Planning commissioner forces City to defend I-5 widening project

Posted by on March 2nd, 2017 at 2:53 pm

N Williams Ave Community Forum.JPG-24

Chris Smith thinks widening I-5 in Portland is a big mistake.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Noted transportation activist and Portland Planning and Sustainability Commissioner Chris Smith made a bold move Tuesday night that could have thrown a wrench in the works the State of Oregon’s top transportation priority.

Smith put forward a motion at a work session meeting of the Planning Commission that would have taken the I-5 Broadway Weidler Facility Plan out of the City of Portland’s Transportation System Plan. The TSP is Portland’s road investment guidebook and any major project that wants funding must be listed in it. As we reported yesterday, this $450 million (estimated) project is one of three freeway mega-projects lined up to receive significant funding in the transportation package currently being negotiated in Salem.

Smith was the sole PSC Commissioner to vote against the project when it was passed as part of the N/NE Quadrant Plan (a component of the Central City 2035 Plan) back in 2012. Judging from his pointed remarks about the project Tuesday night, he still hasn’t warmed up to the idea.

“There are a huge number of good things this plan does and I don’t dispute that. But neither can I ignore that the first thing it does is that it makes driving easier.”
— Chris Smith, Planning Commissioner

While this is ODOT’s project, the City of Portland is a key partner and full-throated supporter. Why would Portland support a freeway-widening project in the heart of our dense, growing, city? As we reported yesterday about half the project’s price tag would fund surface streets adjacent to the freeway. Not only would PBOT get millions for local improvements, they’d get a hall-pass in the form of what’s known as a Multimodal Mixed-use Area designation (MMA) from ODOT allowing them to re-zone the area for even more growth — even if that growth leads to congestion on the freeway system. Without the MMA in hand, ODOT could prevent the City from development unless they could prove it wouldn’t clog freeways (something that has already happened in the Central Eastside and South Waterfront).

After hearing a presentation on the project from PBOT Transportation Planner Mauricio Leclerc and Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Chief Planner Joe Zehnder, Smith introduced his motion to strip it out of the TSP and then delivered an impassioned speech to explain himself. With 10 members present, Smith would need to find five commissioners to support his idea.

“I don’t dispute anything Mauricio and Joe just said,” Smith opened. “And I still think this is a terrible idea.”

Smith said a lot has changed since the PSC last took a close look at the project. Since then, he pointed out, they adopted an update of the Climate Action Plan and the Comprehensive Plan. Both of those, Smith reminded his fellow PSC members, “Makes the point that we need to be reducing the amount of driving in the City of Portland.” He also brought up the recent vigorous debates about fossil fuels. “We went from debating a propane terminal, to essentially stopping the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in Portland… We have doubled-down on our carbon reduction strategies.”

Given that, Smith said, it makes no sense that the $450 million I-5 Broadway-Weidler project — which would be the largest single public investment in the Comprehensive Plan — “Has as its core purpose making driving easier.”

Even though the plan would improve bicycle access and build lids over I-5 where new public spaces could flourish, Smith added, “I can’t ignore that the first thing this project does is makes driving easier.”

Here’s an excerpt from his speech:

“I want to contrast the scale of investment. We had a two-year long debate about getting the citizens of Portland to approve a gas tax that will provide $64 million over four years. But somehow ODOT is going to spend almost ten times that much for things that are not the core policies that we have put in the Comp Plan and Portland Plan?

And I think perhaps the most discordant thing for me is how this fits into Vision Zero. We have adopted a focus that our key priority for the transportation system is to stop killing people. We killed 45 people on our streets last year: None of them died on this stretch of the freeway. We don’t kill people on this stretch of the freeway. We do kill people regularly on the orphan highways that ODOT is responsible for; but ODOT is not choosing to invest in 82nd or outer Powell. We’ve been told, ‘Well, we’re going to apply for grants to finish outer Powell and bit-by-bit we’re going to get it done.’ But somehow a half billion dollars is going to materialize to make driving easier in the middle of the central city.

What I know is that if you live east of I-205 you are 2.5 times more likely to die in traffic than if you live west of I-205. But the number one thing we’re going to invest in is to make driving easier on a piece of freeway? That is a massive misallocation of resources, it’s not in alignment with our policies that we have worked on very hard here with the Portland Plan and the Comp Plan and we shouldn’t send the signal that we’re going to go-along to get-along and do it. That’s why I’m making this motion.”

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While Smith isn’t having any of it, PBOT feels that adding lanes to I-5 is a worthy trade-off for the other elements of the project. “This is an innovative project that really makes a freeway project something that is about place-making and that improves conditions for all modes,” Leclerc said during his presentation. In addition, Leclerc sees the potential funding of this project as PBOT’s best chance to improve safety for bicycle riders and other road users on the notorious Broadway corridor. “You could even say that taking this project out [of the TSP] may hurt Broadway as a high-crash corridor because, how else are we going to fix those five bridges over the Rose Quarter now, unless we come up w $200 million ourselves.”

Mauricio Leclerc (L) and Joe Zehnder, planners with the City of Portland.

The impact of removing the projects from the TSP would be very real. It would create chaos and outrage among the numerous powerful business and freight interests across Oregon who all agree “fixing the bottleneck on I-5” needs to happen ASAP. It would also put PBOT out of compliance with the Regional Transportation Plan and force them to either have City Council adopt an ordinance to add it back in, or PBOT would have to make their case to regional leaders that it no longer deserves to be there.

When it came time to discuss the motion at the PSC meeting on Tuesday, several commissioners expressed they were uncomfortable with doing such an about-face on the process. Others said striking this project out of the TSP would make Portland appear very disrespectful and tone-deaf to statewide interests.

“Even though Portland has different ideas about how dollars are spent, we are part of a statewide and regional economy and I think we’d be doing a disservice to that partnership to not recognize the value other people see in this project even though it doesn’t fit all the criteria we want to impose on a transportation project.”
— Jeff Bachrach, Planning Commissioner

PSC Commissioner Jeff Bachrach said he felt the move “Would be a very dramatic action” for the commission. “It would send a lot of ripples out… and City Council wouldn’t appreciate that.” Bachrach said PSC should have brought this up sooner and hosted a public hearing to air these concerns. “I think you came up with this too late Chris.” Bachrach also said he sympathizes with perspectives outside of Portland and has heard from Washington County business owners who complain that the congestion on I-5 is hurting their bottom-line. “They weren’t concerned about Vision Zero… But they are very concerned about this bottleneck,” Bachrach added, “Even though Portland has different ideas about how dollars are spent, we are part of a statewide and regional economy and I think we’d be doing a disservice to that partnership to not recognize the value other people see in this project even though it doesn’t fit all the criteria we want to impose on a transportation project.”

In response to Bachrach’s concerns about freight, Smith said he too wants freight to move more freely. “I just wish we’d stop investing for freight in facilities that will be 90% used by SOVs [single occupancy vehicles]. The best thing we can do for freight is a congestion pricing scheme because the economic value of freight will be happy to pay tolls that will keep the SOVs off the road.

“I’m not going to have a policy debate with you,” Bachrach shot back, “I’m not defending these businesses, I’m just saying before we diss these regional partners we should be aware about how important it is to them.”

Commissioner Gary Oxman also said he wouldn’t support Smith’s motion because he was, “Concerned about the process issues and very concerned about the relationship of Portland with the rest of the state.”

Commissioner Michelle Rudd said she too didn’t want to get in the way of the process.

Smith feels the process would be improved if his motion passed. “I believe that by taking these projects out of the TSP we create the best possible debate at City Council,” he explained. The process of putting them back would create an opportunity for a broader public debate about the project. One that Smith says hasn’t happened yet. “Then we can have the kind of focus that I think will bring out the citizens of Portland — as the Pembina project did — to talk about their values related to climate change.”

Leclerc from PBOT countered that there will be plenty of “council moments” in the future where a debate can happen, “Before this is something that becomes implementable.”

The fear with large highway projects like this is how they get stronger with each step in the funding process. Boosters often say there will be chances for debates in the future, but meanwhile the project gets so much momentum from these supposedly small steps that they can’t be stopped.

Saying the way this project has moved forward reminds him of the Columbia River Crossing Project, PSC Commissioner Eli Spevak said, “I think some of Portland’s most important decisions are transportation projects we didn’t do. And this might be one of them.”

In the end, Smith’s motion failed by a vote of 6 to 4 (with one commissioner absent). He was supported by commissioners Katie Larsell, Mike Houck, and Eli Spevak. Reached via email after the meeting, Smith said he was frustrated that he couldn’t manage one more vote, “But it was a good discussion and certainly big progress from 2012.” Who knows what will happen when — or if — this project comes up for a vote again.

You can watch the meeting on YouTube. The PBOT/BPS presentation starts at 15:18 and Smith introduces his motion at around 43:25.

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

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46 Comments
  • Avatar
    rick March 2, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    That kind of money could do great things for people walking, biking, and taking transit around Portland, rather than just one site.

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      rick March 2, 2017 at 3:26 pm

      One site for the sole purpose of driving a car or riding a motorcycle.

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      Justin M March 3, 2017 at 6:27 pm

      And what about the people who work, but cannot afford to live, in Portland?

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    mh March 2, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    Thank you, Chris, and those willing to challenge this proposal. Kill the beast, rather than fight for the scraps.

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  • Adam H.
    Adam H. March 2, 2017 at 3:46 pm

    Good on Chris Smith for standing up for common sense. This project is a terrible idea – PBOT is taking the poison pill in order to get their agenda passed. This will only invite more cars into the central city and the extra lane will soon fill up just like before. Then people will want to widen further. If we are so concerned with freight access, why not make two lanes on I-205 freight-only? It sure would cost less than $450M. It is offensive to me that PBOT can’t even come up with a single penny for their Vision Zero plan, yet is perfectly okay to take $450M to widen highways. Whatever happened to the ideologies of the freeway revolt?

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    Andrew N March 2, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    Chris Smith rules. Thank you for showing such a high level of integrity and standing up for the people of Portland. We need more people with even a modicum of power to go against the grain more often.

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    SaferStreetsPlease March 2, 2017 at 3:59 pm

    Chris Smith: “And I think perhaps the most discordant thing for me is how this fits into Vision Zero. We have adopted a focus that our key priority for the transportation system is to stop killing people. We killed 45 people on our streets last year: None of them died on this stretch of the freeway. We don’t kill people on this stretch of the freeway. We do kill people regularly on the orphan highways that ODOT is responsible for; but ODOT is not choosing to invest in 82nd or outer Powell. We’ve been told, ‘Well, we’re going to apply for grants to finish outer Powell and bit-by-bit we’re going to get it done.’ But somehow a half billion dollars is going to materialize to make driving easier in the middle of the central city.

    What I know is that if you live east of I-205 you are 2.5 times more likely to die in traffic than if you live west of I-205. But the number one thing we’re going to invest in is to make driving easier on a piece of freeway? That is a massive misallocation of resources, it’s not in alignment with our policies that we have worked on very hard here with the Portland Plan and the Comp Plan and we shouldn’t send the signal that we’re going to go-along to get-along and do it. That’s why I’m making this motion.”

    This is some powerful stuff.

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    Buzz March 2, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    As I said in the other thread, the loss of the Flint Street bridge to cyclists, which is included in this project, cannot be made up for by other ‘improvements’ to surface streets in this area; Flint is the only option for cyclists to completely avoid the Broadway-I-5 interchange. I am sure this freeway interchange will continue to be a safety issue for cyclists despite proposed surface street ‘improvements’ in this area.

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    maccoinnich March 2, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    One of the most compelling reasons that Chris Smith gave for why the PSC could (and should) have voted for his amendment is that the PSC isn’t the final decision body for the Central City 2035 Plan. The City Council is. Taking the I-5 project out of the Central City Plan would have consequences for the city, but it would also force the City Council to discuss those and decide if they really want to move forward with this project.

    While the City Council did already vote for the N/NE Quadrant Plan, that was back in 2012. Back then Sam Adams and Randy Leonard were still on the council; the current Climate Action plan hadn’t been adopted; and Vision Zero wasn’t a city policy. It’s been such a long time that a fresh look at this project is warranted.

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      buildwithjoe March 2, 2017 at 8:24 pm

      Nice work on your notes! But the people in the video said the sky would fall if they did not vote against Chris Smith. Who can I believe. Answer, not the people who say the sky will fall if we send this remove this from the plan as Chris suggested.

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    Smokey Bear March 2, 2017 at 5:34 pm

    This is a slam dunk. The I-5 widening is so blatantly needed that it can defend itself.

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      Pete March 2, 2017 at 6:26 pm

      I drove through Portland last weekend and was astonished by how bad the traffic has gotten on I-5. I kept thinking to myself, “Man, they really need to widen this highway, so I can sit in this traffic in a wider car.”

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        Justin M March 3, 2017 at 6:30 pm

        This is great.

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    • Go By Bike
      Go By Bike March 2, 2017 at 6:32 pm

      If only they widened the freeway that goes down the middle of Vancouver BC it would really make that a successful city with an active port. Oh wait, they don’t have a freeway and the biggest port on the west coast they just invest in density and transit. We used to do that.

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        Pete March 3, 2017 at 5:55 pm

        Used to work for a company based in downtown Van, and absolutely loved getting around so easily without a car. Became one of my favorite cities and we almost moved there. Drove there a few times and that absolutely sucked. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing…

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        Smokey Bear March 6, 2017 at 10:22 pm

        Actually they do have a freeway – Hwy 1 (Trans Canada Hwy), which eventually turns into Hwy 99. Hwy 1 appears to be at least 4 lanes each direction for much of the way. It is not actually in the downtown section though.

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        Brad March 7, 2017 at 5:50 pm

        To be fair, the Vancouver region does have a freeway system. Downtown Vancouver is tucked away in one corner of the metro area so the freeway does not need to go through it; unlike Portland which is in the center of the region and every vehicle trip across the metro area is routed through downtown Portland due to the lack of a beltway.

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        • Adam H.
          Adam H. March 7, 2017 at 6:32 pm

          I-205 is supposed to be the beltway…

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      Spiffy March 3, 2017 at 8:56 am

      I-5 is already very wide… it’s all those cars in the way that they need to do something about…

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      Fat Spandex Dude March 3, 2017 at 6:51 pm

      Widening I-5 won’t solve the problem of how its kooky curves cause commuter car clogging. American drivers tend to be poor at navigating them (or much of anything) at speed, and most of them drive vehicles that aren’t suited for the task due to high centers of gravity, numb steering, garbage tires, and so on. The Terwilliger curves are nasty, since many of them are off-camber, and the Marquam bridge is really ugly because it combines curves with multiple interchanges and exits.

      What I don’t really get is why I-5 south gets congested between Tigard and the I-5/205 interchange.

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        Smokey Bear March 3, 2017 at 10:41 pm

        Probably too many on/off ramps including a big influx of cars from I-217 in that area of I-5 south of Tigard.

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    Bill Stites March 2, 2017 at 5:57 pm

    Thank you, Chris. I voted for you when you ran for city council! 2008?

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    • Go By Bike
      Go By Bike March 2, 2017 at 6:07 pm

      I wish he would again, we need leaders with his vision and courage!

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        Lester Burnham March 3, 2017 at 1:00 pm

        Maybe once Wheeler resigns as many here desire, Chris could take a swing at being mayor?

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  • Go By Bike
    Go By Bike March 2, 2017 at 6:08 pm

    Chris Smith makes me think we have a chance to still keep Portland awesome.

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  • Go By Bike
    Go By Bike March 2, 2017 at 6:22 pm

    Jonathan, why did you not embed video into story at Chris’ speech, such a powerful speech and Chris articulates himself so well. Not as many people will watch it if they have to open youtube and find the start point.

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      buildwithjoe March 2, 2017 at 8:22 pm

      Here is the way youtube works when fast forwarding a URL or EMBED code. What the vote go down. A yes vote is for the motion of Chris to slow this pack of lies down.

      URL
      https://youtu.be/vyl8CPemHw0?t=1h36m10s

      where t=0h0m10s
      Cue 10 seconds and zero minutes, hours into the video

      =====================================

      Embed code is start=x
      where start=10
      10 total seconds in the cue point
      just calculate the total seconds and set that in the embed code

      iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/vyl8CPemHw0?start=7776010?ecver=1″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen

      Blogs block HTML to avoid viruses, so I can’t embed myself, that’s up to Jonathan.

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    Chris Smith March 2, 2017 at 6:51 pm

    Thanks for highlighting this important conversation, Jonathan.

    While I’m disappointed that I couldn’t attract two more votes to push this discussion to City Council, I have to note the progress. In 2012 I was a voice in the wilderness on the Commission on this topic. This year we had a serious discussion and having that discussion was supported by Commission leadership. We are making progress.

    And nothing prevents the good people of Portland from testifying on this project when CC2035, the Central City Plan (of which the TSP discussion was a part) goes to City Council in may or June!

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      Blake March 2, 2017 at 9:10 pm

      Thank you Chris!

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      soren March 3, 2017 at 11:06 am

      Chris, Thanks again for your tireless advocacy.

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    One March 2, 2017 at 7:30 pm

    Chris Smith is a really nice person in addition to being such a visionary.

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    buildwithjoe March 2, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    Thank you Chris. I went to a meeting about this project. ODOT staff lied about this project 4 years ago. My witness is Chris and Mark Ginsberg and Jonathan.

    None of my questions were answered. Still waiting Mr. ODOT spokesperson Don Hamilton. You tried to slander me. Don Hamilton at ODOT should be fired. He’s a snake oil salesman for wider roads when we can’t keep existing roads safe. The gravel from interstate 5 washes down hill and covers the Greely bike lane. It’s been that way 60 days and will most likely be there 10 months. Or perhaps I should scoop up a bucket and hand deliver it to Mr. Hamilton at his NW office. Oh and yes I have reported it into ODOT and I have the phone records. When someone else dies I will help their lawyer just as I have helped other lawyers. I’m coming for you in court ODOT.

    ODOT is full of people who have no soul and don’t care about road victims. This project will take lots of money for safety and put it into a project that will look nice but cause more people to drive. We call that induced demand. The lanes will fill up and more people will die from the bad air and die from the additional deadly cars on the road.

    I want names of every person in that room who voted against my Hero Chris Smith.

    Name the names someone. I can’t go to every meeting.

    This is the next CRC. It’s a gift package to contractors who lie, and the lawmakers who lie for them and take their campaign money.

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    shirtsoff March 2, 2017 at 8:30 pm

    Thank you, Chris Smith for your work and consideration of the long term implications. We need more people like Smith out there advocating for those least likely to voice their concern on these matters.

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    rachel b March 2, 2017 at 9:04 pm

    Thank you, Chris Smith! And Jonathan, for the excellent reportage!

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    Skip Pile March 3, 2017 at 10:17 am

    It’s refreshing to see a public official speak hard truths about the truly mind blowing costs of highway widening projects compared to other far more cost effective measures that would accomplish the same goals. It is well known that highway widening in Urban feeway systems will *not* relieve congestion despite the boosters in state DOT and industry groups that argue otherwise. The two biggest recent failures that one can point to are the I-405 project in LA http://www.scpr.org/blogs/economy/2014/10/10/17413/405-traffic-a-little-slower-after-1-billion-upgrad/

    and the Katy Freeway in Houston http://www.houstontomorrow.org/livability/story/it-took-51-more-time-to-drive-out-katy-freeway-in-2014-than-2011/

    When you consider all the smaller projects that this money could have gone towards that would have much bigger impacts on lives saves and demand managed, it’s hard to justify urban freeway widening on any level.

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    soren March 3, 2017 at 11:02 am

    “The impact of removing the projects from the TSP would be very real. It would create chaos and outrage among the numerous powerful business and freight interests…”

    Good.
    This is known as living up to Portland’s Climate Action Plan and Comprehensive plan commitments…

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    GlowBoy March 3, 2017 at 11:59 am

    Like I said in the other thread, there’s no reason to widen this stretch of I-5. It will become part of I-84 when we remove I-5 from the central Eastside, from I-84 down to where I-405 meets the Marquam.

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      eawrist March 4, 2017 at 4:19 am

      I was thinking about this in a very similar context GlowBoy. This is the only way I could see a reason FOR widening I5 at Broadway, ie maintaining East-West capacity for I84’s connection to the Fremont br.

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        GlowBoy March 6, 2017 at 11:50 am

        I think the freeway would have decent capacity at Broadway (already 3-4 lanes wide) if I-5 were shifted to go across the Fremont Bridge, and it strictly carried I-84 traffic there. Most of the congestion there is due to mixing and lane changing between the I-5, I-84 and I-405 flows.

        Not saying that wouldn’t shift congestion over to I-405. Probably would need to reconfigure some ramps on that side to make things work. Also haven’t raised an opinion as to whether to keep the Morrison Bridge ramps to I-84. Taking those out might shift too much traffic to the other side of downtown, but even if you left those in place the benefits to removing I-5 along the east side would be yuge.

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    Ryan March 3, 2017 at 12:40 pm

    It’s a bit strange to me that they talk about how there will be more time to debate this later, but one of the reasons some voted to keep it alive was that they didn’t want to interrupt the process. When it comes time to debate later on (if they do actually have other discussions about it) it will have even more momentum because of them allowing it to get through now, which in turn will put even more pressure on those voting to not interrupt the process either. By pushing the discussion further down the line they’re already skewing the direction the discussion could go. With so much money attached to it, many of these “leaders” don’t want to be accused of getting in the way or rocking the boat. That’s some pretty weak leadership.

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    Justin M March 3, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    I have the I-5 visible from my window at home near the top of Barbur and I have to say that the congestion is pretty terrible. Starts backing up out my window around 6am. I have night classes at PCC Cascade at 6pm and I leave my place at 3:30 so I don’t have to deal with tons of traffic, though it is still ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS a cluster duck **quack quack** at the 5/405 interchange. It’s great to say use the money for cyclists and pedestrians, but a lot of this traffic is people who cannot afford to live in Portland. Even if we shove tons of affordable housing into new apartment buildings, people who want to own their homes are still going to have to live further out. I’d welcome a wider I-5. Tho I would honestly prefer if we got a MAX line down Barbur instead, even that won’t reduce congestion too much unless there was a good park and ride terminal at the end. Hopefully they move forward with the MAX line they’re planning into Tualatin.

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      GlowBoy March 6, 2017 at 1:24 pm

      As at the other end of 405, much of the congestion there is due to the mixing zone of people having to shift lanes to make their connections. Removing the Marquam would eliminate the interchange you describe, and might well obviate a lot of the congestion you’re seeing on “the” I-5. The more interchanges you create, especially those within 1/2 mile to 1 mile of each other, the more congestion you get from all that weaving. Adding more lanes is relatively useless in these situations.

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    MaxD March 3, 2017 at 5:46 pm

    It is laughable that they they argue for the ability to argue for greater density/development when the City is developing and paying for a full-block parking garage directly adjacent to a MAX stop! The fact that block should be housing is as plain as the nose on my face! Thank you Chris for injecting a bit of reality!

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    Tim Davis March 6, 2017 at 5:17 pm

    *Sustainability* is literally the *middle word* in the Portland PSC. We learned *decades* ago that widening highways (especially within cities!) is literally the opposite of sustainable.

    I can’t believe that we STILL have to constantly educate our public officials about induced demand, basic geometry, how car-first urban road design kills people at unforgivable rates, the correct way to prioritize transportation spending (walking–>cycling–>transit–>freight–>private auto use), incredible inefficiency in our business-as-usual transportation planning, and many other concepts that have backed by countless studies over the past 20 years.

    Agreed: Chris Smith for mayor. 🙂

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      Smokey Bear March 6, 2017 at 10:26 pm

      Public officials do what the public, the ones who pay their wages, want done. And most of the public want to drive cars on uncongested freeways. If that weren’t the case, the busses/trains/bike trails would be full and freeways would be empty. The freeways are lightly traveled much of the time.

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson March 7, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    Thanks Chris! Great work. Indeed, the obstacle to moving freight on the freeway network (and on Swan Island) is too many folks alone in their cars. Better transit, safer bike routes, more close in housing…they all do more for freight than a half $Billion auxiliary lane between I-405 and I-84.
    Now if this project was part of a plan to remove the Eastbank Freeway south of I-84 to I-405, including the horrible Marquam Bridge, then I might be persuaded to look the other way!

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