ODOT modifies I-5 expansion plans to prevent Esplanade impacts

ODOT modifies I-5 expansion plans to prevent Esplanade impacts

An artist’s rendering of what the wider I-5 might have looked like from the Esplanade.
(Source: Graphics by Cupola Media/ No More Freeways PDX)

“The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has determined that this project would not have a significant adverse impact on the human or natural environment.” That’s the key statement from FHWA Oregon Division Administrator Phil Ditzler after reviewing the Environmental Assessment (EA) for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s I-5 Rose Quarter project.

ODOT shared news of Ditzler’s decision, known in federal transportation planning parlance as the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), on Friday November 6th. It’s a big step for the project because it marks the end of the environmental review phase and gives ODOT the “all clear” to move into design.

In order to get the FONSI, ODOT had to make one significant change to their plans: They will no longer widen the I-5 viaduct over the Eastbank Esplanade. This move will save our beloved Esplanade from a future of even more darkness, noise and pollution due to the proximity of the freeway. You might recall we covered this issue back in March 2019 when activists sleuthed a passage from the EA calling for a “permanent easement” along the Esplanade along the western edge of I-5 where it swoops eastward onto I-84. It took considerable arm-twisting by Portland architect and transportation advocate Iain Mackenzie for ODOT to share details about their plans. Once he got them, Mackenzie was able to reveal that the wider freeway footprint would have resulted in a shadow over the Esplanade, potential new support structures, and closures to the path during construction.


Federal environmental rules protect public parks, so ODOT’s plans put it in hot water with the City of Portland who threatened to not sign off on the project if it negatively impacted the Esplanade.

In the end ODOT modified the project and has decided to not widen the freeway for a 1,200 foot segment immediately east of the Eastbank Esplanade between the I-84 off-ramp to the Morrison Bridge/SE Portland/Oregon Museum of Science and Industry off-ramp. “With these changes,” the ODOT EA comment summary reads, “no substantial impacts to the Eastbank Esplanade, or to fish and other species that use the Willamette River, are expected.”

ODOT Project Manager Megan Channell told The Oregonian the decision was an example of how they’ve listened to community feedback. She also said the resulting narrower freeway shoulders are likely to lead more crashes and make bus-on-shoulder use less likely.

I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project Finding of No Significant Impact and Revised Environmental Assessment (PDF)

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