We’re at that awkward stage in a highway mega-project when the agency in charge is under a cloud of controversy and still (after years of planning) doesn’t have an official endorsement to start construction, but still wants money to keep the project moving forward.
Of course I’m talking about the Oregon Department of Transportation and the I-5 Rose Quarter Project. And it seems whenever I do, there’s growing skepticism and concern from regional leaders about it.
Here’s the latest…
Oregon Transportation Commission vote on I-5 Rose Quarter – EIS or EA?
At their March 6th meeting, Metro’s Transportation Policy Alternatives Committee (TPAC) was tasked with advancing a bundle of 12 projects in the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program (MTIP, a list of high-priority projects).
MPAC is the committee made up of mostly city/county agency staff that provides technical input to the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT), the committee of regional electeds and agency leaders that oversees transportation projects and policies at Metro.
TPAC was expected to pass all 12 projects through in one separate motion. But because there were so many objections to the I-5 Rose Quarter project, they pulled it out of the bundle and punted discussion on it to JPACT. According to meeting documents, about half of MPAC members opposed the project. They had concerns about its ballooning cost, whether it met the goals and strategies laid out in Metro’s Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) and climate plans, and whether the project is even needed at all.
JPACT picked up discussion of the ODOT funding request at their meeting 13 days later (3/19).
“I’m concerned that… the serious questions being raised kind of get discounted along the way and not addressed in a forthright manner.”
— Tim Knapp, Mayor of Wilsonville on JPACT
At the meeting last Thursday (held online due to coronavirus concerns), JPACT members were asked to approve an ODOT-requested amendment to the project that would increase funding for preliminary engineering (PE) and “right-of-way activities” to the tune of over $48 million and $58 million respectively, bringing the total (non-construction) funding request to $129 million dollars.
ODOT’s Region 1 Policy Manager Mandy Putney said the agency wants the $58 million to purchase property needed to stage construction vehicles and to access future work sights. Putney said they must start negotiations on these purchases now in order to stay on schedule to complete the project by 2027. “Waiting will cost more,” Putney warned committee members, citing concerns about inflation. As for preliminary engineering, Putney described the need for more money to, “Keep the project team moving with all the activities needed to develop the project.”
In comments directed at Putney, Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp called the opposition in the TPAC meeting, “extraordinary.” He said questions still remain about ODOT’s handling of public input, how/if the project squares with Metro’s climate change goals, the cost of highway lids that will support high-rise buildings, and so on. “Where in the process are these policy questions going to be dealt with, debated, and discussed?” he asked.
Putney assured Knapp that the I-5 Rose Quarter project had already gotten every approval necessary and that this wasn’t the time or place to debate its overall merits. “This amendment isn’t a question of support for the project or not,” she said. “It’s a programming and funding question.” Putney then added that there “will be plenty of opportunity for comment and engagement” on Knapp’s questions in the future.
When a Metro staffer also tried to answer Knapp’s concerns, he again tried to encourage a debate. “I’m concerned that… the serious questions being raised kind of get discounted along the way and not addressed in a forthright manner,” he said.
That debate never happened.
“I think the steps that the OTC has taken in putting together an executive steering committee and a community advisory committee are really big steps.”
— Jessica Vega Pederson, Multnomah County Chair and JPACT member
Instead, JPACT member and Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Chris Warner chimed in to say, “PBOT continues to be a partner in the Rose Quarter project,” and that, “We’re very hopeful that the Oregon Transportation Commission [OTC] will recommend an environmental review and project delivery process that ensures we meet the shared outcomes and values of the Albina Community and the goals of the project.”
Warner then said PBOT will, “Continue to work with ODOT and Metro to ensure this new process results in a project that maximizes our ability to get the transportation results we need…” Warner alluded to a letter the City of Portland is working on with Albina Vision, Multnomah County, Metro, and Portland Public Schools, that he thinks will provide “further guidance” for the project.
It’s notable that Warner didn’t call specifically for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). ODOT is under intense pressure to embark on a more rigorous environmental analysis of the project beyond the existing Environmental Assessment they completed a year ago. Back in January, Warner’s boss, PBOT Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, hinted she’d accept a “community benefits agreement” instead of an EIS. That was a step back from her insistence on an EIS one month earlier.
Warner’s support of ODOT and the OTC was echoed by Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “I think the steps that the OTC has taken in putting together an executive steering committee and a community advisory committee are really big steps… And I think that’s something we should appreciate.” But Vega Pederson warned ODOT that by the OTC meeting on April 2nd (where they’ll make a final decision on the EIS vs EA question), “I think there’s a lot more that needs to be done quickly to make sure people feel positive about the direction this project is going in.”
In the end JPACT voted unanimously to give ODOT the funds they requested. (Here’s the roster in case you’d like to tell your rep what you think about that.)
Veteran Portland activist, businessman, and founder of Willamette Week Ron Buel listened to the JPACT meeting and he was not happy. “All this talk about waiting for an EIS apparently doesn’t stop you from going ahead to authorize more engineering work and right-of-way acquisition,” he wrote in fiery email sent to Commissioner Eudaly and her chief of staff. “Please consider me a past supporter of your candidacy for re-election if you can’t turn this around,” he wrote.
No More Freeways spokesperson Chris Smith (who’s also running for a set on Metro Council) said the JPACT vote, “Suggests that our region’s elected officials continue to ignore our moral responsibility…” and that, “It’s abhorrent that elected officials claiming to be leaders on climate continue to approve hundreds of millions of dollars of funding for ODOT’s climate-destroying freeway slush-fund, paving the way for acquisition of more right-of-way in a neighborhood already devastated by the I-5 freeway.”
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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