“We never envisioned ODOT taking shortcuts to a decision and a design. The risk that was taken by those shortcuts is now playing out.”
— Lynn Peterson, Metro Council President
It’s been a very rough few weeks for the Oregon Department of Transportation and their I-5 Rose Quarter project. On Thursday ODOT top brass and project managers heard local electeds and community leaders deliver blistering testimony about the agency’s conduct to members of the Oregon Transportation Commission (the OTC, also known as ODOT’s boss).
“The current proposal fails to treat stakeholders as partners and in our view is not adaptive or responsive enough to move us forward,” said Michael Alexander with Albina Vision Trust, an influential group pushing for neighborhood redevelopment in the Rose Quarter.
“The gash that Interstate 5 drove through the black community is one we’re still wrestling with today. We can’t look at this area as simply a bottleneck for the people that drive through it,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson.
“Strong governance and genuine partnerships are required to deliver mega-projects successfully. To date, this project has lacked these elements and has faced obstacles as a result,” said Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.
“We never envisioned ODOT taking shortcuts to a decision and a design. The risk that was taken by those shortcuts is now playing out,” said Metro President Lynn Peterson, referring to ODOT’s decision to perform only an environmental assessment (EA) as part of their federally-mandated project analysis instead of a more rigorous environmental impact statement (EIS).
Cracks in the facade
On December 20th, Willamette Week broke the news that ODOT’s legislatively mandated “Cost to Complete” report found the estimated cost of the project had skyrocketed to $795 million — up from $450 million estimate in 2017. ODOT blamed inflation.
On January 14th, No More Freeways laid out a new set of demands focused around more accountability and transparency.
On January 17th, Rukaiyah Adams reached her limit. Adams, chief investment officer at Meyer Memorial Trust and leader of Albina Vision Trust has worked with ODOT in a push for buildable highway caps (ODOT wants cheap caps that won’t support the multi-story buildings that are key to Albina Vision). After reading a story in The Oregonian, Adams unleashed a scorching statement on Twitter that included, “In all seriousness, is it too much to ask that the public get something *actually* useful out of hundreds of millions of dollars of investment? C’mon. Let’s get serious @OregonDOT.”
In what appeared to be an effort to reassure local elected officials, on January 17th OTC Chair Robert Van Brocklin wrote a letter (h/t Andrew Theen from The Oregonian) to Wheeler, Eudaly, Peterson, Pederson, and two PPS board members outlining 11 actions he wants ODOT to take. This rare step showed the pressure this project has put on the OTC and these actions can be seen as their attempt to clean up ODOT’s mess and get things back on track.
In one of several recent stories from local media exposing cracks in the project, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported today that it, “Keeps taking hits”. “The Rose Quarter jewel is looking increasingly tarnished,” reads the story that also includes a quote from Metro’s Lynn Peterson that makes a direct comparison to the failed Columbia River Crossing.
1/ The City has been working for years to make an I-5 Rose Quarter Project that would benefit the state & local community. But the project is off track: it’s off-track with community, with local and regional partners & with cost. @andrewtheen @wweek @BlairStenvick @Jeffmapes pic.twitter.com/1ZSaAuem0S
— Portland Bureau of Transportation (@PBOTinfo) January 23, 2020
Also yesterday, the Portland Bureau of Transportation released a rare public rebuke of ODOT on Twitter, writing, “The project is off track: it’s off-track with community, with local and regional partners & with cost.” Notable about the 14 tweet thread is that PBOT mentioned local transportation reporters. It was a jaw-dropping step that illustrates the intense political pressure facing PBOT Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and her need to reset the narrative around the city’s involvement with the project.
What happened in Lake Oswego
PBOT Commissioner Eudaly reminded OTC members that the project, “Represents the first major public infrastructure project in Lower Albina since the creation of the Interstate Highway System.” “Due to past racist public policy,” she explained, “lower Albina was designated as a slum and blighted area… and federally-funded projects displaced African-American residents from north and northeast Portland.” Eudaly said that is a, “Shameful part of our shared history and it’s now our shared responsibility to deliver a remedy.” To begin to right those wrongs, she said ODOT must do three things: explicitly acknowledge that history and commit to a process of restorative justice; increase transparency in project governance and cost; and come to consensus on project scope (that explicitly includes the surface street updates, highway covers, and congestion pricing). Eudaly also hinted she might be open to compromise on the EIS issue. “Without a full EIS,” she said, “We’d recommend a tool such as a community benefits agreement.”
In her testimony, Metro Council President Lynn Peterson clarified a key element of her position: “We need congestion pricing prior to any work in the Rose Quarter because without the transportation demand management that that offers, the benefits won’t be totally realized.”
Mayor Wheeler sent a representative to speak on his behalf. Cupid Alexander from his Office of Strategic Initiatives said Wheeler supports Commissioner Eudaly. He also said, “In an attempt to improve the flow of traffic and convenience for one part of our community, we divided and disconnected another part of our community. We must make the effort to reconcile this imbalance… To start down a path of environmental, social, and economic reconciliation for our community.”
OTC members also heard powerful testimony from the public.
Albina neighborhood resident Joan Petit was moved to tears while reading hers:
“ODOT devastated an entire community when they tore a hole in Albina — a scar that pollutes the air, makes our community sick, and remains to this day. Some good things remain, like Harriet Tubman Middle School. We parents worked so hard to re-open that school just a year-and-a-half ago so the children in inner north and northeast Portland could have a middle school. Now however, ODOT wants to double down on the harm to this community with an unnecessary freeway expansion.
After all these years, shouldn’t we know better? Haven’t we white folks learned that it’s not OK to destroy communities and schools to build freeways? Lately I’ve been wondering, is ODOT like that restaurant in eastern Oregon that doesn’t want to see my kids, that doesn’t want to serve my kids and kids who look like my kids [referring to a story she told about her adopted black children who were refused service in a restaurant]. Is the health and well-being of my black children irrelevant to ODOT, Governor Brown and the Commission in front of me? Are their lungs just collateral damage?
A few years ago in eastern Oregon, I left that restaurant. I walked out. I’m not leaving this time. I’m here for my kids and for all the kids in my neighborhood, including and especially the 65% of Harriet Tubman students who identify as children of color. You can’t ignore these youth anymore… Parents in my neighborhood are ready to fight you on this project that harms our children’s lungs, their educational opportunities, and the planet they will inherit. We are not walking away!”
Chris Smith, a transportation activist, Portland Planning and Sustainability Commissioner, and candidate for Metro Council, said:
“Frankly, I’m befuddled. As a public official, I can’t imagine that if in a hearing before my commission if we had nearly 2,000 comments – 90% of which told us to either not do the project or do a deeper analysis – that we wouldn’t take the time to learn more and do that deeper analysis…. As a climate activist, I’m very concerned that during the very decade we have to decarbonize our economy, this project will not only interrupt transit but also a main bicycle cconnection that connects to downtown. I can’t imagine a worse thing to do for our climate at the moment.”
Trying to right the ship
After the testimony, commissioners discussed the 11 actions outlined in Chair Van Brocklin’s letter. These actions are an attempt by the OTC to salvage confidence in the project because ODOT has failed to satisfy the concerns of so many project partners.
Here are the 11 actions that were approved by the OTC Thursday (and just released as a memo here):
1. Approving the Submission of a Rose Quarter Cost to Complete Report to the Legislature.
2. Directing ODOT to complete an Environmental Assessment for the Rose Quarter Project or direct ODOT to Conduct an Environmental Impact Statement.
3. Directing ODOT to establish a Rose Quarter Executive Advisory Committee.
4. Directing ODOT to establish a Project Community Advisory Committee.
5. Directing ODOT to recommend Rose Quarter Project “Principles and Values.”
6. Directing ODOT to conduct a Rose Quarter Project I-5 Highway Cover Evaluation and Alternatives Report (“Cap Report”).
7. Directing ODOT to continue to coordinate with Regional Partners.
8. Directing ODOT to establish Rose Quarter Project Equity Principles.
9. Directing ODOT to consider a Rose Quarter Project Environmental Peer Review.
10. Congestion Pricing on I-5.
11. Directing ODOT to continue to work with PPS to attempt to address PPS’s concerns about the Rose Quarter Project.
OTC Vice-Chair Alando Simpson will chair the new executive advisory committee (action #3). He sees the role of the committee, “To try and figure out a way to create something here that is a little more comprehensive and that truly serves the triple bottom line in terms of how we invest our public resources into our communities.”
Before adjourning the meeting, Chair Van Brocklin tried to address the challenges around this project that lie ahead for OTC and ODOT. “This is a challenging subject… We are trying to listen and learn… This is a very unique area in the state with a long history and we’re trying to be respectful to all of the considerations that have been raised… environmental, social, economic and otherwise. We’re probably not going to make every single person happy every single day, but we’re trying to be as smart as we can about it.”
Where we’re at
The OTC is trying to thread a needle between political and community pressure, and the need to make progress on a high-profile project. These 11 actions are much more preferable to the OTC and ODOT than having to do the EIS. At yesterday’s meeting Rose Quarter project manager Megan Channell warned commissioners that doing an EIS would be about a three-year delay and would add about $66 million to $86 million in additional inflationary costs.
Right now ODOT should be more concerned with the project being shelved than with a multi-year delay. In fact, given that ODOT (and a federal government run by President Trump) would control the narrative and process around the EIS, it shouldn’t be seen as a silver bullet that will stop this project. In large part because of ODOT’s huge miscalculation, the Cost to Complete report will raise eyebrows of legislative leaders, making an already controversial project even more of a political minefield.
People with concerns about the project would be smart to remind legislators (and OTC members for that matter) that they approved funding for a project in the Rose Quarter, not this project.
ODOT’s freeway-centric culture and hubris got them to this point. They find themselves isolated like I’ve never seen before. Key legislators, Governor Kate Brown, local elected officials, the media, community groups, and now even the OTC have exposed ODOT’s faults and taken steps to rein in their power.
Who does support this project? The Oregonian Editorial Board.
Despite all the tumult, like the parents of an unruly teenager, the OTC is still willing to help ODOT through these rough waters. It remains to be seen whether their parental controls will be enough to keep the project alive.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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