A bombshell (at least for us urban planning/transportation types) from The Oregonian today: Beth Slovic is reporting that Portland Mayor Sam Adams is shopping around a plan to bury Interstate 5 where it runs through the heart of Portland’s eastside riverfront. Here’s a snip from her story, Mayor Sam Adams revisits idea of rejiggering Interstate 5:
“An expensive idea that first gained traction in Portland in the 1980s, flared again in the 1990s and resurfaced in the 2000s could rise again in some fashion under Mayor Sam Adams, who has nine months left in his term.
But city officials are so far keeping mum about the recent $11,000 study that shows a rejiggered Interstate 5 near Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District, declining this week to release “a draft concept-level diagram” of the interstate to The Oregonian.
Nonetheless, Adams has reached out to former Mayor Vera Katz and Nohad Toulan, dean emeritus of the College of Urban and Public Affairs at Portland State University… Both Katz and Toulan confirmed this week that Adams asked them to meet, although no date has been set.”
As Slovic mentions, this is far from a crazy new idea from Mayor Adams. As I shared back in 2006, a group of smart and connected citizen activists dubbed Riverfront For People — the same folks that got ODOT to remove Harbor Drive and replace it with Waterfront Park — have been pushing for this for over a decade.
As late as 2007, the group still had momentum: City Council unanimously passed a resolution to study this idea as part of the ongoing Central City Plan Update. One of the leaders of Riverfront for People, Ron Buel, told me back in 2006 that the reason to bury the freeway is because it would add to the, “cultural and economic vibrancy of Portland.”
Here’s a snip from that story;
Buel also emphasized how this plan would cut congestion and reduce car trips in Portland. The plan calls for adding capacity to the freeway and — because many people that drive in Portland are commuting from outlying cities — a major part of their vision is to add thousands of close-in, “workforce” housing units enabling more people to walk and bike to work.
And here are a few more illustrations of what it could look like from presentations put together by Riverfront for People:
And here’s how I-5 through the central eastside looks today (Yuck! And you should hear how loud it is and the toxic air that surrounds the very popular Eastbank Esplanade path we all jog and bike through is a bummer too):
Obviously this project is technically feasible and the benefits to our city hardly need explaining. I bet we could even find the money for it somewhere (think I’m crazy? Some people think we can find money for the CRC and did you know we’re building a new light rail bridge and line to Milwaukie!?). But as we all know, the conversation — if it actually picks up again at all — will be more driven by politics.
It might be instructive to recall the unfortunate demise of the Sauvie Island Bridge Relocation Project. This project, a.k.a. the Flanders Street Bridge, would have recycled the old Sauvie Island bridge and put it over I-405 through downtown Portland at NW Flanders St. The construction crews said it would work, Mayor Adams and PBOT were pushing for it with full force (and even Commissioner Saltzman approved) and neighborhood groups and transportation activists were rallying for it.
But in the end, the project fell victim to politics. Adams, who was in a re-election battle with Sho Dozono, got cold feet and pulled the plug. Dozono, who hailed from east Portland, used the all-powerful equity argument to politicize the project and he ultimately claimed victory once it was dead.
I’m not trying to dampen hopes that Adams might succeed resurrecting the plan to bury I-5, I’m just trying to add some context to the battle that he’d face.
It’s worth noting that the Mayor has just nine months left in his term. Adams has staked his reputation on sustainability and transportation and it must be obvious to him that there could not be a more bold and lasting legacy for him to leave than getting rid of a huge eyesore that moves only motor vehicles and spews benzene and exhaust into our river and into the lungs of our city.
I’ve got a contact into the Mayor’s office for a statement. Stay tuned for any developments.
UPDATE, 3:32 pm: Mayor Adams has just released a concept plan. Check it out.