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Commission delays vote on Rose Quarter project amid pleas for climate action and jobs

Posted by on December 18th, 2019 at 10:30 am

A few of the people who spoke at the OTC meeting on Tuesday.

The Oregon Transportation Commission has decided to delay a key environmental review decision on the I-5 Rose Quarter project.

After hearing about an hour of emotional testimony at their meeting in Lebanon today (about 100 miles south of Portland), OTC Chair Robert Van Brocklin said, “We need time to absorb that additional comment… There are a number of values at play here… We’re not trying to railroad something through without listening, and we’re not going to.”

Oregon Transportation Commission members. (L to R: Chair Robert Van Brocklin, Vice-Chair Alando Simpson, Martin Callery, Julie Brown, Sharon Smith)

“Let there be no delays. Opportunity for jobs and economic prosperity for African-American contractors is vital.”
— Mat Hennessy, Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church

The five-member OTC is a governor-appointed body that oversees the Oregon Department of Transportation. The OTC has been tasked with deciding whether or not ODOT can move forward into design and engineering of the $500 million project, or whether more analysis of the project’s impacts is needed. Last Friday, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, and Metro President Lynn Peterson joined a long list of organizations and electeds by calling for completion of an environmental impact statement (EIS) — a more in-depth study that would go far deeper than the environmental assessment (EA) ODOT completed back in February.

Oregon Governor Brown stepped in on Monday to tell the OTC they should delay any decision for “a few months” while they address mounting and numerous concerns. But Brown stopped short of calling for an EIS.

The tension at this point is between an agency that desperately wants to avoid delays, and advocates and elected leaders who want to make sure we’re moving forward with the right project.

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“If this project is approved it is a death sentence for generations of children.”
— Eden Cook, Sunrise Movement

After hearing a presentation from an ODOT staffer that painted a rosy picture of the project and public outreach process to date, the OTC heard testimony from about a dozen people. Most of them testified from one of two perspectives: either a climate catastrophe is imminent and widening a freeway will exacerbate it; or that the project will provide much-needed construction contracts to minority companies with roots in the Albina neighborhood.

These voices made a striking contrast between young white people with climate concerns and older black men eager for more living-wage jobs after decades of disinvestment and discrimination.

Portland Public School Board Scott Bailey spoke first. He reminded commissioners that Harriet Tubman Middle School has already spent millions to deal with bad air quality from I-5 and that this project would only make it worse. “ODOT has acknowledged our concerns, but not responded to them,” he said (echoing the same behavior Mayor Wheeler and Governor Brown have now accused ODOT of). “If an EIS does not occur, we will oppose the project. Period!” Bailey said the only other option they’d entertain is a $100 million check from ODOT so they can relocate.

Then someone read a statement from Pastor Matt Hennessy of the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church. “I want to state strenuously,” read his comments, “Let there be no delays. Opportunity for jobs and economic prosperity for African-American contractors is vital.”

Eden Cook, a young teacher from Tubman and volunteer with the Sunrise Movement (who is white) was up next. She said, “If this project is approved it is a death sentence for generations of children. The majority of Tubman students are youth of color. This is environmental racism.”

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Several more men (all of them black) testified about promises made to them by ODOT that up to 20% of the construction contracts — estimated to be about $100 million — would go to minority majority firms. “Considering other environmental impact analysis would delay the start of the project and jeopardize funding,” said Robert Hamilton with Coalition of Black Men. “We want to make sure this project begins and is completed on time to ensure its investment and results are realized.”

One long-time Albina area resident, Larry Anderson, directly addressed racial aspect of the testimony. “A lot of people are talking about the environmental impact the freeway may have, talking about their future being held hostage due to carbon. When that freeway was first put in place, when it was predominately an African-American community, I did not hear people having those same concerns about the environment.”

“I was a little child when [the freeway] was built. It is still going, and I’m now 63 years old and I plan on living in spite of the carbon output I’ve had to live with all my life from the freeway.”

Anderson continued:

“They also talk a lot of the environment but they exclude the people that used to live there, as if we’re not part of the environment… I see a lot of people talking about the impact this is going to have on them in the future and not considering the impact it’s already had on the native people who lived there prior to their arrival and have now been displaced and do not have the economic stability to have living wage jobs so they can make decisions about how they want to live in the communities where they live.”

ODOT Director Kris Strickler (L) at a networking event in April 2019.
(Photo: ODOT)

ODOT has spent a year developing relationships with minority contractors in Portland. Back in February — at the same time ODOT released their controversial environmental assessment — they spent $10,000 to be a Platinum-level sponsor of the Urban League’s Career Connections Job Fair. ODOT also chose this project to take unprecedented steps in how they award construction contracts: As outlined on the project website, they’ve opted to forego the usual low-bid method and they’ve created a strategy to hire African Americans. They’ve held mixers between contractors and minority-owned construction firms, hosted several “industry forums”, offered technical assistance and small business capacity strengthening workshops, and they’ve created a Community Opportunity Advisory Committee (PDF) that has met several times since April 2019.

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(ODOT slides that have been part of outreach to construction firms.)

At a May meeting, ODOT Project Manager Megan Channell acknowledged (via meeting notes here) their “uncommon” approach to contracting with this project and said the COAC is, “a critical element of the project structure.” “The ODOT team wanted to do something new for this project considering its unique history,” read Channell’s comments, “ODOT has been a part of the harm of displacing Black/African Americans during the construction of I-5.”

“We support the environment and the need to reduce emissions; but the environment also includes people of color and for too long our voice and our well-being has gone unheard and ignored.”
— Jeff Moreland, Raimore Construction

One of the most forceful voices in support of the project at today’s meeting was Jeff Moreland, President of Raimore Construction, a north Portland-based company with 120 employees, the majority of which are people of color. “Please help me understand why there is any consideration being given to delaying this project?” he asked commissioners. “The Oregon Legislature has earmarked half a billion dollars to fix a hazardous bottleneck that will improve the flow of traffic through our community while reducing idling and improving air quality. Please help me understand why this is being considered for a delay?”

Moreland said he expected construction contracts to equate to nearly $100 million of work for minority contractors. He tied that directly back to the health of the community his business operates in. “The key element to a thriving community is employment. The project will bring over 700,000 hours of employment specifically targeted to minorities which equates to several 100 living-wage jobs in our community.” And then he added, “A community that’s been deliberately decimated, displaced, gentrified, and marginalized.”

“For the record,” Moreland continued, “We support the environment and the need to reduce emissions; but the environment also includes people of color and for too long our voice and our well-being has gone unheard and ignored. This project will bring real economics to our community that can be a catalyst for real revitalization… This kind of economic empowerment is needed in our community now. Do not. I repeat, do not delay this project any longer.”

Aaron Brown, No More Freeways.

Aaron Brown with No More Freeways — the group that has very effectively organized opposition to this project, can take much of the credit for Mayor Wheeler and Governor Brown’s recent change of tone, and that supplied over 300 letters of opposition to the OTC at the meeting today — said he fully supports more jobs for minority contractors. “And studies show,” he added, “investments in transit, biking and walking create twice as many jobs as road and freeway construction.”

After criticizing them for holding an important meeting 100 miles away from the project site and with only a week’s notice, Brown left commissioners with a threat: “You will not be able to talk about freeway expansions anywhere in the state without us showing up and asking you to think about what your legacy will be to current and future generations.”

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When it was time for commissioners to comment, Sharon Smith said ODOT is working on climate concerns. “Our organization is doing some course correcting to focus on reduction of carbon emissions. I know it’s probably not as fast as many of you would like to see; but I don’t think we can put the brakes on this system that we have in a way that’s not thoughtful in the context of this community and the projects we have in front of us.”

“I’ve come to learn that ODOT has become that punching bag for society. Unfortunately I think that’s unfair.”
— Alando Simpson, OTC Vice-Chair

OTC Vice-Chair Alando Simpson said he agrees with climate and social justice concerns. In a long comment that blamed the climate versus jobs dichotomy on a “broken system” with money at its core that “creates winners and losers”, he painted the picture of an agency that’s changing. “I’ve been involved with this agency for little over five years and I’ve seen some drastic shifts in individuals, shifts in hearts, I’ve seen shifts in perspectives… but I’m not going to cut a shortcut for the department because I feel the department can be doing a lot better.”

“It’s very easy for people from the outside to point the finger and find a black sheep or somebody to point the finger at,” Simpson said, “And I’ve come to learn that ODOT has become that punching bag for society. Unfortunately I think that’s unfair.”

Chair Robert Van Brocklin said he felt the commission needs more time to absorb all the comments they heard today. He referred to Governor Brown’s letter and passed a motion to meet again in January. In the next few weeks, the OTC will craft a more detailed course of action for the next few months when they’ll try to address concerns from the community and address items mentioned in Governor Brown’s letter. By next month we should also hear a date for when the OTC will make a final determination on whether ODOT needs to complete an EIS or not.

What happened on Tuesday wasn’t the sharp rebuke of the project some where hoping for, nor was it a vote of confidence for ODOT. The project remains wounded, but it is very much alive.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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9watts
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“advocates and elected leaders who want to make sure we’re moving forward with the right project”

Always good to remember the ‘do-nothing alternative.’

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

The “Do Nothing” option is a false option at this point in time for this project next to an elementary school, etc…. Yes, the “do nothing” option is the first item on the options list for any well planned transportation project, though historically this “do nothing” option was added to add “a pause to reflect” in the process for new projects so as to be for engineers / planners what the “hippocratic oath” is like for surgeons or physicians before they take action that cannot be reversed.

Sadly this “do nothing” step was not done / strongly reviewed at the time of this highway’s original planning the 50s/60s…but now is not that time to “do nothing” as the current highway’s daily operation needs to be mitigated let alone the future expanded highway.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

The discussion of this project is an opportune time for the community to start collecting base line air quality data…

…much as the emissions of the Bullseye Glass was a surprise to the NOPO community so will be what the impacts of this highway is to air (and water quality) for this area.

My professional rule of thumb is that you can tell a lot about empowered agencies in the data they collect well as these are the ONLY problems they are interested in effectively solving on a day to day basis [unless regulation requires such]…for DOTs this is typically vehicle delay and vehicle throughput volumes…and not air quality.

But now there are grass roots tools – if well coordinated – that can start to collect this information. There are some apps and their related products (monitors) that may help to fill in any missing data if the EIS is lacking or not done. Not a complete list:
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.airvisual&hl=en_US
https://apps.apple.com/us/app/airvisual-air-quality-forecast/id1048912974

Phil
Guest
Phil

It sounds like ODOT has succeeded in bribing economically disadvantaged people into advocating this project move forward at the expense of everyone.

Shimran George
Guest
Shimran George

Why did you choose the term “bribe” here–it’s suggestive that both parties are of low moral character. Nominally, it sounds like a boon for a community that has been struggling from historical racism as well as an opportunity to provide middle-class jobs for the community–after all, people have to provide for their families and often don’t have the privilege of moralizing their choices. Say what you will about this project (and for the record, I am against this project, or anything short of burying this monstrosity) but suggesting that ODOT bribed these people will not endear them to our cause.

Aaron Brown provided the best argument here: suggesting that transit/bike/pedestrian-oriented projects can provide a greater amount of jobs than a freeway expansion, which could go to minority-owned contractors and provide solid-middle class jobs to a greater number of people, apart from being more efficient in moving people around. Why not further push this angle? I’d love to see something more akin to Albina Vision to create a better urban fabric and greater mixed-income communities.

X
Guest
X

You are right, “bribery” is a bit strong. But how about cynicism, on the part of ODOT, to suddenly discover in 2018 that there are construction businesses owned by people of color and build a relationship with them, after all these years? Setting one community against another is a time-worn plot.

Let ODOCars discover how many jobs you can create spending any part of a half billion dollars on bike infrastructure. In the process you would create a new industry of contractors geared up for that. Maybe we would see some designs proven in other places and fewer PBOT one-offs.

Tom
Guest
Tom

Does Portland really have high unemployment for construction workers? Hard to believe with the insane number of major construction projects going on. Are the developers favoring out of state workers for some reason?

Eric Murphy
Guest
Eric Murphy

Is there any serious talk of resigning I-205 to I-5, as part of a long-term strategy of tearing this eyesore down completely?

Toby Keith
Guest
Toby Keith

Yes because nothing says “equity” more than pushing even more traffic and congestion on to east Portlanders who have already been screwed over so badly by these corrupt city leaders.

SD
Guest
SD

The claim that “jobs will be created” really should be backed up in a meaningful way if it is used to justify further pollution and environmental damage. Are people who don’t have jobs going to now have jobs? Or is it the case that they will be working on the I-5 expansion instead of something else?
It is also unfortunate that a small meeting held 100 miles from the site of impact is framed as being representative of entire communities and journalists are amplifying this idea without much thought.

Mike R
Guest
Mike R

This raises an excellent point. Government make-work projects don’t just cost citizens the money spent directly on the project. It also increases demand for labor and materials (and real-estate), thus driving up the cost of other building projects.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

“If this project is approved it is a death sentence for generations of children.”

That’s a bit dramatic.

OGB
Guest
OGB

But it is barely an exaggeration. There was an expansion project of I-5 (I think in the 1990s but last I looked I couldn’t find the details) that was shot down after a volunteer group surveyed the local neighborhoods for status of chronic illnesses. It was found that households several blocks of the freeway had a four times higher percentage of people suffering asthma compared to households not near a freeway.

Peter W
Guest
Peter W

New Plan:

1) 100% of the jobs go to minority-owned & operated companies

2) … and the job is to tear down I-5 from I-84 to the Marquam Bridge and replace it with parks and affordable housing.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Larry’s argument here is absurd. This whole thing has turned into a circus.