The Oregon Department of Transportation’s plan to expand the width of I-5 through the Rose Quarter got a fresh dose of criticism at a Portland City Council hearing yesterday.
The project was on the agenda as part of a slew of Comprehensive Plan amendments and people concerned about the project didn’t waste the opportunity to tell Mayor Ted Wheeler and city commissioners that they feel it’s not the right thing to do.
One piece of testimony that was particularly noteworthy came from Portland Public School Board member Paul Anthony. He raised several questions about the project’s impact on Harriet Tubman Middle School. The school will be re-opened this fall and it sits just yards away from where new lanes will be added if and when the project is built (see photo). ODOT has already come under scrutiny for how this project will impact air quality around Tubman.
In a phone interview today, agency spokesman Don Hamilton said they’re used to working with adjacent property owners.
I’ll share Anthony’s testimony and then Hamilton’s response.
“… To open Tubman this August we must immediately invest $12 million in health, safety and infrastructure improvements. In my view, ODOT and the city of Portland are putting PPS and it’s board in a nearly impossible situation. We do not know if the widening of I-5 will even happen. We do not know if children will be able to occupy Tubman safely during construction; if ODOT can confine construction to times when Tubman is not in use, or if the Tubman building and site will even be viable after construction.
ODOT is proposing a 30-foot retaining wall next to Tubman. It requires horizontal pilings driven 40-feet into the hillside under the building. Those pilings will have to be woven between the vertical pilings that currently hold up Tubman. We do not know if ODOT’s pilings can be driven without harming Tubman. If ODOT can limit pile-driving to times when Tubman is not occupied, or what the consequences would be for Tubman if ODOT hits one or more of Tubman’s pilings.
ODOT is proposing multiple lids over I-5; one of which will end just 60-feet south of Tubman. Lids are known to trap and concentrate pollution. We do not know if those lids will trap and funnel the accumulated pollution north into Tubman, making an already bad air situation, worse.
So the district and its board is risking the education of 1000s of Portland’s children, the hopes and dreams of my own personal community, and spending $12 million of public money all on a resource this project is putting in grave risk.
The current ask before the council is for a delay to study whether the proposed widening would actually relieve area congestion. With all the many unknowns, this seems like a very reasonable reqeust and I ask your support for it. Also, any answers that the council, the city, or ODOT could provide Portland Public Schools and its board would be greatly appreciated.”
In response, Mayor Wheeler said, “You’ve raised legitimate questions that deserve an answer,” and he promised to set up a meeting of interested parties.
“We would not do anything without making sure that the school and the things they need to support Tubman and make it safe and secure are taken care of.”
— Don Hamilton, ODOT
I called ODOT’s Hamilton to ask for his response to Anthony’s concerns. Hamilton said there’s nothing to worry about. “One of the important things to recognize here is the schedule. PPS will open Tubman this fall and we’re still 4-5 years away from getting started on the Rose Quarter project,” he said. “The schedules are very, very different and I think any sense of there being danger to students at this point doesn’t jibe with the schedule.”
Even if the project doesn’t start for four years, I asked Hamilton, aren’t Anthony’s concerns about wasting $12 million on school upgrades today still valid?
“That’s an important question,” Hamilton replied. “When we start to make this project happen, we will make sure that all of the needs of PPS are met. We would not do anything without making sure that the school and the things they need to support Tubman and make it safe and secure are taken care of.”
Asked if he could recall a similar situation with such a sensitive property so close to a freeway expansion project, Hamilton said, “We had to take care of a pregnant elephant once.” He was referring to a 2012 project on Highway 26 near the Oregon Zoo where construction crews staged far away from the site to reduce vibrations so as not to disturb a prized elephant’s pregnancy. “We are always looking to mitigate projects with neighbors and to make sure their needs are taken care of.”
Hamilton said there will be ample opportunities to discuss impacts to the school. ODOT will do an environmental assessment that will include an air quality analysis and they are required to give a progress report on the project to the Oregon legislature in 2020.
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