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Council hears concerns about I-5 expansion impacts on Tubman Middle School

Posted by on January 19th, 2018 at 1:31 pm

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.

Anthony:

“… 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.”

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Google streetview of northbound I-5 with Tubman Middle School in the upper right. New lanes would go in the grassy section right below it.

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.

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

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24 Comments
  • joan January 19, 2018 at 1:43 pm

    It’s great to see Paul Anthony testifying about this project and the potentially devastating impacts to Harriet Tubman Middle School. This middle school was originally opened years ago to provide a middle school for the primarily African American children in the neighborhood, who previously had to leave the neighborhood for school. PPS shuttered Tubman, and is now re-opening the school in a significant win for equity. This freeway expansion–which won’t even solve the problems ODOT lists–will not improve Harriet Tubman Middle School but, rather, would add more pollution to the air our kids are breathing. This project is bad for so many reasons, particularly this one.

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    • Rain Waters January 20, 2018 at 12:52 pm

      I can’t believe anyone could even consider holding kids hostage in such a high pollution zone. No, this is stupid all the way around.

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    • stephan January 20, 2018 at 1:23 pm

      To paraphrase the Mayor, Tubman is a project to restore this neighborhood. But it is threatened by a project that is being sold as doing just that.

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  • Jeff January 19, 2018 at 1:55 pm

    Honestly, I’d be more appreciative if PPS could handle it’s own, unending list of issues before going after outside ones. The story this week on the teacher who was on paid leave for two years (including time spent in jail) further underscores the disaster that is PPS leadership.

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    • joan January 19, 2018 at 2:14 pm

      PPS is planning to build a large wall to block some of the pollution from I5. ODOT says that they would remove that wall to do the freeway expansion. How is this PPS not taking care of its own?

      And let’s please remember that PPS’s “own” are the children of Portland. They aren’t separate from Portland, but our own kids.

      This middle school is re-opening after years of being shuttered and it was a huge win for equity when that decision was made. ODOT is pushing this project despite negative impacts on the neighborhood and city–and without a clear path to achieve their stated goals.

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    • Middle of the Road Guy January 20, 2018 at 9:20 pm

      No doubt. Glass houses.

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  • RH January 19, 2018 at 2:19 pm

    I get the arguments he is making, but this freeway expansion sounds like it’s a done deal with ODOT, city council, etc.. all rubbing their hands together and smiling in anticipation.

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  • chezztone January 19, 2018 at 2:22 pm

    We can fight it, RH. Not “done” yet!

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  • Racer X January 19, 2018 at 2:33 pm

    Did ODOT just communicate: ‘future unborn elephants are [more / less / equally] important than school children?!’ Only time will tell.

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  • Jim Lee January 19, 2018 at 3:39 pm

    Amazing that a school board member actually comprehends engineering exigencies.

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    • Tom Hardy January 19, 2018 at 11:01 pm

      Paul Anthony is a Benson grad and both of his kids are also. He thinks like an engineer. I won’t say anymore because the drunks and aggressive motorist’s will not like him because he is too honest.

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  • bikeninja January 19, 2018 at 3:46 pm

    This is so symbolic. Sacrificing future generations ( kids at Tubman) so we can improve the comfort and convenience of automobile drivers.

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    • 9watts January 21, 2018 at 4:43 pm

      Well I think it is even worse. Pretend to improve the comfort and convenience of current automobile users. Who’s to say the project will even alleviate the problems its boosters would like us to think it will?
      I so appreciate Paul Anthony’s line of questioning and Jonathan’s efforts to bring us these stories. Hamilton’s responses do not reassure me in the least. In fact I think they are a textbook example of paternalism & tone deafness. Don’t worry; our experts will take care of everything when the time comes….

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  • Tom January 19, 2018 at 4:35 pm

    Some info the price that will paid. http://www.learningandthebrain.com/blog/air-quality/

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  • SD January 19, 2018 at 5:52 pm

    Seems like there are already legit concerns about the air quality at Tubman. http://times.org/2017/12/11/tubmanschool/
    ODOT always offers hand-waving assurances.

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  • rick January 19, 2018 at 10:22 pm

    That grassy area is covered with English Ivy but trees could be there instead.

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  • Ken S January 20, 2018 at 9:55 am

    What if every time ODOT or PBOT moved to widen a road to “help meet transportation demand” we just spent the money on BRT lines and expansions, instead?

    Like if there was a city bus or BRT that could get you within 1/4 mile of any destination with no transfers.
    I’d only bother driving to go ski or visit places more than 60 minutes out of town.

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    • 9watts January 21, 2018 at 4:46 pm

      Or just toll the damn road. Quicker and cheaper than pretty much anything. Oh, except doubling the gas tax. 😉

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  • Ken S January 20, 2018 at 9:59 am

    And if you’re worried about incentivizing people to ride a bus instead of drive to work, add free wifi and charging outlets for every bus seat.
    Bolivia and Colombia have this figured out for their rapid transit gondola systems.

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  • wsbob January 20, 2018 at 11:44 am

    School Board member Anthony is right raise questions about how I-5 traffic now, and with the addition of auxiliary lanes to the highway as part of the RQ project, may effect the integrity, the healthy environment needed for the school directly next to the highway. Those kinds of questions will help keep pressure on project proponents and planners, to devise improvements to the RQ project plans that will help preserve the environment the school needs.

    This can be done. Case in point that provides a somewhat comparable example: West Sylvan Middle School on the south side of Hwy 26. It has some protection from effects of traffic on the highway due to a 10′ tall wall, directly next to the MUP and the school. Hamilton sounds prepared to have ODOT accomodate the school’s needs.

    I-5 already is at capacity during rush hour. Has been for years, decades even. It won’t hold any more bumper to bumper vehicles than it does now. The auxiliary lanes planned as part of the RQ project, aren’t through lanes, so they won’t be able to significantly expand highway capacity.

    The city for years, has gradually been adding more business and housing to the east side of the river, to NE, SE, the RQ and the Lloyd District. More people in this part of town with places they need to get to, logically, is creating more demand for use of I-5. The RQ project likely will help somewhat to meet these growing travel needs. The project should help traffic flow somewhat, and help reduce typical minor collisions that happen on this stretch of the highway, but the bumper to bumper congestion will likely continue.

    With their design expanded and improved from what it is now, the covers over the highway could possibly become a fairly good feature for livability to this part of town. Essentially, the covers are related to the strategy for land recovery people have talked about for quite a few years now, for I-405 that could better connect SW Portland with Downtown, than the awful chain link fenced overpasses that are there now.

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    • Gary January 25, 2018 at 9:24 am

      “The auxiliary lanes planned as part of the RQ project, aren’t through lanes, so they won’t be able to significantly expand highway capacity.”

      I don’t dispute that. But I think you and I will both agree that things will still be bumper-to-bumper during significant portions of the day. 6 lanes of idling vehicles (4 through, 2 “auxiliary”) creates 50% more pollution that 4 lanes of idling vehicles.

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  • Tom Hardy January 21, 2018 at 11:05 pm

    I wonder if ODOT even thought about adding a level to the I-5. Southbound the upper level and northbound the lower level. Then cap the whole thing.

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  • Ron Swaren January 24, 2018 at 2:42 pm

    Did the Portland area want a way out of the severe 1980’s recession? Check.
    Do people in Portland want to be in an area of the US that has a brisk economy (i.e. West Coast) or in Flyover Country instead? Check.
    Do Oregonians like getting the income tax money that out-of-state commuters pay when they work in Oregon? Check.
    Do people in the Portland area enjoy the economic benefits that out-of-state shoppers bring to the local economy? Check.
    Then suck it up people. You asked for it.

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    • 9watts January 24, 2018 at 5:49 pm

      Not so fast.

      I appreciate your putting it so baldly, but don’t be so cocky and assume we agree with those (admittedly common) platitudes. All the things you listed are about money. The things I appreciate about our place here not only aren’t measured in money, the all-too-familiar focus on money actively undermines them: community, mutual aid, creativity, friendship, art, etc.

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