as her former middle school teacher Gerald Scrutchions said, “All adults should understand is: The last person you want coming after you is Adah Crandall.”
The windows at Crandall’s old middle school, Harriet Tubman Middle School in northeast Portland, are sealed shut. Not that anyone would ever want to open them: Less than 50 feet away, cars and trucks are constantly moving down the four lanes of Interstate 5, belching exhaust all over the playground.
The school had been closed for many years for unrelated reasons, but in order to reopen it in 2017, the Portland Public School system spent millions of dollars on a state-of-the-art HVAC system.
By ODOT’s own accounting, the nearby stretch of I-5, known as the Rose Quarter, is congested for 12 hours a day and one of the West Coast’s most trafficked freight routes. When the kids are outside playing during recess, the air quality is, according to Scrutchions, “some of the worst in the country.”
The Rose Quarter has the “highest traffic volumes in the state,” according to Megan Channel, the Rose Quarter project director at ODOT. It is seven-tenths of a mile long and marked on both ends with interchanges to other major interstates, I-84 and I-405. To build the highway in the 1960s, ODOT razed a large portion of Portland’s main Black neighborhood, called Albina, a fate replicated in dozens of American urban highway projects.
After the school reopened, Scrutchions put together a study group for Talented And Gifted program students during the lunch hour. One day, he figured they had done enough reading about the history of inequality and environmental injustice and asked them if they’d like to do some “real” work
One “very engaged student” from his seventh-period class, Crandall, was especially keen. The more she learned about the impact of diesel particulate matter on young lungs, the more motivated she became.
The group put together a plan to lobby the state legislature to pass a law that would regulate diesel particulate emissions from trucks registered in the state. California and Washington—which I-5 also runs through—had already passed similar laws, so companies were moving or selling non-compliant vehicles to Oregon, lending additional urgency to the issue. After visiting the Capitol and speaking to lawmakers in 2018, the state passed HB 2007.
“It felt like a big victory,” Crandall told Motherboard. She felt like she played a part in getting an important reform passed that would benefit future middle school students at Tubman.
But the law has a prolonged phase-in period of up to 10 years, meaning the law won’t help current Tubman students, the next generation of Tubman students, or the generation after that.
Crandall also felt the “mental letdown” of realizing that the adults in charge, at the school district and the state, knew about the harm diesel particulate matters cause to people, especially children, and reopened the school anyways. The adults didn’t really have her best interests at heart.
“I feel like that, in a way, hurt more than the actual health impacts of it,” she said.
Shortly after the passage of HB 2007, Crandall learned that two years before, the state passed a different law, HB 2017, which mandated ODOT do something about “the state’s top bottleneck,” as ODOT’s Megan Channel described the Rose Quarter section of I-5. ODOT is planning to expand the highway by adding two lanes and four shoulders along this stretch, although ODOT insists this does not qualify as a highway expansion because the additional lanes are “auxiliary.”
Auxiliary or not, to Crandall this “cancels out” the benefits of HB 2007, since more trucks will be able to drive right next to the school. Even before she learned anything about the complexities of highway engineering and traffic modeling, she grasped a basic, intuitive truth: More lanes means more cars and trucks, more particulate matter, more emissions, more greenhouse gasses.
Over the last year, Crandall, Sunrise PDX, the activist group No More Freeways, and other allies have fought the Rose Quarter project, including in a lawsuit filed by No More Freeways in federal court last April claiming ODOT conducted the wrong type of environmental impact analysis, downplaying the project’s harms. They have, by their own telling, fought not just a bad project for the environment at a time of reckoning with climate change, but also challenged virtually every premise of how state departments of transportation function and how states can spend billions of dollars on projects that only make our transportation and our climate worse.
Crandall, through her testimony at public hearings and speeches at her rallies, has brought a focus on the sorts of institutions not normally highlighted in climate protests. Formerly anonymous bureaucrats and obscure state agencies are hearing the brunt of her outrage. These are the types of people who make the small decisions every day all around the world that, by not treating the climate emergency as such, only ensure the emergency will become worse by the time Crandall’s generation grows up.
“A lot of people don’t think of ODOT as a villain in the climate crisis,” Crandall told Motherboard. “So even if [people] consider themselves generally progressive, they don’t really see freeways as a climate issue.”
After Crandall graduated from Tubman and started attending Grant High, she joined the Portland chapter of Sunrise, the national climate movement. Cassie Wilson, a 23-year-old from a town called Boring—”Yes, it is literally called Boring,” she said—joined at about the same time, in 2020, after a wildfire threatened her home.
Wilson didn’t know anything about freeway expansions. Like most people, she would sit in traffic and think, “They really should add more lanes.” But Crandall shared what she had learned. That 40 percent of Oregon’s emissions come from transportation, almost all of which comes from the emissions of gas-powered vehicles. That highway expansions don’t alleviate traffic, they create more of it. And that electric vehicles won’t magically fix these problems, because even if everyone is buying an electric car in 10 years—a timeline few in the industry actually predict—the second-highest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state is electricity generation, and the increased demand for electricity in an electric vehicle future will make cleaning up the grid that much harder. The fastest and best route to lowering transportation emissions, many environmental activists increasingly argue, is to stop spending money on roads and spend that money on greener, cleaner forms of transportation, such as public transit, biking, and walking infrastructure.
In other words, Crandall and Wilson quickly grasped what few in professional American transportation circles readily admit: That no one can pretend to take climate change seriously while also expanding highways.
Two minutes and 15 seconds.
“So if you choose to move forward with freeway expansion, I hope you think about that vote when wildfires leave us locked inside for weeks, wondering if our communities will survive. I hope you think about that vote when the air is too polluted to breathe. I hope you think about that vote when your children ask why you didn’t do anything about the climate crisis when you still had the chance, why you didn’t listen to the young people who are scared for our futures.”
One minute and 53 seconds.
Despite the fact that transportation accounts for 29 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and about 14 percent of emissions worldwide, few governments have committed to stop building new highways. In fact, it is highly unusual for governments to even recognize the role of highway expansions in climate change.
Last year, Austria halted eight highway projects at the urging of the country’s Green party, a junior partner in the coalition government, and launched a review of all the country’s road-building initiatives from a climate lens. Similarly, Wales suspended all road-building projects. Lee Waters, the Welsh deputy minister for climate change, told the Welsh parliament, “We need a shift away from spending money on projects that encourage more people to drive, and spend more money on maintaining our roads and investing in real alternatives that give people a meaningful choice.”
But these are the exceptions to the rule. Most countries, and especially the United States, have maintained the status quo on road building, even as leaders at all levels of government claim to be taking climate change seriously.
Despite President Biden calling this “our last chance” to address climate change and stave off disaster, the bipartisan infrastructure law his administration negotiated with Congress allows state departments of transportation to use a massive influx of money however they deem fit, with no guardrails to stop highway expansion. Combined with a comparatively paltry investment in greener means of transportation like walking, biking, public transit, and long-distance rail, experts predict the bipartisan infrastructure law will actually increase emissions.
As the nonprofit advocacy group Transportation for America has documented, states routinely waste money on road expansion rather than urgently needed repairs to existing roads. Not only does this prove fiscally unsustainable by increasing the miles of road that need expensive maintenance and upkeep, it is environmentally unsustainable because it cements driving as the only viable means for the vast majority of Americans to get around. Every dollar spent on building a new highway is a dollar not spent on giving people an actual choice. Between 1993 and 2017, the U.S. built 30,511 new lane-miles of freeways in urban areas in a quixotic quest to solve traffic. Meanwhile, U.S. cities have added just 6,247 miles of train lines, and miles of bus service per capita has actually decreased. In other words, American cities are constantly overbuilding highways while underbuilding and underfunding public transit.
This is in spite of decades of evidence that highway expansions simply do not accomplish the goals they’re supposed to. And yet states continue to expand highways, over and over again, in the hopes that surely, this time, it will work.
The decisions of where to build highways, or whether to build them at all, falls almost entirely to state legislatures, governors, and state departments of transportation. Despite an increasing number of state DOTs nodding towards the climate issue, few have instituted meaningful policy changes that will result in no more highway expansions. The momentum of the status quo remains a powerful force, particularly on projects like Rose Quarter that have been in the works in one form or another for decades.
One of the few states taking this issue seriously is California, a state built on the back of highways. In May, CalTrans director Toks Omishakin told the California Transportation commission that he didn’t see “how we can move forward with” the 710 freeway expansion “in its current format” because it was too expensive, required too many forced evictions, and had dire implications for the emissions and air quality in surrounding communities already suffering from the freeway’s presence.
“Essentially, those words completely pulled back a 20-mile, $5 billion project,” Omishakin told Motherboard. “What we need to do is reimagine the solutions that we bring forward.”
Instead of assuming highway expansion is the first and best option, Omishakin said, CalTrans is moving it to the back of the line of options to consider. For the 710, CalTrans is looking at other means of getting people around the area so freight can still move while other drivers have alternatives, including ones that get them out of their cars.
But Omishakin said he couldn’t have done this alone. He felt empowered not just by support from Governor Gavin Newsom, but also laws the state legislature passed that predate his tenure, such as 2013’s SB 743, which replaces the metric of “level of service”—how fast cars move through a road—with vehicle miles traveled as the key measure for whether a project complies with the state’s environmental review laws. As Streetsblog summarized at the time, “In short, instead of measuring whether or not a project makes it less convenient to drive, it will now measure whether or not a project contributes to other state goals, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, developing multimodal transportation, preserving open spaces, and promoting diverse land uses and infill development.”
ODOT has received no such support from its state legislature. In fact, it is legally required to do something about the Rose Quarter, thanks to the aforementioned HB 2017. And Governor Kate Brown, in between statements extolling her climate bona fides, supports the project, calling it a “win-win” to “right historic wrongs.” (ODOT’s plan calls for a large cement cover to be put over the highway, over which they say a street grid and new buildings will re-unite the two sides of the historic Albina neighborhood. Crandall and Aaron Brown support the cap part of the project, which they say would be cheaper and easier to build without the expansion.)
Crandall and fellow activists did meet with Brown once and said it “didn’t go great.” Brown spent the first 10 minutes, as Crandall put it, “explaining why climate change is bad” to them. Then, when Brown learned Crandall had been among the protestors outside her mansion earlier in the summer, the governor said if she had known the kids were protesting, she would have offered them cookies.
Asked about the meeting, Liz Merah, a spokesperson for Governor Brown, told Motherboard, “She [Brown] appreciates the passion of Oregon’s young climate leaders, and she shares their sense of urgency to take climate action.” (Crandall said this line, “share their sense of urgency,” is repeated so often by the governor in public settings that it has become a running joke amongst Sunrise PDX.) “The Governor was pleased to meet with members of Sunrise PDX to discuss climate action, as well as the I5 Rose Quarter Project.” Merah added that the governor “encourages them [Sunrise PDX] to continue to make their voices heard through participation in the public engagement process.”
“I fear that by the time that you realize the reality of this crisis it will be too late, because for so many people it already is too late. Those 116 Oregonians who died in the heat wave, you already failed them. You witnessed three different young people testify that we are terrified for both our futures and our present. I’m tired of these comments being met by deaf ears. How many more lives have to be lost to climate disasters for you to start caring? I’m serious. That’s not a rhetorical question. Give me a number.”
One minute. Fifty-nine seconds.
ODOT argues the Rose Quarter project is a necessary one for traditional reasons. It says the expansion will improve traffic flow and safety along this stretch of highway. According to the project website, the Rose Quarter has “3.5 times more crashes than the statewide average and some of the highest traffic volumes in the state” (it does not go into any detail on if these two statistics are related). A separate ODOT webpage explains how auxiliary lanes make roads safer by connecting on-ramps with off-ramps to reduce merging.
In order to build the project, ODOT—or any other state’s department of transportation—must undertake an environmental analysis to comply with a 1970 federal law called the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and prove the project won’t reduce air quality, ecosystems, or produce other kinds of environmental harms. They do this by using various computer models, including traffic modeling. These models themselves must comply with a number of other federal and state regulations, according to ODOT spokesperson Tia Williams, to make an educated guess about how many vehicles will use the highway for decades after construction and at what speeds versus if they didn’t build the project at all or did any number of alternatives instead.
But these laws and regulations, for all their good intentions, have a number of flaws. NEPA predates any understanding of climate change, so the analyses and impacts it requires DOTs to measure are very specific questions about things like particulate matter and water ecosystems; relevant and good questions to ask that nevertheless often miss the bigger picture. As a result, that picture is easy to manipulate by simply making different assumptions, a frequent and pervasive issue in traffic modeling.
In this case, critics of the project say ODOT has engaged in just this type of model-gaming. Specifically, it uses what Joe Cortright, a Portland-based economist and consultant who frequently works on urban and transportation issues including traffic modeling, calls the “lemming theory of demand,” where people plow onto roads no matter how long the trip will take. In the real world, people look at Google Maps and see how long a trip will take and decide if it’s worth taking. But in the Lemming Theory world of travel demand modeling, people just get in their cars and go, no matter how far or how long it will take. So it is a fundamentally inaccurate way of modeling what a new or expanded highway will do to the city’s transportation landscape.
Not only that, but Cortright says ODOT also flooded the model with fictitious vehicle traffic. ODOT included traffic volume estimates from the Columbia River Crossing, a separate $5 billion freeway expansion project just up the road on I-5 in the no-build scenario. The only problem is that project doesn’t exist other than as a bunch of unfunded plans on paper. This means the “no build” scenario is, in fact, a build scenario, just a different build that will throw yet more traffic into the Rose Quarter. (And, if that other project ever comes to fruition, it will use the Rose Quarter expansion’s traffic volumes in the “no build” scenario to justify its own need, thereby creating a feedback loop in which two non-existent highway projects justify each other’s existences.)
“Every one of the state’s arguments for this project are easily debunked,” said No More Freeways’ Aaron Brown.
In a statement to Motherboard, Williams said this is less gaming a model but merely adhering to regulations and industry norms. By law, ODOT has to include a list of projects put together by the region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) called Metro, ostensibly a list of projects they think Portland will build in the future. The Columbia River Crossing is on that list, so it must be modeled in the “no-build” scenario, Williams says. “This approach is again consistent with what has been regionally adopted and consistent with modeling approaches for projects in the Portland metro region.”
Cortright disputed all of this, which got us into a conversation about, among other things, what constitutes the definition of “reasonably foreseeable” and other arcane provisions in Environmental Protection Agency regulations. They’re the kinds of questions that will, eventually, be settled by lawyers.
For all their differences, though, the two opposing sides are in agreement on one fundamental thing. ODOT is proceeding with the Rose Quarter project the same way it has all previous projects. ODOT says this in defense of its process because that is the kind of defense that typically wins in courts of law. Crandall and other activists say this to attack ODOT because the status quo will result in a superheated, uninhabitable planet.
Cortright believes one of the biggest problems with the entire modeling and review process is “balkanized,” an approach they are encouraged to take by outdated laws that never challenge departments of transportation to think about how money is spent. Every step of the process is “divied up into a lot of little pieces that avoid asking, and divert attention from big questions, like, if we really care about climate should we really be building a freeway at all?”
Or, Cortright put it a slightly different way. If given $1.2 billion to address transportation problems in Oregon in a way that takes the climate crisis seriously, is this—two auxiliary lanes, four shoulders, and a cap over a highway—the project you would end up with?
I put this question to Channel, the Rose Quarter project director. She replied, “This is a way to address both the transportation needs and the community building needs in a way that we have not taken that lens for projects previously.” She also added the “need for the Rose Quarter project is not going away.”
One minute and 51 seconds.
“I’m kept awake at night with climate anxiety. I’m losing sleep over this in the way I’m losing my childhood over this. Imagine it was your summer before sophomore year and instead of hanging out with friends you were waking up early to testify, terrified that the adults in power are failing you. I’m really sick of this. I shouldn’t have to be here. I’m scared, and I’m angry and I’m disappointed.”
One minute and 30 seconds.
We tend to think about climate change as emissions produced or reduced, CO2 put in the air or pledges by governments or massive corporations to do less of it. But there is another way to think about it, a way that is much more in line with how kids like Crandall or young adults like Wilson think about it. It is called a carbon clock, pioneered by the Berlin-based non-profit Mercator Institute. It shows how much CO2 humans emit per second and the time left, under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scenario where global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius to stave off the worst impacts, until our CO2 budget is depleted. It is a literal clock ticking down until we pass the point where we can ever truly stop climate change from disrupting life on the planet as we know it even more than it already has.
Crandall isn’t old enough to drive by herself. She won’t be able to vote for another three years. If she graduates college around the age of 22, like many Americans do, she will do so in 2029, a year before several key emissions reduction targets need to be met in order to prevent the worst climate change timeline from becoming reality. Targets we are nowhere close to hitting. As Wilson put it, what’s the point of studying biology if the planet’s habitability is being called into question?
“The world is a mess right now, adults don’t have their best interest in mind, everyone’s looking out for their own and not for our collective future,” Brown said. “They’re able to process that in a way that I would argue anyone over the age of 25 has been slowly jaded into not thinking about as much.”
The carbon clock has two time zones. The default is the one for the IPCC’s scenario of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The other, which can be viewed by clicking on the button in the upper-right corner, is for the IPCC’s 1.5 degrees Celsius scenario, a goal climate scientists used to target more explicitly because it would have likely avoided “long-lasting or irreversible impacts,” according to the IPCC. For the 1.5 degrees scenario, we have seven years, five months, 29 days, one hour, 47 minutes, and one second left, as I’m writing this. If that pace holds, Crandall will be 22 years old when time runs out.
The toll of Crandall’s climate anxiety is apparent even during our 90-minute Zoom call. When I bring up how she finds time to still be a kid, she says, in short, that she doesn’t. When I reminded her of the time she asked ODOT officials how they sleep at night, she replied, “Well, I mean, I’m still kept awake at night thinking about this.”
She’s burned out, exhausted, weighed down by the idea that every second that passes is yet another second closer to 2030, yet another second in which 1,337 tons of CO2, on average, are put into the atmosphere, yet another second cars and trucks rumbling down I-5 are part of the problem, not the solution, while the adults in charge are justifying making that highway bigger because, they say, it will continue to put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at the same rate.
I thought about that clock as Crandall sighed and lamented, “The wins are so small, and the losses are so big.”
But there are wins. Last week, the federal government rescinded its approval for the Rose Quarter project, instructing ODOT to re-do its environmental analysis to prove it won’t have a “significant impact.” If they fail to do so, ODOT will have to undertake a much more burdensome analysis called an Environmental Impact Statement which would take several years. But, in a statement, ODOT downplayed the ruling as a technical matter because ODOT had since altered the design of the cap over the highway. That same day, ODOT also revealed it’s short approximately $500 million on funding for this project. The state legislature has committed up to $700 million of the $1.2 billion price tag, but it’s not clear where the rest will come from. The state could use the rest of the federal infrastructure funds that haven’t already been committed to other projects, but it’s not clear if that would be enough or if there is enough political will to do that. Nevertheless, ODOT still expects to begin construction in 2023.
When I got the press release with Brown, Crandall, and other activists celebrating the recent federal decision, I thought of something Crandall told me a few weeks before. “I know, logically, there are so many other people around me who are also fighting for all of these same things and really are in this with me,” Crandall said. “But you still feel really alone.”
After talking with Crandall, I asked Scrutchions if he is worried about Crandall. He now teaches at the same high school Crandall attends and has lunch with her on occasion. He sees the exhaustion and knows she’s taking on something huge, a massive bureaucracy and some of the most powerful politicians in the state. She’s not alone, but she’s shouldering a great deal of the burden. “And that’s where the exhaustion comes from,” Scrutchions observed. “The burden.”
Sometimes, Crandall confessed, she feels like she’s not doing enough, that nothing will ever be enough. Even if she wins, even if she stops this seven-tenths of a mile of highway, it is just one project in a state full of projects in a country full of yet more projects. And we’re just one country. And the thought comes and goes as quickly as another 1,337 tons of CO2. She finds herself wondering, “Is there any amount of work that I could do that I would actually feel proud of?”
She never answers the question, except to say, “Even if it will never be enough, we have to at least try. And I refuse to just stand by and let the world fall apart.” She figures, at least she’s trying.
“When I’m done speaking, don’t just say ‘thank you for your comment’ and move on. Don’t say ‘there’s no time to respond’ because if you want to talk about running out of time, then I’ll point out that we have less than ten years to stop the climate crisis. That is where we’re running out of time. I think you can take two minutes to answer a simple question: How many people have to die for you to take the climate crisis seriously? And if the answer is ‘none,’ which it should be, then you won’t allow freeway expansion.”
“So, Chair Van Brocklin, Director Strickler, Members of the Oregon Transportation Commission, I need you to think about your values, and then tell me: What’s it going to be? Freeways, or lives?”
The clock stops ticking with 18 seconds left.
The clock is reset to three minutes.
“I think she’s done,” a female voice whispers into a microphone.
“Thank you for your comments,” a male voice says.