“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
Since these regional leaders and Mayor Ted Wheeler called for an EIS and Governor Kate Brown called for a pause back in December, things have only gotten worse for ODOT.
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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thank you for this excellent write-up. I love seeing people come together against this mess. I wish there was a way to talk about the harmful urban design changes being proposed for our City Streets: large radii, faster and wider surface streets. The MODA center is definitely a supporter of increasing speed/access to and from their parking garages. They are very complicit in suppressing the Rose Quarter and I continue to be surprised that they are spared public shaming and pressure for accepting tons of public money while not doing anything to mitigate the urban blight caused by their development choices.
So sad to see what The O has become: the propaganda arm of the Portland Business Alliance.
High time for some smart young people to figure out a way to start a new progressive daily, and let The O die a natural and well-deserved death.
Their editorial board is a bit off… But overall I think The O is a huge asset to our community. They do a lot of really important journalism and the editorial page is just one small part of the operation. And FWIW The O is quite healthy right now financially and is no danger of dying.
The O is and has alway been a right wing rag completely out to touch with this city.
Eh the Oregonian has been pretty consistently at odds on transportation infrastructure with Portlanders since the Mt Hood Freeway.
“In 1975, the Mount Hood plan was revived by the Chamber of Commerce, The Oregonian and mayoral candidate Frank Ivancie, who put up billboards saying, “If Ivancie was mayor, you’d be home now.” Problem was, those signs appealed most to people who weren’t Portland voters. Goldschmidt won reelection.”
Makes some sense since they are the newspaper for the whole state. The rest of the state is generally onboard with road expansion especially through Portland.
100 percent, Fred.
The Oregonian has always been the “establishment” newspaper. Those of us old enough to remember, recall that the Oregon Journal was the more progressive of Portland’s two dailies. So the O’s editorial support of the project isn’t surprising.
There is one alternative ODOT has yet to consider: Removing the entire eastside freeway between the Marquam and Fremont interchanges. The challenge then becomes connecting I-84 to the rest of the highway system. The most direct (though expensive) solution would be a deep-bore tunnel directly to the US-26/I-405 interchange. Such a project would be similar in scope and cost to Seattle’s $3.3 billion Big Bertha project. So, Expensive? Yes. Worth it if we get Albina and the east side waterfront back? That’s a debate worth having.
Before dismissing the idea out-of-hand as too expensive, consider this: After building the Rose Quarter project, ODOT will certainly be back to ask for more money to widen/upgrade/modernize I-5 through the central eastside and over the Marquam bridge. This project will be at least as expensive as the Rose Quarter project, since it will involve replacing the Marquam bridge. A tunnel, while more expensive initially, solves all the freeway loop problems in one go. It’s also worth noting that tunnels perform very well in earthquakes, so it would serve as a critical connection after the Cascadia earthquake.
As far as I know, this alternative has never been studied. ODOT’s Rose Quarter EA analysis states that any changes to the freeway loop were not studied, since they are “outside the scope of the project”. As the project’s costs grow, this decision is looking less and less defensible. Before investing $1 billion in a (largely unsatisfactory) freeway loop, shouldn’t we first determine if that’s the configuration we want to commit ourselves to?
great idea! they could build it big and stack MAX trains in it, too.
Yes–tunnel for rails would, if Amtrak trains could use it, improve the timeliness of their trains too–delays due to bridge malfunctions are not exactly rare.
True, ODOT is slowly working around the circumference of the innercity freeway loop. Last decade was in NW Portland. Now they are in N/NE Portland as part of the Broadway Weidler redevelopment plan. There is a big map (probably no longer available) that Portland Planning printed showing artist depictions of the big, infill buildings they have planned. Buildings were shown all the way from the OMSI building up through the Rose Quarter and out Broadway to 20th Ave. Density similar to what we have on the west side. I have one of the original maps.
However, why would they replace the Marquam bridge? That sounds like paranoia to me. Instead I bet they would improve access to the Ross Island and Tillikum bridges. And maybe to Water avenue or to the northbound traffic merging to I-84. You gotta remember the City of Portland is a partner in all of this and they get LOTS of new tax money from the many new buildings going in. The Broadway Weidler plan is about 10 years old now. Happy Birthday!!
This is the first comment that refers to the big picture. It is not just about bikes and neighborhoods. It is about commerce within the US and between three counties. It seems we could get more attention from Federal gov on this major west coast north south commerce route. Tunnels are expensive but perform well seismically. More discussion at this level is warranted. Keep pushing the big picture issues. Bikes (general term for alternate transportation) and neighborhoods are less important to that big picture (with respect to international commerce)but would be addressed in a way that was not concievable when the interstate highway system was originally dreamed up.
This is more like a Lord of the Flies moment.
1. Property owners in South Albina will reap a bonanza as they cash out to highrise developers. Why do you think the city has planners rezoning everywhere? More cash to property owners and businesses that sell out.
2. Racial Victim Card again. Albina has had all sorts of races living there in its history. It was predominately Scandinavian and German until seeing changes in the late 1940’s. I-5 wasn’t routed there because they were targeting certain populations. It was routed there because Hwy 99 had been there, and this lined up with the Interstate Bridge.
3. Tubman school already has deluxe air cleaning equipment.
4. Slow traffic does increase air pollution. I also expect that vehicles will generally be getting cleaner. However the big buildings that PORTLAND wants to go in that area will use huge amounts of fossil fuel, too, either directly or via the 5 fossil fuel plants that PGE uses. The Clatskanie area has added 2 natural gas plants in the last decade or so to cope with the growing population. So even if a building is using heat pumps it still may be relying on natural gas.
Jonathan, I really appreciate your coverage of this issue. Thanks for getting all this out there.
Oh look, a car apologist finally showed up. Thank goodness! We’re saved!
Care to refute his points?
Any reason you can’t just reply to the OP instead of starting a new thread with a copy of the OP’s post?
Why is anyone still trying to rescue this project?!
It should die, just like the CRC died.
When are we going to learn? When are we going to accept that the age of Autos Über Alles is over?
You might not like this, but vast majority of Portlanders rely on fossil fuel powered cars, sadly. Any solution that doesn’t address their needs are dead on arrival and unrealistic.
Yes, we all want a revolution where we can get rid off fossil fuels (and many on this site just do not want cars, at all), but the reality is it will be much more of a gradual thing.
I find that some people’s idealism really makes it hard to come up with solutions that will reduce green houses gases because it is an all or nothing proposition for many. It just doesn’t work that way.
I think the person had good points. Care to refute or are you going to label everything fake news if you do not agree?
“However the big buildings that PORTLAND wants to go in that area will use huge amounts of fossil fuel, too, either directly or via the 5 fossil fuel plants that PGE uses”
Yes, if you have more people, more resources are used. But it is still overall much better to have the big buildings and increase density (than the alternative).
What your comment overlooks is that we all have primary preferences, and secondary preferences. Focusing on people-as-drivers obscures one set of preferences, not to mention the difference between the two. Secondary (or second-order) preferences are what we would ‘prefer to prefer,’ like expensive gas to account for the externalities that driving exacts, even as our primary preference is or may be to find the cheapest gas to fill my tank. It is possible to hold these different views, and we do ourselves and our fellow humans a disservice by pretending that we only have one set of preferences and are unable to evaluate our preferences, always and only want cheap gas, lots of free parking, more lanes’ or whatever.
Is it possible that a majority of people have different priorities and wants? You might not like it, but 85% of Portlanders rely on vehicles with engines. The state is even higher percentage.
So it is not surprising that Oregonian might be more aligned with general population.
Why has congestion come to the Rose Quarter? In part because ODOT widened the Slough Bridge in N. Portland about 10 years ago. That project removed a very effective “meter” on I-5 southbound as well a virtual “freight only” on ramp from Columbia Blvd southbound. Ending an addiction is tough, but fossil fuel needs to stay in the ground.
> 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.
I’d love to see a story elaborating on that point, Jonathan!
Thanks for the great coverage, as usual.
““Strong governance and genuine partnerships are required to deliver mega-projects successfully.”
Eudaly talking about partnerships and strong governance is pretty funny. She never takes input in to her projects, preferring to facebook.
Also with my (limited) online chats with Eudaly, she absolutely wants to point the finger at ODOT for everything while absolutely refusing to take any responsibility for the increase in number of deaths or worse traffic congestion and less bicycle ridership (while taking credit for anything good which is kind of slim pickings). So I am not surprised she is there berating ODOT.
She’s been in office for 3 years and been PBOT Comm’r for just over a year. What would you think could be done in that time to reduce deaths or reduce congestion? These projects take time, and the first of those she’s championed are just reaching completion. From where I’m sitting she’s doing far more with her position than any Commissioner in recent memory.
She is now in a position to shape this project, and is attempting to do so. Kudos to her.
Bike trails should be separated, if possible from Roadways. That could take some creative—but eminently doable–construction tricks through areas that are now considered inaccessible. It could take making use of roadways in west side Portland that are abandoned—plus maybe just a little eminent domain. It could take some grade separation so that vehicle’s CAN’T hit you. It could take some somewhat longer routes than you might ideally want. However, these things don’t require millions to be spent on consultants and engineers.
Oh one other, thing; It would take a lot less inclement weather in the rainy half of the year.