Think Out Loud

Climate organizers protest ODOT’s freeway expansion plans

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Dec. 15, 2021 6:01 p.m. Updated: Dec. 21, 2021 7:05 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Dec. 15

Since April, youth organizers with the Sunrise Movement have been holding rallies every other week in front of ODOT’s Portland Office. The group has several demands, including a moratorium on freeway expansion in Portland’s metro area. Ukiah Halloran-Steiner and Adah Crandall are climate justice organizers with the group. They join us with details.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Since April, youth climate activists with the Sunrise Movement have been holding rallies every other week in front of the Portland office of the Oregon Department of Transportation. The group has several demands, including a moratorium on freeway expansion in the Portland Metro Area. Ukiah Halloran-Steiner and Adah Crandall are two of the members of the group. Ukiah Is a high school junior taking dual credit classes at Portland Community College. Ada is a sophomore at Grant High School in Portland.

They both join me now. Ukiah and Adah, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Ukiah Halloran-Steiner / Adah Crandall: Thank you so much for having us. Thank you

Miller:  Ukiah, before we get to this series of protests, I’m curious how you first got involved with climate justice activism.

Ukiah Halloran-Steiner: I really started seeing the effects of climate change on the places that I love and the places that I call home through my own eyes, not through the news, and I just started seeing how much this this climate change is going to affect my life and my friends’ and generations to come.

Miller:  And Adah, what about you? What turned you into a climate activist?

Adah Crandall: The beginning of it for me was I attended Harriet Tubman Middle school in 7th and 8th grade. Tubman is right next to one of the busiest parts of the I-5 freeway and students are constantly breathing pollution from all of the thousands of diesel trucks that pass the school each day, and that experience really opened my eyes to the ways that our transportation systems are harming our communities in the way that they are contributing to the climate crisis.

Miller: Was that something that you would talk about with classmates when you were in 7th and 8th grade?

Crandall: Definitely. It was pretty much unavoidable. We would walk outside to recess and we would see this giant freeway and there were some kids who were afraid to even go outside because they were worried about the pollution. It was constantly on our minds, we could see it and we could hear it and we could smell it. It was just a really terrifying situation and there was no way not to talk about it.

Miller:  Ukiah, how did this particular series of protests, which has been going on every other week since April, how did it come to be?

Halloran-Steiner: One of our fellow organizers at Sunrise had the idea to hold some strikes outside in front of ODOT, holding our leaders accountable and asking them to take climate action in every decision that they make. I think it was inspired a bit by Greta Thunberg’s climate strikes and just the need to constantly be reminding our leaders that our futures matter.

Miller: Adah the name for this organizing series, this ongoing protest is Youth Versus ODOT.  What does that phrase mean to you?

Crandall: Right now, ODOT has a choice to make. They can either choose to side with the youth who are fighting for our futures and for climate justice, or they can continue to side with the extractive fossil fuel industry and continue to expand freeways. And so really, it does feel like right now it is a matter of youth versus ODOT because ODOT is moving us in the opposite direction, that youth know we need to go to fight for a livable future.


Miller: Can you give us a sense for the different bullet points among your demands? I mean, what exactly do you want the agency to do now? Adah, you can go first.

Crandall: Yes. So we have five demands for the campaign that center around asking that ODOT stop expanding freeways and instead prioritize a rapid and just decarbonization of our region’s transportation systems. So that includes, as you mentioned, a moratorium on freeway expansion as well as an environmental impact statement on the Rose Quarter freeway expansion, which is right next to Tubman, and for a youth advocate to be appointed to the Oregon Transportation Commission because there’s currently no one on that commission who is going to live to see the lasting effects of the decisions that they’re making about climate. It’s really essential that we have young peoples’ voices at the table. We’re also demanding that the money from the recently passed Infrastructure Bill goes towards transportation projects that will reduce vehicle miles traveled and reduce carbon emissions by increasing investment in transit and biking and walking and passenger rail instead of freeway expansion. We had another demand to veto some legislation that would continue to fund ODOT’s freeway expansion, but Governor Brown and our legislators unfortunately failed that demand.

Miller: That was House Bill 30-55 which you had said to lawmakers, ‘Don’t pass,’ you’d said to the Governor, ‘Don’t sign.’ They did and she did, and if I’m not mistaken, that’s going to let the agency spend bond money on highway projects around the state. Ukiah, I want to run by you and by Adah as well an email that I got this morning from a listener named Tamara who identified herself as a retired person. In a sense, it’s an encapsulation of a lot of the arguments that we’ve heard from ODOT or from trucking companies and other people about why they disagree with what you’re saying. This is what Tamara wrote: ‘The freeway should be expanded for economic reasons and the future mobility of this area. I-5 is a route for trucks moving goods and tourists in their Rvs or campers. I would love to see a European bullet train from Vancouver, BC, to San Diego, California, but this could be decades away; electric vehicles will reduce the emissions from the freeway. So this seems like the best immediate solution. Tolling is a fair way to help finance this, since all users will be tolled, not just local taxpayers.’ What’s your response to those arguments?

Halloran-Steiner: I feel really concerned to hear adults prioritize the well-being of our economy and our financial well-being over the well-being of myself and my peers and our planet. And it’s really scary and I think that letter kind of cements what our fears are in the fact that our leaders are prioritizing economic growth over the health and safety of their children.

Miller: Can you paint us a picture of the transportation future, the infrastructure future that you have in mind? I mean if ODOT were to use federal dollars the way you want the agency to and to stop pursuing projects like the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion or potentially the bridge over the Columbia River expansion, if that project is re-energized, if those stop, could you paint us a picture of what you’d like the transportation world to look like in Oregon?

Halloran-Steiner: Personally, I live outside of Portland and there really isn’t a predictable bus that I can take if I wanted to go to school in person. In Portland, if I wanted to go to the doctor and didn’t want to have to drive or couldn’t drive, there really isn’t a way that I can reliably take public transportation other places around the state, which is really problematic and I envision a world in which I can safely and quickly and efficiently take the bus and take light rail to the doctor and to school and to meet my friends and I envision a world where kids can bike to school safely without having to worry about cars and pollution and breathing dirty air. Starting to prioritize this public transportation so that the people who need to get places that they need to go can, and take public transportation, and biking and walk the places where they can because it’s really important that we envision... I think that this is a great question, there are a lot of ways that we can expand our vision to, but that’s where I would start.

Miller: I should remind folks if you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now with two of the climate justice activists from the Sunrise Movement, two of the people who are part of a series of protests that have been going on every two weeks since April in front of the Oregon Department of Transportation building in Portland. I should note that we’re gonna be talking, actually, with two representatives from ODOT tomorrow on the show, but today we’re talking with you Ukiah Halloran-Steiner, a Climate Justice organizer with Sunrise Rural Oregon and Adah Crandall, Climate Justice organizer with Sunrise PDX. Adah, it’s worth pointing out, and this gets to something you both have been talking about before, that despite your activism and the really fervent activism of a number of other groups, ODOT is still moving forward with its plans for I-5. The Governor did sign that house bill that you opposed. There’s talk of a revived project to expand the I-5 Bridge over the Columbia. What is sustaining you in this work amidst these setbacks?

Crandall: It can definitely feel really disheartening to know that we have been holding these rallies for over seven months now and still haven’t had any of our concrete demands met, but I also do understand that in a fight this big, progress is going to happen over time and things aren’t going to change overnight. Even if it may seem on the outside, like ODOT is unfazed by this and is going to continue business as usual. I think that there are a lot of ways, internally, that we are starting to change the narrative around what our transportation system could like look like and really start to show the public and expose to the public what ODOT is doing and how their actions are worsening the climate crisis and how we could be investing in a transportation system that really does better serve our communities like Ukiah described. I think that in a lot of ways that vision really is what keeps me going along with knowing that I do have a personal stake in this as a former Tubman student and really just wanting to fight for future generations of students there, who have to deal with the pollution and for all of the people in my generation who will have to live with the long term impacts of climate change. We really have no choice but to continue this fight, even if it feels like progress is slow.

Miller: I want to come back to that general generational question, but Ukiah, to go back to the phrase ‘Youth versus ODOT; I’m curious where Governor Kate Brown sits in this for you. I mean, she’s obviously the State’s Chief Executive, she bears ultimate responsibility for executive actions in the state. She appoints members to commissions like the Oregon Transportation Commission or the commission that oversees the Department of Environmental Quality. How would you assess Governor Brown’s actions on climate change compared to her rhetoric?

Halloran-Steiner: That’s a really great question because the Governor really did say that she wanted to fight for our futures. She wanted to take significant climate action and so far, in the decisions that she’s made around transportation really haven’t matched those promises. We actually had a chance to meet with the Governor. I personally wasn’t in that meeting, so perhaps Adah, would you like to speak to that?

Crandall: Members of Sunrise Movement PDX had a meeting with Governor Brown a few months ago to discuss the demands of this campaign, and some of the other work that Sunrise is doing. It was pretty disheartening to see someone who, like Ukiah said, made a lot of claims during her campaign about how she was going to fight for climate, then to really just not follow through with action. In that meeting, it felt in a lot of ways like we were talking into a void and that we weren’t being heard. I think it’s really a matter of continuing to pressure elected officials, like Governor Brown, who as you mentioned, do have a lot of power and it’s really easy for elected officials to try to divert that responsibility away from themselves and say, ‘oh, it’s this other person’s fault, this other person made those decisions,’ but Governor Brown has a lot of influence and we really do need her to be the climate leader that she said that she would be.

Miller: Ukiah. I mean, this hardly gets to the generational question that I’m wondering about, but it’s maybe even bigger than that. One way to boil down all of these arguments, and again, I should remind folks, we’re going to be hearing from ODOT tomorrow, but  we’ve talked to ODOT a lot about these exact issues for two years now, or more. One way to boil it down, is to say that people like the woman who emailed us or ODOT or plenty of other people, they say that climate activists like you, you don’t really understand the way the economy works right now or just how embedded driving infrastructure is in our lives and our economy, and you in turn are saying we do understand that, you people don’t truly understand what’s at stake for the future of a livable planet. I’m just wondering how we move past that if on some level that’s what this boils down to, how do we move forward?

Halloran-Steiner: 40% of our state’s carbon emissions come from transportation and we know that carbon emissions cause climate change, and I think we really need to re-envision this world and the world in which we live and think about our priorities and I have this painting above my computer right now and it says a better world is possible. And I just think it’s really important that we keep that message in mind as we make these decisions. We don’t have to keep doing what we’ve always done. We can envision a world where we can all thrive and we don’t rely on cars.

Miller: Ukiah Halloran-Steiner and Adah Crandall, thanks very much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.

Halloran-Steiner / Crandall: Thank you. Thank you

Miller: Ukiah Halloran-Steiner is a student in Baker Early College. She’s taking dual credit classes at Portland Community College, she’s a climate justice organizer with Sunrise, Rural Oregon. Adah Crandall is a sophomore at Grant High School in Portland’s Climate Justice organizer with Sunrise PDX. In 2016 we talked to a group of Oregon high schoolers about what the American dream meant to them. That was five momentous years ago. Those young people are now in college or recent college graduates. Coming up on the next Think Out Loud, we’ll check back in with them to see how their thoughts have changed.

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