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ODOT and supporters struggle to justify I-5 Rose Quarter project


Screengrab of Willamette Week.

The Oregon Department of Transportation has had many years to figure out a way to justify widening Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter. As one of the narrowest points in this major interstate that runs from Canada to Mexico, it’s been on their widening list for decades.

And now that they’ve finally pieced together the political and funding momentum to do actually it, they’re having trouble explaining why it’s needed.

It turns out the public is a lot more skeptical of freeway mega-projects than lawmakers and bureaucrats.

A scathing report in the Willamette Week today pokes holes in one ODOT’s major justifications: safety. If you browse over to I5RoseQuarter.org you’ll see graphics and statistics about crashes. But as activists opposing the project have pointed out for months, those crashes are most just low-speed fender-benders that don’t result deaths and injuries.

That didn’t stop ODOT official from bringing up two fatalities to City Council during testimony last month.

Here’s a snip from the Willamette Week article:

In exchanges with the press, ODOT officials have repeated [ODOT Policy and Development Manager Kelly] Brooks’ line of argument—that the Rose Quarter project is about safety. That’s a particularly compelling argument because Portland City Hall has committed itself to eliminating traffic deaths.

“The primary purpose of this project is to address a critical safety need,” emails ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton.

But adding lanes to the highway would not have prevented the two deaths cited by ODOT.

Both deaths were of homeless men who walked onto the highway in the middle of the night, according to police reports obtained by WW.

The Willamette Week story comes after Portland economist Joe Cortright — one of ODOT’s biggest critics — offered his own skeptical analysis of ODOT’s safety claims.

Other justifications made by ODOT and other supporters of this project, have also failed to hold up to scrutiny.

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“ODOT has not settled on a coherent argument for the project.”
— Willamette Week

What about congestion relief? Even backers of the project like Mayor Wheeler admit that the project won’t have a major impact on gridlock. It’s been proven over and over again: Adding lanes to freeways has never solved congestion.

Then there’s the argument that somehow a freeway expansion project will right the historic wrongs that the construction of I-5 (and destruction of neighborhoods that followed) caused in the first place.

Mayor Wheeler went so far as saying the project, “Restores the very neighborhood that was the most impacted by the development of I-5 and that’s the historic African American Albina community.” (He also claimed that, “people from communities of color” have “testified overwhelmingly in favor” of the project, despite there being no evidence of such testimony.) ODOT has promised their public process will include a, “robust understanding, research and engagement strategy of the historically wronged African-American community and other communities of color.” But these claims are hollow and are nothing but empty promises at this point.

Perhaps the estimated $225 million (“half” the total) promised to be spent on surface street improvements for better bicycling, walking and transit is a solid justification for the project? That claim hasn’t won a lot of support either for a variety of reasons. For one, ODOT hasn’t provided any cost breakdowns yet so we can’t know for sure what teh various elements would cost. And even if we did, are these the bike/walk/transit projects the community would prioritize with that much money?

It’s a symbol of the power of these mega-projects that so much political momentum can exist with so little justification for the project itself.

As written in the Willamette Week article: “The project represents a massive public investment — larger than the $64 million the Portland gas tax is projected to bring in over four years, and larger than the $258 million housing bond. Yet ODOT has not settled on a coherent argument for the project… ODOT and city officials haven’t been able to present a justification that resonates with Portlanders.”

So far the marketing of this project has been handled by ODOT. Given what’s at stake, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Portland Bureau of Transportation — a major supporter of the project — step in and assert their local influence with a new PR strategy.

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

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