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More Than Commuters Will Be Affected By Columbia Crossing Project

Portland's regional government, Metro is taking up the contentious Columbia River Crossing project Thursday afternoon.  It's expected to support a new bridge with light rail transit. 

OPB's Andrew Theen talked with people this week about how the bridge affects minority job opportunities and community health.

Marcela Alcantar was one of almost 80 speakers at the recent Portland city council meeting on the Columbia River Crossing project.

She stressed the importance of including minorities and women in the construction process if a new bridge is built.  The entire city council seemed receptive to her plea, and that made Alcantar hopeful.

Marcela Alcantar:"I want to be more than just hopeful.  I don't want to linger in hopes anymore.  But so far there has been $30 million, and there has been very minimal participation."

Alcantar hopes that participation will increase as the project lurches forward.  She's made monumental steps forward in her own right.  She's a Hispanic women, and  a domestic abuse survivor who now has 10 employees in her engineering company.

She said after immigrating from Mexico over two decades ago she understands the value of good transportation.

Marcela Alcantar: "I believe the backbone for everything is transportation, that's why it creates opportunities.  And If opportunities stagnate at one single point families also suffer because employees don't get time at home and so forth."

Alcantar says the Interstate Bridge is that point of stagnation.  She says the bridge "absolutely" needs to be replaced. 

Alcantar isn't a licensed civil engineer, but she said that hasn't stopped her from working with TriMet on projects like the Interstate Avenue light rail extension.

Marcela Alcantar: "So when I participate in projects like that it doesn't just necessarily benefit me as a business, but it's opportunity for other people as well."

Alcantar hopes she can be an inspiration to other women of color to get involved in construction and engineering.  Her 21-year-old daughter is following in her footsteps, and that makes her smile.

Just a few blocks from Alcantar's Northeast Portland office traffic is already backed up on I-5. 

Sylivia Evans: "Six months after living here my daughter had her first asthma attack.  And I wondered why.  When we had lived in other places like in St. John's we didn't have that issue."

That's North Portland resident Sylvia Evans.  She lives just a block away from the interstate.  Evans' apartment complex is low-income, and has many recent African immigrants.  She said for newcomers, health problems seem to crop up after about six months.

Evans connected her health issues and asthma in all 3 of her children to pollution from I-5.  She has a message for commuters.

Sylvia Evans: "You're leaving your toxins behind and it's damaging our health.  And what I hear so much after testifying in front of CRC is, well if it's that bad why don't you move.  And what I'm saying is it is that bad.  And why do I have to move? Why don't they get out of their car."

Danielle Cogan is with the CRC.  She says air pollution in North Portland will actually improve with a new bridge.

Danielle Cogan: "The draft environmental impact statement shows in terms of air quality issues that toxic pollution actually will go down in North Portland for all alternatives studies."

Cogan says CRC officials have created an open public comment process and included as many people as possible in the discussion.

Sylvia Evans disagrees.  She called the experience disenchanting.

Sylvia Evans: "I wasn't listened to, I wasn't heard, and I wasn't taken serious because I'm not coming from privilege.  I'm coming from a low-income housing community where we say our low income doesn't reflect our high IQ."

CRC officials say they "can always do more to ensure the process is an open one."

As for North Portlander Sylvia Evans, she has a suggestion if a new bridge is built.  Use five percent of toll money for health care in North Portland and  adding more trees along the freeway to soak up toxic air.