The Classic - Cycle Oregon

I-5 widening plan up for vote at City Council Thursday

Posted by on October 23rd, 2012 at 2:25 pm

I-5 at Rose Quarter

ODOT’s dream to widen I-5 near the Rose Quarter
could take a big step forward tomorrow.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

On Wednesday, a plan by the Oregon Department of Transportation to widen I-5 near the Rose Quarter will be considered for adoption by City Council. The I-5 Broadway/Weidler Facility Plan, which includes freeway and surface street changes that are estimated to cost $400 million, will be considered in tandem with the N/NE Quadrant Plan, an effort by the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to re-imagine transportation and land-use in the lower-Albina and Lloyd districts.

While passage of both plans is likely, the key component of the I-5 Facility Plan — the widening of the freeway between I-84 and the Fremont Bridge — is not supported by local grassroots group Active Right of Way (AROW). A City of Portland Planning Commissioner also voted against the facility plan when it came before the City’s Planning and Sustainability Commission last month.

In a minority opinion statement issued to City Council, Planning Commissioner Chris Smith (a well known transportation activist who made a run for City Council back in 2008) cited two main reasons for his no vote. Smith said instead of just adding lanes and widening shoulders, the project should have used transportation demand management (TDM) measures, (such as trip reduction strategies and traffic management technology). According to ODOT, I-5 needs to be widened in order to increase capacity and reduce collisions. However, TDM measures were not considered because given traffic volume projections, ODOT didn’t think they’d be effective.

“Recommending a project of this size without knowing if it is in alignment with our climate plan is a bad idea.”
— Chris Smith, City Planning Commissioner

Smith feels ODOT’s decision to reject TDM from the outset was flawed because they based travel demand on projection models that don’t align with the City’s adopted Climate Action Plan. “ODOT’s model showed too much latent demand,” he wrote in an email explaining his “no” vote, “But… the Portland Climate Action plan aspires to a lower level of VMT [vehicle miles traveled].” Smith points out that since there are no detailed models of what a lower VMT would look like, the project team had no way to accurately understand the projections.

“Recommending a project of this size without knowing if it is in alignment with our climate plan is a bad idea.”

Smith’s other reason for objecting to the I-5 expansion is a simple cost/benefit equation. ODOT has stated throughout this process that their number one concern is “safety”. The narrow lanes and the short spacing between on/off-ramps, they say, lead to too many collisions. If safety is ODOT’s goal, Smith contends, “A much greater improvement in safety could be achieved by taking the price tag of the freeway project and spreading it around in a large number of much smaller safety projects around the City. This is simply not a good return on the tax dollars that would be invested.”

AROW volunteers Steve Bozzone and Alexis Grant agree.

“Although this project is billed as a safety project, only the safety of the freeway has been truly considered,” reads a letter sent to City Council and ODOT last month signed by Bozzone and Grant. They also cite the project’s expense, the lack of TDM measures, public health concerns and the lack of neighborhood-level stakeholders.

At this point, this is just a concept plan. No money has been guaranteed. But an endorsement from City Council would all but assure that the plan finds a place near the front of the future funding line. One big question on the table is how ODOT will prioritize implementation of the various elements of the plan. In addition to the I-5 widening, the plan also includes significant changes to the surface streets, including a new bike-only path over the freeway, a complete re-route of Flint, changes to N Williams Ave and more.

If and when funding becomes available, will ODOT do the freeway widening first, and forget about the promised surface street improvements? I’ve asked ODOT project manager Todd Juhasz for clarification on this (as well as a breakdown of the costs) and have yet to hear back.


When the public process for this plan first got underway nearly two years ago, I was skeptical of ODOT’s intentions. They have been wanting to widen I-5 through the Rose Quarter for decades, but past plans never got too far. With the N/NE Quadrant Plan getting an update, ODOT found a perfect way to cloak their desire to “fix” this notorious “bottleneck” in a kinder, gentler planning process, using the City of Portland’s less highway-centric image as a buffer.

Was this a slick PR move used to finally get their freeway widened? Maybe.

But there’s another way to look at this. Isn’t this how we should want ODOT to plan freeway projects? By integrating them tightly with land-use plans? Or perhaps the issue isn’t how the freeway expansion is being planned, but simply that it’s being planned at all.

You can view the I-5 facility plan on the project website. The public is invited to a testify at the City Council hearing tomorrow:

    City Council Public Hearing – Testimony Welcome
    N/NE Quadrant and I-5 Broadway-Weidler Plans

    Oct. 25, 2012, 2 p.m.
    Council Chambers (City Hall, 2nd Floor)
    1221 SW Fourth Avenue

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  • Ethan October 23, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    Is this going to be fluoridation 2.0?

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    • Alex Reed October 23, 2012 at 2:50 pm

      I hope so! This freeway widening project is Instructive Example #2 (after the CRC) of bad uses of Portland-area public funds.

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  • Andrew Seger October 23, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Don’t we have to do this widening project if we want to tear down I-5 along the river? I think it’s not a terrible project if seen in that light.

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    • Craig Harlow October 23, 2012 at 3:23 pm

      Andrew, I think that variations on that idea include nixing I-5 altogether along the east side, by diverting southbound thru traffic volumes to (1) an improved I-405 (which becomes I-5) and (2) I-205, so that there’s no longer any need for an eastside freeway south of the I-405 interchange, save for a connection to I-84 and offramps along the way. Similar treatment of northbound traffic prior to the Marquam bridge. That leaves the riverfront free of a freeway and connected to its neighborhoods.

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      • John Lascurettes October 23, 2012 at 3:36 pm

        What he’s getting at is with the nixing of the east-side I-5, there will be more traffic going from the I-405 to Fremont to I-84 route (since in theory there would no longer be a Marquam bridge to connect I-5 to I-84).

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        • Chris I October 24, 2012 at 6:38 am

          There will be, but the bottleneck will be I-84, not I-5 through the Rose Quarter. The only change needed is to terminate one of the westbound lanes of I-84 at Grand/MLK. 4 lanes of I-84 would simply continue north through the Rose Quarter to I-5/I-405. The short off/on ramps that cause many of the delays would just be one off and one on ramp, once I-5 is gone. Removing the east bank freeway will eliminate the need for this project.

          The goal should be to delay this project as long as possible; at least until the Marquam bridge is slated for replacement. At that point, the alternative would be (in today’s dollars) roughly $1 billion for this project and other upgrades to the east bank freeway, and $1 billion for the Marquam bridge. At that point, the city can decide if they want to spend $2 billion dollars to maintain the status quo, $4 billion to bury the east bank freeway and build a tunnel in place of the Marquam, or the revenue generating option of tearing it out and developing the land as a mixture of private lots (tax revenue!) and parks.

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  • 9watts October 23, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    Chris Smith is my hero! Amazing (since we’re almost done with 2012) to think he didn’t have more allies.

    One would like to know how those conversations went.

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    • Gregg October 24, 2012 at 12:10 pm

      Chris Smith for City Council!
      Active Right of Way for Mayor!!!

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  • 9watts October 23, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    “Recommending a project of this size without knowing if it is in alignment with our climate plan is a bad idea.”

    I think it would be fair to say that it is *not* in alignment. Or if it is then we need to fix our Climate Action Plan because any expansion of driving/freeways/gasoline consumption is anathema to any straight-faced climate plan. We also have a City-Council-commissioned Peak Oil Taskforce report which says much the same thing.

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  • Kiel Johnson
    Kiel Johnson October 23, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    what is the BTA doing about this? Have they lined up any public testimony?

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  • Chris Smith October 23, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    It’s challenging to call the project analysis into question because we don’t have detailed modeling for the level of traffic that the Climate Action Plan calls for. The transportation modelers need to have a very detailed set of projections to work to for project modeling, and that’s really only available for the Regional Transportation Plan model (which has higher VMT assumed than the Climate Action Plan).

    A necessary step to get good project planning is to get the RTP to use assumptions more like those in the Climate Action Plan.

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    • 9watts October 23, 2012 at 3:59 pm

      Fiddling while Rome burns.
      This is classic. Fussing over technical minutiae but no higher-up is keeping track of the big picture. Glad you’re holding their feet to the fire, Chris. Does anyone over there appreciate the risks involved if we guess wrong?

      Scenario A – We go ahead and build the thing, but Chris Smith’s prophecy, like Cassandra’s, turns out to be correct.
      what are the risks & costs, who bears them?

      Scenario B – We don’t build it & Chris Smith’s view turns out to be wrong about climate.
      what are the risks, costs, who bears them?

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    • dwainedibbly October 23, 2012 at 5:30 pm

      I appreciate your efforts, Chris.

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  • A.K. October 23, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    “If and when funding becomes available, will ODOT do the freeway widening first, and forget about the promised surface street improvements? I’ve asked ODOT project manager Todd Juhasz for clarification on this (as well as a breakdown of the costs) and have yet to hear back.”

    You can bet that all those “extras” will be the first things cut once the project bloats bast initial estimates and they have to start cutting corners.

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    • A.K. October 23, 2012 at 3:34 pm


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    • jim October 23, 2012 at 8:29 pm

      That is the problem with so many of our projects, there are so many bells and whistles attached to them it skyrockets the prices on the projects. We should get back to the basics, quit spending money we don’t have to spend. CRC should be a bridge, forget about lightrail, vancouver doesn’t want it, just build a plain bridge without a million new ramps and stuff, if we have money later, then build it later. How’s that for one long sentence?

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      • Chris I October 24, 2012 at 6:40 am

        Good news. The CRC is already a bridge, and they only need $200 million in upgrades to meet current earthquake standards. If freight access is a concern, let’s build a second bridge from downstream that will be located by the majority of the freight interests in the area.

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        • jim October 25, 2012 at 10:33 pm

          I like that idea

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    • Steve B. October 30, 2012 at 11:09 am

      Precisely. History has shown this to be true time and time again.

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  • Granpa October 23, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    The genie is out of the bottle. Society has adopted a transportation model that embraces personal transportation vehicles. It is indisputable that there is a bottleneck at Rose Quarter. I trust that there are collisions and I know there are delays. To facilitate fluid movement of the transportation system as it exists, and as it is likely to exist for decades to come, the freeway will be widened.

    This will not necessarily result in the sustainability nightmare that naysayers predict. Batteries will be developed that give cars 500 mile range, and the use of fossil fuels will decrease. I realize that much electricity is generated from fossil fuels, but renewables will continue to make up a larger percentage of the generation. Anyway there is no getting the majority of the population out of their cars without major disincentives, and just try forcing these disincentives on that majority.

    The Rose Quarter has bad traffic on the freeway, and the surface streets. These issues can all be addressed with clever redesign.

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    • 9watts October 23, 2012 at 4:45 pm

      The CO2 genie is also out of the bottle.

      And ‘getting the majority out of their cars,’ as you put it, isn’t necessarily something that we decide in advance. Abrupt and indefinite interruptions to the supply of cheap oil, which all this is based on, can happen tomorrow or in five years, and you know as well as I do that we’re not ready for that; that the density of cars in the Rose Quarter or on any other street or highway can and will go ‘poof’ when that happens. Remember the VMT projections on which the CRC was justified? Ha.

      We don’t always get to decide our fate, even though we’ve gotten used to deciding the fate of other peoples around the world.

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    • Randall S. October 24, 2012 at 8:15 am

      This is nonsense. You cannot develop a plan based on the hopes that maybe, just maybe, certain technologies will eventually be invented.

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  • Hen Morgan October 23, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    JM: Quick correction to your post title and first sentence. The City Council hearing is actually scheduled for Thursday 10/25.

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  • jim October 23, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    If you really believes that carbon is causing global warming you would want to keep those cars moving through this zone as smooth as possible. To stymie traffic is going to make the cars just sit there and make more carbon emissions in that one area. Better to move them through quickly and at a speed where their engines are operating most efficiently.

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    • 9watts October 23, 2012 at 10:56 pm

      Climate change has nothing to do with, does not depend on, what I believe or disbelieve. This isn’t the tooth fairy we’re talking about.
      The speed of cars, how quickly or slowly they burn up a gallon of gasoline, is irrelevant. We used to think it mattered – how many mpg, how efficient. But all that is no longer relevant because it isn’t the rate at which fossil fuels are burned we’re interested in, but the quantity that is *not* burned, that is left in the ground forever. Even Rolling Stone magazine got on board with this a few months ago. But it will take a while for the implications of that requirement to sink in.

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      • jim October 24, 2012 at 1:02 am

        why do you wnt to leave it in the ground? Don’t you realize that our entire economy is dependant on it?

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        • 9watts October 24, 2012 at 8:47 am

          you keep personalizing this. This is not about what I want or what you want. Leaving fossil fuels in the ground is emerging as a system condition, something prudent to do if we have any hope of retaining a habitable planet.
          Focusing on some calculus that says we have to keep traffic moving swiftly through the Rose Quarter (for $400M) to reduce accidents, or whatever, is hardly on the same page. The fact that our whole economy has become dependent on digging up and burning stuff is its own problem. As Gaylorn Nelson famously put it, “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.”

          I think the word for this is myopic, short-sighted.

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          • jim October 25, 2012 at 10:23 pm

            Should we leave the trees in the forest? the fish in the sea? Rubber in the rubber tree?
            We need all these things to function. Energy is vital to our economy, look what has happened in the last 4 years while gas has been high. Business’s have shut down, manufacturing has gone oversees…

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            • are November 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm

              possibly suggesting the whole house of cards was unsustianable

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          • 9watts October 27, 2012 at 10:14 am


            your question harkens back to the 19th Century & Manifest Destiny. Some of us don’t think that all this stuff is there for us, that it has it’s own values quite apart from the profits we might have figured out how to squeeze from them.
            And we don’t need any of it to function, actually. Sure, we’ve gotten used to taking more than our share, more than anyone else on the planet, more than grows back, but that is more a sign of how flawed and brief our rapacious economic model is than any natural law.
            But since we’re running out of just about everything already, how does your gluttonous philosophy resolve the inevitable encounter of limits to all these resources? If we can’t figure out how to live within our means now, what are the prospects of doing so once we’ve squeezed the last fish from the sea, the last rubber out of the Amazon basin?

            I recommend Michael Klare’s latest book The Race for What’s Left. I suspect you might be surprised to discover how close we are to running out of all these goodies.

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            • 9watts November 1, 2012 at 11:39 am

              jim –

              I’m still curious how you propose to maintain the rates at which we keep taking all the rubber, fish, oil, bitumen, cement, steel, water, and the rest for ourselves? How do you figure we’ll fare when some of those run out as some predict they will soon? What is your Plan B?
              And, more importantly, what is your reasoning for not accepting and dealing with scarcity (not just of resources, but what are called sinks–places to dump the stuff we no longer want like CO2, fracking fluids, car tires, by-catch, etc.) now but later?

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    • cold worker October 23, 2012 at 11:06 pm

      Oh man, this guy is good.

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    • Randall S. October 24, 2012 at 8:18 am

      Engines operate most efficiently at speeds far below highway speed limits, usually around 50MPH. Are you suggesting we lower all the speed limits? Because if so, I’m on board with you.

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  • Jeff Bernards October 23, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    Basically ODOT couldn’t defend the CRC project without the Rose Garden fix. They were just moving the I-5 bridge congestion down the road 5 miles to the Rose Garden. If this project is approved it’s another step towards building the CRC. These are NOT Climate Action Plan projects, it’s like the war to end all wars, it’s just another excuse to keep on driving. I drive I-84 to I-5 several times a week, I can’t remember seeing enough accidents, that would justify us to spend $400 million. It’s like the projects that are said to include low income housing, but when they get to that part of the project their out of money, I see that happening after this too, sorry no money for the surface streets.
    These projects partially go towards subsidizing Oregon tax dodgers and us helping enable them to speed their commute (Charlie).

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    • jim October 24, 2012 at 1:04 am

      how many accidents are worth $400 m?

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  • 9watts October 23, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    As sea levels rise, new research shows phasing out fossil fuels is safer.

    Cars, concrete, asphalt, traffic signals, thermopaint, PBOT hearings, red light cameras, traffic court, all require large if varying quantities of fossil fuels. Instead of rubber stamping Cold War infrastructure expansion, it would be more prudent, I think, to step back and ask two basic questions of any infrastructure-related project or proposal.

    (1) What can we do in transportation planning to minimize regrets given the uncertainties surrounding and plausible shifts anticipated in the future of transport?

    (2) How can we avoid or minimize stranded assets, or large investments that one day we wake up and we wish we hadn’t built, can’t use, or afford to maintain? (Nuclear power plants being only the most famous example.)

    I’m missing the big picture. If PBOT or ODOT have a vision of what our transportation system will look like in 10 or 15 years, how it will be similar and different I’d like to see it. Six years ago our City Council commissioned a report that included the following paragraph in the Executive Summary:
    “Of all the impacts from rising oil prices, the clearest are those on
    transportation, which will experience profound pressure to shift
    toward more efficient modes of travel. For personal travel, this
    means transit, carpooling, walking, bicycling and highly efficient
    vehicles. Transportation of freight will become more costly and
    either decline or shift modes from air and truck to rail and boat.
    Population may shift to city centers, and density and mixed-use
    buildings will increase.”

    What do PBOT or ODOT have to say about this? When do we get to see this translated into how they conduct their business? If not at tomorrow’s City Council meeting where, apparently, $400M are on the table, then when?!

    For that kind of money we could buy every single resident of Oregon a bicycle. Not that I’m suggesting we do this, but we could think of lots of more effective ways to reduce congestion in the Rose Quarter for that kind of money. How about give every resident of Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington Co. a free Trimet pass for the next five years? Or their choice from a list of similar incentives to not drive?

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  • resopmok October 24, 2012 at 5:18 am

    IIRC $400 million is only $100 million less than the full build out estimate for the Bike Master Plan. I think that would do a lot to improve safety for right of way operators here in Portland.

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  • Terry D October 24, 2012 at 9:07 am

    If safety is the issue then $400 million would go a LONG way to make many of our most dangerous corridors safer. We could also build a complete network of greenways and multi-use paths throughout the city. There just are not that many accidents there…..because of the constant congestion slows that automobiles down, hence making the freeway safer.

    Unlike the CRC however I do think that in the long term scene of things this extra lane/shoulder widening needs to be done but ONLY if:

    1) the entire freeway system in the city is tolled with the tolling money not only used to pay of this widening “safety project” but also for safety improvements at dangerous intersections throughout the city
    2) A bike bypass around the area is built FIRST. This means the upper Sullivan’s Gulch path from the Esplanade to 7th and the 7th avenue bike bridge across I 84. This would allow cyclists to by-pass the entire area during the multi-year construction and give us a prize after everything is finished
    3) This third lane, which would then be basically complete through out the entire freeway system in the city would then be turned into an HOV lane like on north I 5 throughout the system.
    4) We save a billion or two by building the alternative CRC instead
    5) The third lane will be needed anyway when we remove that hideous Marquam and either bury or remove I 5 on the eastside.

    If these conditions are not met then let us live with the congestion for another generation and see how the climate change, changing demographics and drops in VMT pan out. In the meantime, we can give truckers a small VMT discount to encourage long range commercial deliveries to stay off of I5 and go the slightly longer distance of I 205 instead.

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    • Bruce October 24, 2012 at 9:48 am

      Love the HOV lane idea. If it’s going to get built anyway…

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  • Jonathan Gordon October 24, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Just to put this in perspective, the project budget estimate of $400,000,000 is more than one thousand (1000!) times greater than the $370,000 budget for the North Williams Traffic Operations Safety Project. Chris Smith is right:

    If safety is ODOT’s goal, Smith contends, “A much greater improvement in safety could be achieved by taking the price tag of the freeway project and spreading it around in a large number of much smaller safety projects around the City. This is simply not a good return on the tax dollars that would be invested.”

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    • Steve B. October 30, 2012 at 11:13 am

      This is a great point. I’d also note that the Williams Ave project received much more criticism and attention, particularly around issues of inclusion, power and injustice. Considering the scope of the I-5 widening project, it is appalling that such a project was rammed through with very little consideration for the same issues.

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson October 24, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    If this $400M is found and spent for this foolish project, the situation will be about the same when its all done; we will just be poorer and have more traffic on adjacent streets. The so-called “Freight” folks fail to acknowledge that the obstacle to moving freight is too many people driving alone in their cars, mainly in the peaks. Non-peak freeways are fine in our region.
    Sadly Portland, while building out many ideas of visionaries from the 70’s, has allowed ODOT to take us back to the 50’s and 60’s, when the Central City was virtually destroyed by the I-5/I-405 loop. A real 30 year plan for Portland would call for the removal of some or all of this loop, starting with the Marquam Bridge and I-5 along the River.

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  • dwainedibbly October 25, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    Any updates on this? How did the vote go? Anybody know?

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    • 9watts October 25, 2012 at 5:40 pm

      I got an email update saying it had passed with lots of laudatory quotes from all sorts of familiar people. It didn’t mention the price tag or freeway widening anywhere, just lots of nice sounding phrases.

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  • Chris Smith October 25, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    Unanimously adopted by Council. There were several people who testified with concerns, but I was somewhat disappointed that I was the only one who directly objected to the freeway expansion.

    Griping on blogs is all well and good, but if people mean it they should show up at Council occasionally and tell it to the electeds.

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    • 9watts October 25, 2012 at 8:16 pm

      You’re right, of course. It’s hard to know how thin to spread oneself. There are so many fires to try to put out, but this was/is a very large one. Thanks for standing up to these foolish people.

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  • 9watts October 25, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Speaking of other fires, here’s a similarly ill-conceived and long-simmering ODOT boondoggle an hour south of us.

    No 3rd Bridge – Salem – Nov. 4

    Concerned Salem residents will get the opportunity to hear from experts about the proposal to build a new $687 million freeway spanning the Willamette River and connecting Highway 22 to I-5.

    The NO 3rd Bridge Briefing will take place on Sunday, November 4th at 3 p.m. in the Anderson A meeting room at the Salem Public Library.

    The featured speaker will be Scott Bassett, a transportation policy analyst for fifteen years, who has been following the planning process for the 3rd Bridge. Bassett will describe in detail the 3rd Bridge plans that will be considered by the Salem City Council at a public hearing on November 5th at 6:30 p.m. He will also show how the need for a new bridge is now highly questionable in light of declining traffic on the existing bridges, and he will present his ideas on how to relieve congestion at peak hours without spending many hundreds of millions on a new bridge.

    Also speaking at the briefing will be a member of the project Task Force who is not in favor of building a 3rd bridge. Doug Parrow, who represented the Bicycle Transportation Alliance on the Task Force, will give an insider’s perspective on the project, and explain why he believes better infrastructure for bike transportation is one answer to relieving traffic congestion.

    Bob Krebs, a member of the project Oversight Team for the Salem-Keizer Transit District Board, will share how planning for the 3rd bridge will proceed from here. The District has not taken a position on the 3rd bridge. Krebs will also share his ideas about how better mass transit between West Salem and downtown might be a viable solution to relieve peak hour traffic congestion.

    Following the presentation there will be time for audience members to have their questions about the 3rd Bridge answered by the expert panel. Panel members will also explain how citizens can participate most effectively at the Salem City Council public hearing on November 5th.

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  • Ron October 26, 2012 at 9:04 am

    Now we should ask the Oregon legislature to fund this, and cut the CRC. Wouldn’t that make it harder to do the latter, especially when the rest of the state has needs, as well? For safety concerns on this stretch of I-5 enforce the 50 mph speed limit with electronic warning signs. IMO, it is unsafe driving practices, e.g. failing to signal lane turns, speeding, faulty vehicle lights or brakes, and general lack of defensive driving techniques, that cause accidents.

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  • Skid October 27, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    I don’t see anything wrong with alleviating the heavy traffic on I-5 going to and from the Port of Portland. To get rid of this section of I-5 would just displace this traffic onto other freeways and onto surface streets alongside cyclists. Maybe instead of fighting against it, look at it as an opportunity to create a greenway and a cycletrack right next to it.

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