Activists blast plans to widen I-5 freeway near Rose Quarter

Active Right of Way (AROW), an all-volunteer transportation activism group, is expressing “serious reservations” with the Draft N/NE Quadrant and I-5 Broadway/Weidler Facility Plans. The project is a collaboration between the City of Portland and the State of Oregon that will spend $400 million to widen I-5 through the Rose Quarter and make a number of changes to adjacent surface streets. The group summed up their concerns with the project in a three page letter (PDF) sent to the City’s Planning and Sustainability Commission last week.

AROW opposes the project for several reasons. First among them are claims that the project doesn’t align with the right funding and safety priorities. The letter was signed by AROW leaders Steve Bozzone (who’s also a Willamette Pedestrian Coalition board member) and Alexis Grant. Below are some excerpts from their letter…

On funding:

“In a time when existing maintenance obligations are increasing and funding is decreasing, spending $400 million on widening one very short segment of freeway is something we can’t afford. A freeway creates negative outcomes for community cohesion, public health, and economic development; widening it only increases future maintenance obligations. Destroying the existing structures to create even larger scars in the local street and land use grid is wasteful and not in line with local sustainability goals.”

On safety:

“Although this project is billed as a safety project, only the safety of the freeway has been truly considered. Crash statistics for the freeway segment are reported in great detail, but crashes on surrounding surface streets resulting from the disordered street system created by the off ramps, the chaotic driving due to congestion, and the speed of entrance and exit to the freeway were never mentioned. In particular, the effect of the freeway’s presence on bicycle and pedestrian travel was discussed only conceptually. The result is to give high weight to what are usually minor freeway crashes, while minimizing the importance of surface street safety as highlighted in Metro’s State of Safety report. If safety is the true priority, we request that surface improvements be prioritized over freeway expansion.

Steve Bozzone speaking at a Williams Ave
project meeting last year.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

On the public process:

“The public process failed to create an inclusive committee or process, and did not adequately represent neighborhood-level stakeholders. While developers and business owners were well represented, the residents of adjacent neighborhoods and those displaced by the original Memorial Coliseum & I-5 projects, were not part of the public process… The I-5 Freeway, Memorial Coliseum and Emanuel Hospital have brought serious environmental burdens on Albina which must be addressed. We do not find the highway elements of this proposal to be consistent with the feedback and concerns of the neighborhoods impacted by the highway.”

On public health:

“There is no getting around how toxic and detrimental I-5 is to our city’s health. The highway contributes to our city’s poor air quality and high asthma rates. The large concrete cover required by a freeway increases surface air temperature and reduces land available for parks and greenways. Highway off-ramps are dangerous for people traveling in the area, particularly people walking and biking, and increase injury and death due to traffic behavior. None of these public health concerns were taken into account in this process. We are not convinced destroying the current bridge structures and widening the highway to allow more cars in the neighborhood will provide a true benefit for the public good.”

On land use:

“The Rose Quarter is an economic hub for the city and the amount of surface activity and transit is intense. Portland has made a significant investment in transit in the area with 4 MAX lines and a dozen bus lines meeting at the transit center, alongside the new Eastside Streetcar loop running along Broadway/Weidler. The corridor is a critical link for bicycle and pedestrian traffic and the Rose Quarter neighborhood is designated a Pedestrian District in the Transportation System Plan. We do not believe highway expansion is appropriate for supporting the type of walkable and vibrant corridor envisioned by residents and by the N/NE Quadrant Plan as a whole.”

Detail of planned widening. Dark orange are new lanes,
light orange are new shoulders.

In addition to adding auxiliary lanes and widening shoulders of I-5, this project also comes with a host of proposed surface street improvements. However, activists worry that given the lack of funding, the freeway widening will be funded first while changes to surface streets — some of them which will improve bikeway access — might never come to fruition. On that note, Bozzone and Grant are urging the Planning Commission and Portland City Council to, “fast track the surface improvements and put on hold the highway-widening proposal.”

ODOT’s primary focus on widening I-5 through our city simply to relieve congestion caused me great concern at the outset of this project’s public process back in December of 2010. While surface street changes and other pieces of window dressing have been added — and while ODOT likes to frame this as a “safety” issue — this project is about expanding freeway capacity so that more cars and trucks can roar through the heart of our city. Is this really the type of project Portland stands for? I’m grateful that at least AROW has spoken up.

If you’d like to voice your opinion about this project, there aren’t many opportunities left. The Project Stakeholder Committee will hold a work session on September 25th; but they won’t take public testimony. Their recommendation is tentatively set for a public hearing at Portland City Council on October 25th. The public is welcome to testify and share thoughts with City Commissioners at that time.

— More on the N/NE Quadrant Plan here. Read AROW’s complete letter here (PDF).

Switch to Desktop View with Comments