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ODOT’s I-5 widening project roundly rejected at first public hearing

Posted by on March 13th, 2019 at 10:59 am

ODOT Region 1 Director Rian Windsheimer and City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly listened to two hours of testimony last night.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

At a public hearing held last night in the Oregon Convention Center, a wide array of Portlanders voiced detailed and passionate opposition to the I-5 Rose Quarter project.

“I don’t necessarily think fixing this poorly designed interchange on I-5 is a terrible idea. We’re not adding capacity at either end of it. We’re trying to clear up a bottleneck right?
— Chloe Eudaly, Commissioner of Transportation

From middle school students to veterans of freeway fights nearly five decades ago, their testimony exposed the myriad significant faults in this project.

People voiced concerns about the health of their children (and future children), the urgent need for investment to stem the carnage on ODOT’s deadly urban highways, the poor design of the freeway lids, the history of institutionalized racism in the original construction of I-5, fears of climate change, the lack of tolling as an option, the inadequacy of proposed bicycling infrastructure, an increase in toxic emissions mere yards away from Harriet Tubman Middle School, induced demand, ODOT’s willful obfuscation and dishonest marketing of the project, and more.

Outside of invited testimony, there were only a couple of people — out of 55 total speakers — who expressed support for the project. There was a large contingent of union reps and workers who think the project will alleviate congestion and provide good-paying jobs. However, several union workers expressed a desire to work with those opposed to the current iteration of the project in hopes of making it better (they really just need something big to build, who says it has to be a wider freeway?).

Aaron Brown with No More Freeways PDX was outside where he passed out materials and encouraged people to testify.

ODOT Region 1 Director Rian Windsheimer and City of Portland Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly sat in the front of the room as panel after panel of concerned people tore into the project from a myriad of angles.

It was nothing short of a complete evisceration of ODOT’s talking points — at an event that was never on ODOT’s schedule and only happened after Commissioner Eudaly (under pressure from her constituents) requested it.

Many people mentioned how ODOT has failed to include key datasets in the Environmental Assessment (EA) that are needed to understand ODOT’s claims and assumptions about traffic volumes and emissions. After listening to two hours of testimony, Commissioner Eudaly (with ODOT’s Windsheimer sitting right next to her) told the crowd, “You have a right to have that data,” and “If it can’t be released in a timely fashion, I will ask for an extension to the comment period.” Windsheimer responded by saying the data would be made available “in the next day or two.”

With just 19 days left in the comment period, every day matters.

Asking the public to weigh in on such an important project with incomplete information is a “travesty, and it’s very disrespectful to our community,” Portlander Sarah Iannarone said in her testimony.

Iannarone also lamented how it seems we, as Portlanders, have “Lost our way” when it comes to leadership on transportation. Then, like many other people throughout the night, she appealed directly to Commissioner Eudaly. “I know that you have courage. I know you have vision. We will have your back if you stand with us on this.” “And to ODOT,” Iannarone concluded, “It’s just not going to happen. We’ll lie down on that highway before you ever build this.”

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In a lighter moment, St. Johns resident Paul Rippey stood up with his guitar and sang his clever “Induced Demand” tune while many people in the crowd joined him in the chorus: “And the thing we need to understand is, induced demand,” they sang. (We profiled Rippey and shared the lyrics to his song back in May.)

“Black lives matter, black students matter, and black lungs matter.”
— Bryan Chu, teacher at Tubman Middle School

The legacy of past freeway fights in Portland was also a strong thread last night. I counted at least three people who testified and were around and/or a part of stopping the Mt. Hood Freeway and other highway mega-projects of the past. Grant Sawyer from southeast Portland was one of them. He mentioned that during the Mt. Hood Freeway fight, activists and political leaders were able to get highway funds earmarked for the freeway project transferred to other, non-highway uses (like MAX light rail).

“Have you seen the icebergs? They’re melting. They’re melting quickly,” Sawyer said, as his voice rose in volume. “We don’t have time to screw around! To invest any money that enhances fossil fuel use is absolutely insane! Excuse my anger. But I’m pissed!”

His comments about funding prompted a response from Commissioner Eudaly, who said, “This isn’t a PBOT project, this is an ODOT project. This money is from the Highway Trust Fund. As much as I’d like to spend half a billion dollars elsewhere. It’s not my money, and it can only be spent on highways. We can’t take this money and spend it on Vision Zero city streets. It’s ODOT’s money to spend on ODOT’s highways.”

To which Sawyer replied, “That’s what the feds told us in 1975! But we did it!”

Its clear those who oppose this project see Eudaly as a potential ally who might be willing to join fellow Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty as the second City Council vote against the project. Eudaly has walked a fine line thus far, expressing support for the idea of relieving Rose Quarter congestion and a willingness to partner with ODOT to do it, while also sending signals that she remains uncomfortable with the current plans.

Many testifiers said ODOT should spend this money on deadly streets like 82nd instead of on I-5 where there is no record of deadly or serious injury crashes. During his comments, RJ Sheperd asked everyone to take a moment of silence for Juanita Francisco, the high school student who was hit and nearly killed on February 24th while trying to cross NE 82nd Avenue.

That moment stuck with Eudaly. In her closing remarks she thanked Sheperd for recognizing Francisco and then shared a personal story. “I’m someone who knows what it’s like to lose someone in a traffic crash,” she said. “To live with the knowledge that not only my father, but the two people he killed when he lost control of his vehicle, likely wouldn’t have died if that road had not been so poorly engineered. That is something I feel every time I hear about a serious injury or death on our streets.”

The urgency of the ever-present danger on ODOT-owned arterials was on the mind of northeast Portland resident Clint Culpepper. “If ODOT was truly concerned about safety, they’d spend this money on projects that would save lives tomorrow.”

Children will bear the brunt of decisions made today and many people stood up last night to defend their futures — including a few of the students themselves.

One young student read the definitions of environmental and social justice and then said, “I can see the freeway outside my building. I can also see the thick grey exhaust and that’s scary to think my friends and I are breathing that when we’re running around… If ODOT were to expand the freeway, that would be much worse.”

Bryan Chu teaches eighth graders at Tubman Middle School. He did not mince words in expressing deep concerns about new freeway lanes being built even closer to his classroom.
“PPS [Portland Public Schools] and the Oregon Department of Transportation seem to be highly efficient at perpetuating white supremacy, environmental racism, and placing profit over people and planet while claiming to have our best interests at heart,” Chu said. “But we know better.” Chu added that his students know they’re being lied to when they’re told the air is safe to breathe but see the $10 million HVAC filtration system that sits atop the school’s roof. “They understand we are a frontline community and we are always the ones made to pay the price for Portland’s progress,” he added. He then put a fine point on how he feels racism intersects with this project. “Black lives matter, black students matter, and black lungs matter.”

In her closing remarks, Commissioner Eudaly was measured in her tone. “I feel your desperation about climate change and about air pollution,” she said, before telling the crowd she has always tried to avoid living next to freeways, but, “It’s really hard to escape them.”

The commissioner then said she’d, “Throw Rian [Windsheimer of ODOT] a bone,” and laid out her most detailed comments on the project yet:

“I don’t necessarily think fixing this poorly designed interchange on I-5 is a terrible idea. We’re not adding capacity at either end of it. We’re trying to clear up a bottleneck right? I don’t think we can’t devote any resources to improvements like that. But I do believe we have to make it harder and harder for people to rely on their single-occupancy vehicles while increasing bicycle infrastructure, pedestrian infrastructure, and greatly improving our public transit system. That’s not to say I’m absolutely gung-ho about this. I’m just saying I don’t see it the same way that everyone sees it in this room.”

Then, after reiterating her belief that project funds can’t be switched to different projects, she ended with, “I’m not going to walk away from this conversation. And I hope none of you walk away. I’m convinced we can come up w something better that will better serve our whole community.”

——

Last night was amazing. There were many compelling and substantive comments made from a wide range of people. I recorded all of it (except for a minute or two) and will use them in future stories as needed. You can read more from the hearing in my live twitter thread here.

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

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m
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m

“We’re not adding capacity at either end of it. We’re trying to clear up a bottleneck right? ”

This is the key point that I and others have been saying for a long time. Highway expansion is generally a bad idea for reasons well known on this site but this particular issue is about fixing a design flaw more than it is about highway expansion. I must admit I’m impressed with Chloe for saying it.

Sigma
Guest
Sigma

“That’s what the feds told us in 1975! But we did it!”

Federal law allowed for such transfers in the 70s. That’s no longer the case. This is a dead end talking point.

nuovorecord
Guest
nuovorecord

It’s pretty dismaying that our elected officials (Eudaly) know so little about the funding situation for this project. The facts are that no federal funding has been allocated for construction and the state funds directed towards this project are contingent on there actually being a scoped project to build.

So while it wouldn’t be a clean process to simply transfer state funding targeted towards RQ to some other project, there’s nothing that says the state must spend the funding on RQ. They could simply choose to not spend it on that project.

Also, is anyone reaching out to the FHWA office in Salem, and Reps. Blumenauer and DeFazio to express their disapproval? ODOT will undoubtedly ignore all of the public input and advance this project for federal funding, so trying to kill it at that level is also an option.

Flareon
Guest
Flareon

“I’m someone who knows what it’s like to lose someone in a traffic crash,” she said. “To live with the knowledge that not only my father, but the two people he killed when he lost control of his vehicle, likely wouldn’t have died if that road had not been so poorly engineered. That is something I feel every time I hear about a serious injury or death on our streets.”

Stop letting Commissioner Eudaly peddle this lie. Her father was drunk and driving over twice the speed limit.

JJJ
Guest
JJJ

eawriste makes a very good point. This “design flaw” creates congestion. There are many design flaws that result in the deaths of bicyclists and pedestrians over and over again, like the lack of a protected network or safe crossings.

Johnny Bye Carter
Subscriber
Johnny Bye Carter

“We’re not adding capacity at either end of it. We’re trying to clear up a bottleneck right?”

She echoes an ODOT talking point and then questions it, as if trying to make a statement but know it’s false.

They’re adding a freeway lane for onramp and offramp traffic. This will increase lane merges by 1 to 2, which will slow the freeway down by that much.

The added lanes will be full of stopped traffic trying to merge onto the highway. People will illegally force their way into traffic, causing the freeway to slow down even more. Law abiding citizens will be forced to exit the freeway because there’s no gap to merge into traffic. and then travel the city streets until the next exit. Connected “auxiliary” onramp lanes don’t put you on the freeway, they put you on the exit ramp. The same fiasco they’re creating on I-205 right now.

Not only will this encourage more motor vehicle use (induced demand is well proven), but more illegal use as well (cutting off freeway traffic, stopping in the “aux” lane).

Nothing good can come from this project. It’s so obvious to anybody that knows anything about highway design and human behavior. Everybody involved should be ashamed.

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

Building and expanding highways is a lot like war and banking. The feedback and opinions of the masses are not really welcome, the agenda has been set and the big players already have a spot at the trough reserved. Our only hope is to make so much trouble that this one becomes unpalatable for them and they move on.

SafeStreetsNow
Guest
SafeStreetsNow

I’m most disappointed in Commissioner Eudaly. She has lost my vote for a re-election campaign. I thought she would be a progressive champion to help combat climate change, end systemic oppression of historically marginalized groups, and that she would actually be a visionary on these issues. To claim that it’s ODOT money and we can’t do anything is ridiculous. Pulling PBOT support would be a seismic shift for starters that would turn heads at the state. Second, these funds could be transferred to other ODOT highways like 82nd, Powell, Lombard and other high crash corrdors that run through Portland where people are dying right now and lives could be saved as soon as safer facilities are implemented. $500 million is enough funding to implement safety features up and down all of those roads! ODOT has habitually ignored communities along those dangerous ODOT streets, and claims they don’t have the funding for broad fixes. That Commissioner Eudaly would push the same line is the biggest disappointment of the night. Of course, the one POC on the City Council actually understands who is being oppressed yet again and who is being served by this project.

gilly
Guest
gilly

HB 2017 specifically designates money for the Rose Quarter project. It was mentioned by name in the bill to ensure that it would get funding. I would think that would mean that the state legislature would need to amend the bill to remove funding for the project.

Champs
Guest
Champs

If I’m ambivalent about and a neighbor to the Rose Quarter expansion, then the safety of other ODOT roads is an issue that resonates with me in ways that the other arguments don’t. Call the project anything you like, but if “bottleneck relief” or “highway expansion” is more important than human lives, I think “messed up” is more appropriate.

Ron Swaren
Guest
Ron Swaren

This is an urban renewal decision by Portland planners. There have been documents citing the “N/NE Quadrant” and “Broadway-Weidler” plan for years. The basic plan is to encourage high density development in the Coliseum and South Albina area. Just like the Pearl District was planned, starting 15 years ago, and the Central Eastside District is currently underway. However, it is smart planning to take care of the transportation infrastructure BEFORE they allow 20 story buildings to be put in. So ODOT is not your real target, it’s merely the state agency trying to coordinate the transportation portion of the larger, urban renewal plan. Which has been in the works for the last decade.

In other words, the ship has already sailed.

dwk
Guest
dwk

It is not surprising… Eudaly is in so far over her head.. she does even have a clue about transportation issues…

9watts
Subscriber

“It was nothing short of a complete evisceration of ODOT’s talking points”

In your title, I think you might be looking for something like sustains? To weather something means to survive intact. That may ultimately be so, but your characterization of the testimony is not aligned with the meaning of that word.

Lester Burnham
Guest
Lester Burnham

I find it very hard to sympathize with anyone at Tubman school with all the driving those parents do. How about leading by example?

MTW
Guest
MTW

Got to hand it to that climate mayor of ours. Scaring granny into supporting this project by suggesting that medicine won’t be able to reach hospitals without a freeway widening. Good grief

When’s the next Global Climate Action Summit Ted?

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

David Hampsten
True, but numerous ships in Portland have run aground…Recommended 0

It is possible to track positions of gigantic “cruise” ships on the web as they emit sulfur-laden exhaust from 100,000 horsepower agglomerations of medium speed diesel engines onto remote tropical communities.

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

David Hampsten
What if they are powered by hot air and guided like a ship of state, the only kind of ship that leaks from the top?Recommended 0

Recently our “ships of state” have been “guided” by the likes of Madeline Albright, Condaleeza Rice, Hillary Rodham. We should ask them.

MH
Guest
MH

“They’re adding a freeway lane for onramp and offramp traffic. This will increase lane merges by 1 to 2, which will slow the freeway down by that much”

Exactly. It will keep 84 to 405 thru-traffic off I-5 but it does nothing to separate it from vehicles entering and exiting. I fail to see how this will improve safety as you will be forced to cross another lane of traffic doing the opposite of what you need to do. Plus the distances between the existing exits provide little room to merge safely. It may reduce the risk of rear-end collisions on I-5 but it increases the risk of collisions in the new auxiliary lane. The project will not address the two key arguments put forth by ODOT, namely alleviating congestion and improving safety. At best they are going to spend $500M for zero gain. The design is flawed.

Michael Ingrassia
Guest
Michael Ingrassia

I remember when she was running for city counsel. It’s amazing how quickly the reigns of power will transform a vocal advocate for progress, into an establishment shill. Sad to see.

GMF
Guest
GMF

the west side of the Merquam Bridge is the real bottle neck..
just a terrible design…why do i need to get into the slow lane to stay on I 5 …oh and if your going south I5, lets pair it down to one lane and merge…just stupied

Ron Swaren
Guest
Ron Swaren

No matter what you think of the Rose Quarter project it’s still a heckuva lot cheaper than another proposal that Portlanders like to talk about: “Removing” I-5. Which translates to changing the location by several blocks and putting it on two levels. We’re talking at least $10 billion here. With a Rose Qaurter project and a needed western metropolitan route we’re still at a small fraction of what “I-5 Removal” would cost!

The Rose Quarter project is just simply smart planning. So stop directing your ire at ODOT, which is caught in the middle of things.