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With letter to City Council, new coalition launches fight against I-5 Rose Quarter project

Screen grab from No More Freeways website.

A new coalition of Portland-area organizations and individuals have joined forces to oppose the Oregon Department of Transportation’s I-5/Broadway/Weidler Interchange project.

With support that includes the Audubon Society of Portland, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, Community Cycling Center, Neighbors for Clean Air, the NAACP, and others, a group called No More Freeways launched a website and social media accounts today. Their target is a public hearing on the Central City Plan scheduled for Portland City Council on September 7th.

In advance of that hearing the group has sent a letter to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and the four city commissioners outlining their opposition to the I-5 project. The goal of their campaign is to get three specific projects stripped from Portland’s Transportation System Plan (which could then trigger Metro to remove them from the all-powerful Regional Transportation Plan) and to hasten the implementation of a congestion pricing plan. Here are the three projects (and their estimated cost) as they appear today in the TSP (PDF):

And here are key excerpts from their letter (which you can read in its entirety here):

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We write to ask you to remove the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion project from the Central City Plan. We are Portland residents, local advocacy organizations, and civic leaders concerned that a half-billion dollar freeway expansion project will harm our air quality, damage our efforts to reduce carbon, and limit our ability to invest in underserved neighborhoods.

Freeway expansion won’t solve our region’s congestion problem. Study after study has shown that freeway expansion projects do not ultimately relieve congestion—instead, research resoundingly indicates that freeway expansion encourages more driving, longer trips and more suburban sprawl. This has proven true in cities across the country, including Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle, Boston, and Denver. We see no evidence as to why this freeway expansion will be any different, and the city’s own staff from the Bureau of Transportation have admitted in testimony that there will be little impact on recurring congestion.

Expanding I-5 at Rose Quarter won’t meaningfully improve traffic safety. Portland’s commitment to Vision Zero, passed with a unanimous Council vote in 2015, embarked us on a data-driven prioritization of resources to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries on our most dangerous streets. Yet this project is projected to result in a minimal reduction in collisions. It does not address the predominant source of Portland’s epidemic of traffic violence – our “High Crash Corridors,” where 51 percent of Portland’s traffic deaths and serious injuries occur…

It’s an unnecessary, expensive investment in outdated infrastructure. The projected cost of the expansion – $450 million – is nearly twice what last November’s Municipal Housing Bond raised, seven times the projected revenue of last year’s gas tax, and represents a cost of $700 for every Portland resident. A project with such a hefty price tag (and therefore, a hefty opportunity cost) should be providing significant, longstanding benefits to all the city’s residents with investments that will produce the intended results. As documented above, even city staffers working on the project acknowledge the impacts on traffic safety and peak congestion traffic are of dubious benefit. The jobs produced by the construction of this project are also temporary and low in number compared to other infrastructure investments, particularly infrastructure for biking and walking.

It’s detrimental to the health of kids and families.… Overwhelming scientific evidence suggests children growing up near freeways are more likely to develop cardiac disease, asthma and lung cancer. Widening I-5 will expose these children and their families to even more toxic vehicle emissions, particularly after the failure of efforts in the last Oregon Legislature to regulate toxic emissions from diesel engines…

It runs directly contrary to our adopted climate goals. Transportation emissions account for 40 percent of our total emissions, a fact outlined in the City of Portland’s Climate Action Plan, adopted in 2015. The Climate Action Plan calls for a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2040. If the City is serious about this commitment, then every transportation project built from today on needs to push the region towards a significant reduction in carbon emissions. And yet as with other freeway expansions across the country, this project encourages more driving and more carbon emissions, not less.

… The I-5 expansion project is 20th century solution that directly hinders the City’s goals to create a greener, healthier, more equitable place. We think we can do better.

… To use taxpayer dollars efficiently, we also ask that no decisions be made on expanding I-5 until after road pricing is implemented, giving us a good understanding of how much traffic can be reduced through significantly cheaper initiatives. In addition, any revenue raised from tolling should be reinvested to address equity concerns and explore congestion-free transit options to increase travelling capacity along the corridor and throughout the region.

Individual community members that have signed onto the letter include economist and publisher of City Observatory Joe Cortright, Portland Planning Commissioner Chris Smith, veteran freeway fighter Jim Howell, real estate developer Eli Spevak, independent reporter Michael Andersen, former Chair of the Oregon Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee AJ Zelada, First Stop Portland Associate Director (and former candidate for Portland Mayor) Sarah Iannarone, and a host of local transportation reform activists. (Disclaimer: I have also signed onto the letter.)

Notably absent from the list of organizations that support this coalition is The Street Trust. We’ve asked them for comment and will update this post when we hear back. (See update below)

While this opposition effort echoes past freeway fights like the Mt. Hood Freeway in the 1970s, this one much more nuanced. The City of Portland’s Bureau of Transportation fully supports the project due to the numerous local street updates that are promised to come along with it. And as you might have read in recent BikePortland comments, even some transportation reform advocates have mixed feelings. One commenter who goes by “Beeblebrox” wrote yesterday that, “It should be noted that the project does not actually ‘widen’ I-5. There would still be two lanes north of the I-405 on-ramp, and two lanes south of the I-84 off-ramp. What the project does is connect the I-405 on-ramp to the I-84 offramp without a merge required, and vice versa in the other direction. So yes, on the margin it will make it easier to drive through the current bottleneck. But overall, this is not a massive ‘freeway widening’… Instead, it’s more like it’s connecting I-405 to I-84 to prevent the need for so much weaving back and forth.”

This new coalition — which represents the most organized and diverse freeway opposition Portland has ever seen — doesn’t share that rosy outlook. Will it be enough to persuade three members of Portland City Council? We look forward to hosting a robust debate.

UPDATE, 12:00 pm: Here’s a statement about the project from The Street Trust’s Advocacy Director Gerik Kransky:

Our priority at The Street Trust, now that the Oregon Legislature has chosen to fund the project, is to make sure that the congestion pricing, dedicated bicycle and pedestrian bridge, cap over the highway, and surface street improvements are fully funded and implemented as part of the project.

Widening highways will not reduce congestion. We are pleased to see our community partners leading a public conversation about this issue. We agree with many of the concerns raised by opponents of the project and think the best approach is to hold our leaders accountable to deliver the project elements that provide the most benefit.

To truly address traffic, the Rose Quarter project must include congestion pricing to manage demand during the busiest times of day. This a strategy that we strongly support and will work towards.

The project plan includes a much needed cap over the highway, reconnects the surface streets in the area, builds a new bicycle and pedestrian bridge over I-5, and improves connections between the Lloyd District and Downtown Portland.

We would love to see this project successfully set a new precedent for how we address urban highways in Portland. We would like ODOT, the City of Portland, and regional leaders to pursue congestion pricing on all our busy highways. We would like to see more of our communities stitched back together by burying urban highways under a cap.

We know that widening highways will not reduce congestion. The ~1.5 new lane miles on I-5 through the Rose Quarter aren’t the most important part of this project. We would oppose it if it compromised the safety of pedestrians and cyclists. We are choosing to work with project planners and local leaders to ensure that the most important street safety improvements don’t get value-engineered out of the project and that we set a new standard of congestion pricing and capping urban freeways in Portland.

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

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