Great news for the Freeway Fight

Great news for the Freeway Fight

Today, according to reports from Willamette Week and The Portland Mercury, Albina Vision Trust and a number of elected leaders are officially revoking their support of ODOT’s proposed Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion.

I cast the first “no” vote by a public official on the “Rose Quarter Improvement Project” when I asked to separate the freeway from the rest of the N/NE Quadrant plan back in 2012. I was the only vote in opposition at that time. It was evident to me then that having a freeway expansion be the largest investment in our 2035 Central City Plan made no sense. And it was clear that the ‘surface improvements’ being offered up by ODOT would not offset the further injury to air quality, climate and safety that yet another urban freeway expansion would create.

It’s been a long effort since then, including the formation of the No More Freeways campaign in 2017, but I’m glad to see that Albina Vision and others have reached the inevitable conclusion that ODOT is fundamentally not responsive to community concerns, and that no amount of “mitigations” can offset the harms created by further expansion of urban freeways.

In the current moment, it’s also important to recognize that urban freeways have been devastating to BIPOC communities, that the original construction of I-5 split Portland’s largest Black neighborhood in half, and was part of a racist public construction agenda in Albina and its surrounding area. It remains a vital priority to correct that injustice, and I look forward to continuing to support the work of Albina Vision.

I’m delighted that the proposed Metro Transportation package includes $50 million for investment in the Albina neighborhood. Racial justice and climate justice are tightly interwound, and as a Metro Councilor I will prioritize both.

Posted by chrisformetro_0wtnz4
What does Black Lives Matter mean for Metro?

What does Black Lives Matter mean for Metro?

Do you hear the sound of glass breaking? Those are paradigms being shattered!

As someone who has worked tirelessly to promote climate-smart communities, healthier transportation systems and affordable housing by breaking the paradigm of overreliance on drive-alone auto trips, and the freeway-industrial complex that supports it, this is very exciting to me. 

But this is NOT the moment for that paradigm.

This moment is about how policing impacts America’s BIPOC communities, and its contributions to institutional racism. I’m smart enough to realize that I’m not the right leader for that conversation, and I’m listening carefully (and gratefully) to the leadership of groups like PAALF, Unite Oregon and Urban League of Portland

I’ve also looked at what role Metro may have on this specific topic, and believe it is minimal to none. Metro’s park rangers have limited enforcement authority (they write citations) and don’t carry lethal weapons. And Metro contracts with local police departments only minimally. But if elected, I’ll take a careful look at those and other security functions at Metro, with an eye towards ensuring that we’re focusing on community safety and problem solving, and hearing from impacted communities how best to address these injustices. And just this week, I submitted testimony to TriMet’s board echoing OPAL – Environmental Justice Oregon’s to look at defunding transit police.

But if we zoom out, this moment is just a piece of addressing widespread systemic, institutional racism in our communities. And Metro definitely does have a role in that greater fight. As Urban League President Nkenge Harmon Johnson pointed out at a recent event, the policy recommendations of Portland Urban League’s 2015 “State of Black Oregon” report are just as meaningful today in 2020! I’ve also reviewed the PAALF “People’s Plan”. I was struck by how many of their recommendations directly overlapped with Metro’s primary goals, and how urgent it is that our regional government proactively review these policies with lens towards racial justice:

    • Stable housing

      • An adequate housing supply

      • Subsidized affordable housing (including transportation affordability as part of overall household affordability)

      • Stabilize renters including preservation of “naturally occurring” affordable housing

      • Policies and programs to prevent displacement

      • Enforce Fair Housing standards

      • Programs to help people maintain/sustain housing they already own

    • Workforce preparation and participation

      • A diverse Metro workforce

      • Continuing support for Metro’s C2P2 program (Construction Career Pathways Project)

    • Healthy, vibrant and economically viable neighborhoods

      • Healthy air quality

      • Access to safe recreation, including parks and open spaces

      • Land use planning to put community needs in walking distance for most folks

      • Equitable investment in neighborhoods

      • Use race-informed health impact assessments when planning investments

    • Increase civic engagement, especially in displaced neighborhoods

      • Investments to build capacity for participation by BIPOC communities

      • Meet communities where they are at, in their spaces

      • Offer childcare at hearings and open houses

      • Consider providing a stipend for folks serving on advisory committees

      • Hybridize in-person and online participation in meetings in the post-Covid world

      • Create a public campaign finance system for Metro to enable more diverse fields of candidates

    • Provide access via good land use planning and affordable transportation to:

      • Jobs

      • Education

      • Recreation

      • Daily needs like healthy food

      • Transit Justice – provide better access, especially from areas that people have been displaced to

      • Examine racial equity in pedestrian and cycling infrastructure

I’ve spent a decade working on revamping Portland’s policy documents to prioritize BIPOC communities, but I’ve also witnessed the implementation of those policies stall to a large degree. I’m ready to focus on that implementation at Metro – and prioritize results for frontline communities who have waited for far too long for Oregon to live up to its progressive reputation and values.

Construction of what is now the Rose Quarter Freeway (you can see Harriet Tubman Middle School in the photo!) circa 1962.

Circling back to something I know a little more about – there are few vestiges of American cities reflecting a racist paradigm of urban planning than the freeways built through Black neighborhoods in cities across the country. The largest Black neighborhood in the state of Oregon was bisected by construction of I-5, eliminating decades of Black wealth and destroying invaluable civic fabric and community ties.

Today, the racist legacy of freeway construction continues in how these structures operate. In many cases the residents near freeways are lower income, and have a greater concentration of BIPOC people than other parts of the city. These residents suffer the air and noise pollution of the freeway, with stark impacts to their health, while the drivers passing by who enjoy the opportunities created by the freeway are often whiter and wealthier.

Students from the Harriet Tubman Middle School Environmental Justice Club, testifying at a JPACT hearing last fall, in opposition to freeway expansions across the region.

That’s why I’m so committed to applying the concept of “Just Transition” or “Green New Deal” to our region’s transportation investments and policies. We must center these voices as we, as a region, deal with the threat posed by the climate emergency. We must explicitly center economic opportunity for the communities that have been marginalized by our current racist economy and planning processes. Our investments in public transit, biking and walking must be guided by the needs and demands of BIPOC communities.

Finally, this great NPR interview with a Black climate scientist reminds us that:

  • Climate change is more severely impact BIPOC communities, and
  • Racism is sapping the human potential that we need to address climate change!

I’m continuing to listen and learn in this exciting time, and I am looking forward to fighting white supremacy to make Metro’s policies, plans and actions anti-racist.

With humility,


Posted by chrisformetro_0wtnz4
On to November

On to November

It has been an incredible experience running in a race with five highly capable candidates. I appreciate very much that we were able to campaign on ideas and contrast the varied experiences that we would each bring to the Metro Council.

I want to thank Cameron Whitten for his energy, enthusiasm and focus on diversity and inclusion, Karen Spencer for her fresh perspective and experience around natural area issues and Mary Peveto for her passionate advocacy for clean air and environmental justice.

I look forward to engaging Mary Nolan in the runoff and believe we’ll be able to draw distinctions between our policies and qualifications, particularly around making hard choices to effectively address climate change.  Metro needs leadership that doesn’t compromise on our obligation to act on climate when considering investments in transportation and our future. 

On to November!

Posted by chrisformetro_0wtnz4
“Chris Smith Geeky. Informed. Workaholic. He’s no average activist”

“Chris Smith Geeky. Informed. Workaholic. He’s no average activist”

This column, written by Anna Griffin, was originally published in The Oregonian on August 7, 2006. Seeing as how Chris is back in the political sphere, we thought we’d share it again to highlight that he was winning accolades for his environmental advocacy of land use and transportation in the local newspaper a full 15 years ago.

Modern day Chris, in 2020, reading The Oregonian article from 2006

The scene repeats itself any time the Portland City Council considers a serious matter of land use, transportation, neighborhood planning or civic engagement. First come the city bureaucrats, spouting earnest techno-babble explanations of the day’s issue. Next come the professional lobbyists, their presentations as polished as their dress shoes. Then the neighborhood activists passionately point out how the city has failed to consider them.

Finally, a nondescript-looking man approaches the microphone.

He carries prepared remarks, but does not lecture. He congratulates city leaders for their hard work. He suggests loopholes they might have missed. He leads them to his point, Socratic-method style, in a soft voice tinged with a hint of a New England accent.

Who is Chris Smith, if not a lobbyist or a neighborhood activist or a bureaucrat? He’s a pro bono political operative who does everything from data analysis to door-to-door campaigning for progressive candidates and causes. A deep-thinking advocate for smarter transportation planning who can’t seem to resist a City Club research project. A foodie. A biker. A blogger. An outsider who nudged his way inside by working hard and showing up.

Striding into City Hall or the headquarters of Metro, the regional government, Smith turns few heads. The 46-year-old shows up at most places in nothing more formal than shorts and a polo shirt, squinting slightly behind his glasses. He has that so-geeky-he’s-hip thing going, from the T eo hooked to his bike messenger’s bag to the “four or five” computers humming at home.

Yet when it comes to promoting the kind of smart, urban-centric planning that attracts people to Portland, Smith hangs out on the cutting edge. Among his current projects: extending the Portland Streetcar to the east side of the Willamette River. Expanding the city’s network of bike paths and trails. Keeping alive the prospect of a Burnside-Couch couplet. Crafting a long-term vision for the region. Preserving public financing of City Hall campaigns.

Photo credit Maddie Maschger Photography

Few people in Portland or Oregon practice the time-gobbling art of civic involvement to the same degree as Smith, a man of many metaphorical hats along with the hiker’s fedora he sports anytime the sun threatens to shine.

Smith did not expect to get so involved in civic affairs when Tektronix moved him here in 1988 from Boston. He’d been a student government do-gooder in high school and college, but by the time of his transfer he was too focused on his career as a computer engineer to worry about politicians and planners.

Like plenty of transplanted Portlanders, Smith assumed he would head back to the Northeast in a few years. Instead, life intervened.

In 1991, he moved from the Beaverton area to North Portland. He fell in love with the
neighborhood, which reminded him of the urbane yet easy-to-navigate European cities he’d visited for work. He also fell hard for Staci Paley, a fellow technology whiz. Their relationship has survived more than a decade, despite the fact that she prefers to drive everywhere and he is a transit fiend who also walks 15,000 steps or bikes 15 miles a day to help his weight and blood pressure. A passion for his new neighborhood spurred the activism that ran in his genes: In his hometown in
western Massachusetts, his mother led the League of Women Voters and ran for City Council; his father served on the local hospital and Chamber of Commerce boards. Curious about his new community, Smith attended a few neighborhood meetings. He discovered he had a brain for the way zoning laws and traffic patterns shape how people live. He became more and more involved and educated until he ended up serving as the Northwest Portland neighborhood association’s transportation expert for a long and nasty debate over parking.

From there, he branched out. He worked for Our Oregon in its 2000 statewide campaigns against anti-tax measures proposed by conservative activist Bill Sizemore. He joined the volunteer board planning the streetcar. He signed up for City Club. Eventually, he went part time at Xerox, where he now works. Now, he says, “I spend 30 hours a week making a living and 30 hours a week making a difference.”

While many neighborhood activists stick to their own backyards, and their own real estate investments, Smith’s passion for public engagement is an intellectual pursuit as much as a matter of the heart –or the pocketbook.

He’s a systems guy, trained to view the world as a series of interlocking parts. When he goes to work –commuting to Xerox’s Wilsonville office by bicycle and bus –he spends his days trying to make computer systems link up as efficiently as possible. When he stays home, he strives to ensure that each zoning decision, road map and mass-transit leg meshes with the larger scheme.

He quotes Winston Churchill on infrastructure –“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”–then launches into his own interpretation, barely pausing to catch a breath: “The interstate highway system really shaped modern America, right? So we’re making decisions right now in this region that will affect how we live for decades to come.” Unlike many neighborhood and civic organizers, Smith is more pragmatist than idealist. In the debate about parking in Northwest Portland, for example, he tried to negotiate with developers to push pay stations and permit parking over large garages. Smith and his neighbors eventually lost
in court. Yet even people on the other side credit him with being open to compromise.

“He’s not the classic citizen activist, always coming to argue against things,” said David Bragdon, Metro Council president, who also got his start as a Northwest neighborhood advocate.

Two other reasons politicians and bureaucrats pay attention: Smith works his tail off, staying up late to sort through political spending reports, toiling for hours over maps showing where in town the City Council candidates collected their contributions and tracking down every pertinent public record on any given topic.
Also, he’s there. It seems simple, but just showing up at all the hearings and presentations that precede a government vote presents a steep hurdle for many activists. They’re too busy making a living.

“Chris is a guardian of the public process,” said Scott Bricker, policy director at the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. He cites Smith’s recent successful effort to force Metro to waive a $30 charge for a June brainstorming meeting on regional growth.
“As a lobbyist, I’ll wear a suit and a tie, I’ll go to these events because I’m paid to go. Chris shows up in his sunglasses, his hat, his shorts. He’s walked there or biked there,” Bricker said. “But because he has the patience and the time to do what most people can’t –take part in this grueling process –they pay attention.”

Hesitant to go professional

With his computer skills, tenacity and aw-shucks charm, Smith could surely get paid for much of the work he now does for free. He’s played with the idea of running for office but never bit. Every now and then, friends suggest he go into business as a consultant advising candidates or organizing grass-roots campaigns.

Photo Credit Maddie Mascgher

He’s not so sure. For one thing, a large part of his credibility and freedom comes from the fact that he’s doing this because he cares, not to pay the mortgage.
If he was focused on one thing, beholden to a boss, would he have time to make those regular calls to Portland Streetcar president Rick Gustafson to point out vandalism or technical glitches?

Would he still have the credibility to point out to city Auditor Gary Blackmer what he perceives as holes in the city’s lobbying rules? Would anybody listen when he shows up to argue for city government to cut Flexcar a break on parking fees?
If he went into business, he might also have to get rid of those home-printed business cards, unlike anything anybody else carries in this town.

On the back, the card lists Web addresses for his blog, the Portland Streetcar, the Metro Policy Advisory Council and the City Council. The front side is simpler and answers, in blocky blue, black and white type, that nagging question about Smith.
Given all his activities and interests, what the heck is he?

“Chris Smith, Citizen Activist.”

Read Chris Smith’s blog at

Posted by chrisformetro_0wtnz4