I-5 Rose Quarter project updates: City of Portland pulls all support, The Columbian weighs in, what comes next

I-5 Rose Quarter project updates: City of Portland pulls all support, The Columbian weighs in, what comes next

Last week we wondered how the Oregon Department of Transportation could possibly carry on with their I-5 Rose Quarter project without support from a key organization or Portland’s top elected leaders.

We’re about to find out.

The City of Portland just pulled even further away from ODOT’s beleaguered project. But that’s just one of the updates worth sharing. Here’s what you need to know…

Cease and Resist

The Oregonian’s Andrew Theen just reported via Twitter that all four Portland City Commissioners sent a letter to bureau directors today telling them to cease all work on the project. No meetings, no emails, nothing until further notice from City Council.

This is an extremely rare move that shows just how deeply ODOT’s hubris and lack of respect for key project partners has influenced this project.

It all started last Tuesday when leaders of Albina Vision Trust announced they would no longer support the project. “Unfortunately, despite two-plus years of engagement, ODOT has failed to make tangible commitments to the outcomes articulated by the Albina Vision Trust and shared by Multnomah County, the City of Portland, Metro, and other partners,” AVT’s Managing Director Winta Yohannes said. “We refuse to endorse projects or processes that do not align with our commitment to creating a thriving community that centers both Black life and Black prosperity.”

That move led to PBOT Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler pulling support as well. “ODOT did not seem to grasp the concept of restorative justice, and we were unlikely to achieve the outcomes we were seeking,” Eudaly said in a statement.

If ODOT thought this was just a bump in the road and they could just say a few contrite words at the start of the next meeting and keep marching along, they were very much mistaken.


Just a “Roadblock”

Meanwhile, for the paper of record in Clark County just over the Columbia River from Portland, these demands for racial and restorative justice are mere “roadblocks.” In an opinion piece published over the weekend The Columbian Editorial Board made it clear their main priority is the 70,000 people who drive into Portland on I-5 every day.

Calling the last week’s news on the project “disappointing,” they expressed concern that a failure to widen the freeway at the Rose Quarter might hurt the chances of an even bigger project to widen the freeway and interchanges further north. “Improvements to the Rose Quarter area are inextricably linked to Clark County and efforts to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge… Those efforts often have focused on the need for improvements through the heart of Portland, with critics pointing out that a new bridge will be inadequate if southbound drivers suddenly come to a standstill because of backups in the Rose Quarter area some 6 miles to the south.”

The paper hopes “visionary leadership on both sides” will be enough to get all the freeway expanding back on track.

What Comes Next

The blow from Portland isn’t fatal, but it puts the project in the Intensive Care Unit. I’m hoping to hear from as many experts and insiders as possible as to how ODOT ended up in this mess and what might happen next.

Here’s what former Metro Council President and current Executive Director of Transit Center David Bragdon told us:

“This final gambit was doomed by its core fallacy, the Governor’s apparent belief that a faux ‘engagement’ process manipulated by the State Highway Department with a predetermined outcome in mind would somehow produce the ‘right’ way to do something that is inherently wrong. The flaw in that assumption is that there IS no ‘right’ way to inflict more traffic and pollution on children of color and a waterfront park, and create more congestion – which is inevitably what this project was going to do, pretty drawings and insincere promises about caps notwithstanding.The State Highway Department tried to variously either co-opt, dupe, bully or bribe everyone, with falsified traffic forecasts, fraudulent fiscal fantasies and general incompetence and bad faith. Those standard ODOT tactics have now earned widespread, inalterable opposition from the community and a majority of local elected officials.

Unfortunately the power, unaccountably, is in Salem. The only sane resolution now is for Governor Brown and state legislators to order the State Highway Department to cease and desist from trying to impose this 1956 project on 2020 Portland. More years of futile ‘consensus-seeking’ can’t overcome the internal contradiction that there’s not a good way to do a bad thing.” 


And here’s what longtime project critic, policy expert and Metro Council candidate Chris Smith said (statement made before today’s announcement from City Council):

“We’re at an interesting stage. The Governor and ODOT will clearly try to get AVT and the City back to the table. If those parties are really done with the project, a very strong signal would be for Commissioner Eudaly to direct all PBOT staff to stop working on the project (that may have its own challenges, because ODOT will be funding those folks by reimbursing the City). It would be a very powerful signal if Commissioner Eudaly did that. 

A more technocratic response would be to pick up what I tried to do in 2017 and remove the project from the TSP [Transportation System Plan, created by City of Portland]. The disconnect between the TSP and RTP [Regional Transportation Plan, created by Metro] at that point would probably block further federal dollars. That might be a tactic, but would not solve the problem permanently.

The $30 million per year beginning in 2022 earmarked by the Oregon Legislature is a very powerful thing. We need to get that either removed (not clear the tax revenue behind it is going to stand up in the current economy) or ideally redirected to something positive for the region and not to some freeway widening elsewhere like the Abernethy Bridge or Highway 217.

I don’t think this will be really over until after the Columbia River Crossing is settled. The CRC discussion should be about the whole I-5 corridor from Battle Ground to Wilsonville (or Salem) and ideally would include the whole freeway network in the region. We need to establish the role of the freeway network in our climate change plans. We can’t do that effectively project-by-project.”

Stay tuned. We hope to share more from Albina Vision Trust soon about their next steps.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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