The skinny on the three Portland-area freeway projects in line for state funding

The projects would add supply to a high-demand system.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

By now you’ve probably heard whispers and/or seen the headlines about the three freeway widening projects in the Portland region that are a top priority of lawmakers statewide. The goal of the projects is to improve driving conditions for motor vehicle users on Interstate 217 south of Beaverton, I-5 adjacent to the Rose Quarter, and I-205 south of Oregon City.

These three projects represent an estimated cost of $1,000,000,000 — that’s a billion with a “b”. Lawmakers won’t be able to fully fund them in their forthcoming transportation package, but it’s expected they’ll get a significant jumpstart.

Because freeway expansions tend to be very controversial in our region (with good reason), these projects have flown under-the-radar of most people (except those working to get them funded). Another reason there hasn’t been a robust public debate about these projects is that — even though they’ve been listed in various plans (like Metro’s Regional Transportation Plan) for many years — they’ve been unfunded and relegated to “wish lists”. But now that real money is on the table, the tone around these projects has quickly gotten a lot more serious. Everyone who cares about the future of transportation in our region should learn more about them.

Like I mentioned above, these three projects alone are estimated to cost about $1 billion. Now that I have your attention, here’s what I’ve found out about each one…

I-5 Broadway/Weidler Facility Plan – Cost estimate: $450 million (including $200 million for surface streets)

Freeway and local surface street changes between I-84 and I-405

Recommended project.
(Graphic: City of Portland)

Planners at the Oregon Department of Transportation have wanted to expand I-5 at this location for well over a decade. In 2010, the project was dusted off and became a major component of the City of Portland’s N/NE Quadrant Plan, which was adopted by City Council in October 2012.

The main issue planners have with this section of the freeway is congestion. At two lanes in each direction and with no shoulders for a segment near the Rose Quarter, it has become a notorious chokepoint (the Federal Highway Administration ranks it as the #36 in a ranking of 50 “freight bottlenecks” nationwide). In addition to high volumes of local and regional traffic, ODOT says the weaving and exit ramps contribute to a high number of rear-end crashes that make the congestion unpredictable. This “non-recurring” congestion caused by random collisions is especially problematic for freight companies because it means even if they plan trips outside of peak hours, their cargo still might get held up. This freight congestion is why the project has strong support from lawmakers, elected officials, and business owners from around the region and the state.

Years ago, when ODOT first looked at a “fix” for this problem, their initial plan included numerous new through lanes and interchange expansions. But realizing that a massive highway expansion in the Portland’s central city is a non-starter, ODOT saw an opportunity to partner with the Portland Bureau of Transportation in the N/NE Quadrant Plan. Together, the two agencies came up with a plan that dramatically scaled back the highway expansion elements of ODOT’s original concept and added a significant amount of local surface street improvements. It was a compromise made in planning heaven: ODOT could get some additional capacity for the freeway and PBOT would get a host of changes to local streets around the freeway to help spur development and improve traffic flow in a crucial corridor between the Lloyd District and downtown.

Another key reason the City of Portland supports this project: One of the concessions they received from ODOT was a Multimodal Mixed-use Area (MMA) designation. This gives Portland the ability to not be bound by state planning laws that can limit land-use development if freeway capacity is constrained. In other words, with the MMA designation in hand, the City of Portland can re-zone the Lloyd/Rose Quarter area for new development without worrying about how that development will impact congestion — in effect, giving Portland the ability to prioritize the movement of people over the movement of cars.

Here are the basic elements of the plan (taken from official project document):

– Transportation Demand Management strategies to help reduce demand and manage trips in peak hours.
– Extend auxiliary lanes (for local traffic that gets on-then-off) in both directions.
– Add full-width shoulders in both directions
– Relocate I-5 southbound on-ramp to Weidler/Williams (from current location at Wheeler/Winning Way/Williams)
– Convert Williams to a reverse traffic‐flow connection between Broadway and Weidler (includes a barrier‐separated pedestrian/bicycle path in the middle).
– Construct Clackamas pedestrian/bicycle overcrossing (establishes connection over I‐5 from Winning Way to Clackamas).
– Re‐construct the Vancouver Structure and Remove the Flint Structure; Reconfigure streets North of Broadway to include Hancock/Dixon Structure and Lid.

Last night at the Portland Planning & Sustainability Commission meeting, Commissioner Chris Smith proposed an amendment to the Central City Plan to take this project out of the city’s Transportation System Plan. Smith, the sole PSC commissioner who voted against the project in 2012, thinks a project that “makes driving easier” is not the best use of scarce funds. His amendment received support from several other commissioners but was ultimately voted down. Stay tuned for a recap of that meeting. We’ll also report much more on this project in the coming weeks and months. For now, learn more by reading the I-5 Broadway/Weidler Facility Plan (PDF) and check the BikePortland archives for past stories and comments.


I-205 “Operational Enhancements” – Cost estimate: $450 million

Add lanes in six-mile segment between Stafford Road and Abernethy Bridge

(Graphic: Clackamas County)

Metro’s RTP (PDF) includes a list of over $510 million in “improvements” and expansions of I-205 in the 25-mile segment between the I-5 interchange in Tualatin and the Portland Airport. It appears to me that two specific pieces of that plan are being considered for funding.

According to a fact sheet published by Clackamas County, the project would add a third lane in both directions for a six-mile segment from the Stafford Road interchange to the Abernethy Bridge, and then widen the bridge itself with auxiliary lanes. A wider freeway is needed, say project backers, because I-205 is a “freight and commuter bypass” to the I-5 corridor (see above) and it frequently backs up with congestion. As the region around the freeway grows, there’s a concern that traffic will only get worse.

Highway 217 Auxiliary Lanes – Cost estimate: $100 million

Add lanes between Beaverton and Highway 99 in Tigard

(Graphic: ODOT)

This project aims to improve safety and ease congestion on a seven-mile stretch of Oregon State Highway 217. In a fact-sheet on this project produced by ODOT, the agency makes a very similar case for improvements here as they do for the I-5 project. They say the lack of width and numerous ramps cause weaving, which leads to crashes, which leads to unpredictable and frequent congestion. ODOT says safety is main motivation for this project. The two new lanes and an interchange improvement, reads the project description, “are not intended to address capacity-related congestion problems, but rather to provide immediate and long-term safety improvements at bottleneck locations.”

ODOT and other agencies and leaders around the state are working on numerous highway expansion projects (did you hear the one about the “Northwest Passage”?) — but these three are the hot ones right now.

Like them or not, all three of these projects are very well-positioned to receive funding. They are recommended in Metro’s latest Regional Transportation Plan, have broad support among electeds and other leaders, and they are seen as the answer to the loud drumbeat of “we must fix congestion in Portland!” that is being heard loudly in Salem right now on both sides of the political aisle.

Below is a sketch from the congestion work group of the Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation and Maintenance, a 14-member body of state lawmakers crafting the 2017 transportation package. It shows a possible year-by-year funding scenario for these projects and the SW Corridor project (TriMet’s big transit project):

And perhaps the strongest sign of the State’s commitment to these projects is their inclusion in a letter (PDF) from Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s Washington D.C. office to the National Governors Association. Dated December 28th, 2016 and written in response to a request from the NGA for a list of “shovel-ready” projects in need of federal funding (a list they could forward to President Trump’s transition team), the letter included the following passage under the heading, “Congestion Mitigation”:

We are also ready to get to work to increase the capacity of our statewide highway system. The 2016 report issued by the Governor’s Transportation Vision Panel found communities in every corner of our state are facing tremendous challenges with Portland-area congestion and bottlenecks statewide. This is slowing commuters and freight movement up and down the I-5 corridor and posing a serious roadblock to a thriving Oregon economy. Oregon agricultural producers and manufacturers are struggling to get their products to market reliably as congestion worsens, and strategic highway enhancement and safety projects will strengthen Oregon’s competitiveness and help spur economic growth.

A $450 million investment in operation enhancements on I-205, along with a $100 million to make improvements on OR 217 will enhance freight mobility, improve safety, and reduce congestion throughout Oregon. Capacity along 1-205 will increase from the Abernethy Bridge to the Stafford Road Interchange, and . These improvement projects will jump-start Oregon’s economy, create thousands of new jobs for Oregonians, and support the domestic manufacturing industry.

Governor Brown and leaders around the state think the completion of these projects will “create thousands of jobs,” “facilitate a freer flow of freight and local traffic” and “support the economy.” Unfortunately the truth is much less optimistic.

Stay tuned for more coverage of these individual projects and the soon-to-be-released transportation package.

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

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