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?
- Thursday, April 2nd – 9:30 to 11:30 am
- I-5 discussion scheduled for 10:30 am
- Meeting Livestream
- Agenda & materials
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.”
In related news, you still have about 24 hours to submit official comment to the OTC about whether they should require ODOT to perform the EIS. The two-week comment period closes Friday at 5:00 pm.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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This is insane. If even 30% of people continue working from home after this pandemic, there will be EVEN LESS justification to widen the freeway.
Justification depends upon who you ask and what their needs are. But one consequence of economic upheaval is lessened demand for many things, include roadway capacity.
Is there any chance to re-direct these funds to societal needs like payments to hospitals for patients without healthcare that get the virus, and don’t have coverage because they lost their jobs? Maybe for needed technology to allow schools to function online for the next year to 18 months, or to back fill funding gaps for essential services since tax receipts will plummet along with the huge drop in lottery funds.
No. Unfortunately, Oregon is the only state in the US that by state law, transportation-generated funding must be spent on transportation infrastructure. In any other of the 49 states, such funding can be (and often is) redirected to other uses, including schools, prisons, health care, etc.
Laws can be changed.
Sorry, David, but you are wrong about the claim that all other states allow diversion of highway funds to other purposes.
The Washington Constitution (18th Amendment) states: “”All fees collected by the State of Washington as license fees for motor vehicles and all excise taxes collected by the State of Washington on the sale, distribution or use of motor vehicle fuel and all other state revenue intended to be used for highway purposes, shall be paid into the state treasury and placed in a special fund to be used exclusively for highway purposes.”
I’d be really surprised if a majority of states don’t have similar provisions.
And, by the way, it’s not just Oregon state law, but the Oregon Constitution that has this provision. See Article IX, Section 3a.
The assertion that Oregon is the only state with such restrictions is clearly wrong.
From “Transportation Governance and Finance” published by AASHTO in November 2016:
“Restrictions on State Transportation Revenues and Funds
Nearly every state has laws that restrict the use of state fuel taxes and other revenues to transportation purposes. These laws can take the form of limiting the use of the revenues themselves (for example, by requiring all fuel tax proceeds to be used for certain transportation purposes) or restricting use of the funds and accounts into which the revenues are deposited (for example, by creating a trust fund into which fuel taxes are placed, and prohibiting use of the fund for any purpose other than transportation).
Just over half the states use one of these methods to dedicate their fuel tax revenues to roads and bridges only, either in the state constitution or in statute, sometimes with limited exceptions. Most of the rest dedicate their fuel taxes—again, sometimes with exceptions—to transportation purposes more broadly. States with other approaches include Texas, which directs one-fourth of its fuel taxes to the state’s Available School Fund, and Alaska, which constitutionally prohibits the dedication of state revenues to any special purpose, unless Federally required or dedicated prior to statehood (Table 25; see state profiles for details and statutory citations).”
J_R, thank you for the information, I have to admit I was always curious about these laws. Clearly I live in a state (NC) that has no shame on redirecting transportation funding towards non-transportation priorities – but then this a tea-party Republican-controlled state, so nothing is sacred.
However, given the Oregon legislature’s history of ramming the Rose Quarter freeway widening through Portland, do you believe that the same body will undo it’s transportation funding/spending policies in any emergency?
See Oregon Constitution, Article IX, Section 3a. The legislature cannot direct transportation funds to other programs.
I’m not an Oregon resident but this project will affect the whole region and not in a good way–thanks, Jonathan, for staying on this. Nobody else in media is really watching.
Did ODOT really tell policy makers that they “had already gotten every approval necessary”? Because that is absolutely not true.
Yeah. She was referring to the fact that the project has been approved in the RTP and basically supported at every level… from PBOT to the Oregon Leg.
Ah, ok, that makes a little more sense. I read it to mean regulatory approval, which they don’t have. If she meant political approval that is sadly accurate.
Yeah one way ODOT has consistently framed this project for electeds is to show them a graphic about how many plans and processes this has already gone through. Their goal of course is to show that it’s loved by everyone and is inevitable and you would have to be crazy and disrespectful of all these previous processes to vote against it or even vote to delay it at this point. This is how bureaucratic inertia happens and how agencies like ODOT manipulate politicians, the media, and the public to doing their bidding, no matter how absurd their plans are.
Thanks for all your coverage.
Using the good old Sunk Cost Fallacy to their advantage I see. Only thing better in terms of shoddy rhetorical techniques would be to link it to terrorism somehow (which would be “so oughts”).
Or for health emergencies like Covid-19? It keeps everyone in safely from nasty icky germs, in their own little sanitary cocoon, more than 6 feet from any other user.
There should be a moratorium on highway mega-project spending until we recover from coronavirus and can assess what our economic needs and priorities are.
Oregon’s going to have very little money next year coming in from tax revenue due to Coronavirus recession, and they are going to be struggling to make their state budget work. What essential services will be cut?
At the same time they are going to be spending millions on freeway expansion?
‘We’re short on funds, so we have chase our sunk costs with a lot more money’.
This is how $129 million gets leveraged into point 7 billion, times 1.25 for passing go, because ODOT will never get this turkey done within their estimated cost.
Be positive! Any project headed by “Mandy Putney” is doomed.
Thanks for the article, Jonathan!
Folks can submit their public comments to Governor Brown and the OTC here: http://www.nomorefreewayspdx.com/YESEIS
For crying out loud!
“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.”
All this happy talk.
I don’t want anyone to feel positive about the direction; in fact I strongly suspect the rush has to do with the fact that many (most?) people already don’t feel very positive about the direction this is going.
Fund absolutely nothing but congestion pricing/tolling strategies.
I loved Mandy Putney’s warning that “It’s going to cost more later.”
The fact is, it already has.
Divert funding to this mode and concept http://frogferry.com/ The “roadway” is already there and the rest of the significant advantages are addressed on the website. A small portion of that money would build a lot of terminals and purchase a lot of green, electric powered passenger ferries. Should have plenty of capacity for bikes to be transported terminal to terminal. An easy and natural symbiotic relationship.
Highly doubt the demand is there to support the frog ferry. But it would be an infinitely better use of the funds than opening the spigot through the Rose Quarter.
There has been a decade of community involvement in this. Mayor Sam Adams appointed a 32 member stakeholder advisory committee to the ongoing N/NE Quadrant project, which began that year. Additionally, from Dec. 2016 to Dec. 2019 ODOT held nearly 80 outreaches to community groups.
There has been plenty of time for City of Portland, METRO or Multnomah Co. to ask for an EIS. Why do they wait until the last minute? Funding for the Rose Quarter project was approved via HB 2017 and signed into law over two years ago by Gov. Brown.
This ship has already sailed.
Ask for an EIS?
Like asking for something from Santa Claus?
I would have thought an EIS would be required based on certain criteria, taking the guesswork, and the pleading out of the equation.
The ship has not sailed (or maybe the ship has sailed, but the destination has not yet been confirmed). An EIS is required by NEPA if the EA identifies any impacts that cannot be mitigated to a less than significant level. So far ODOT has not received a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI).
If Portland’s and Oregon’s electeds / policy leaders end up green lighting this project without an EIS [in light of CoP/ Metro’s policy objectives] then the regional bi-state I-5 mobility needs of Clark County commuters (and Portland commuters to Clark County) crossing the Interstate Bridge should be a similar easy peezy new deal for enhanced highway capacity + a “Transit Light*” project as part of CRC2. [*Sadly looking like a swapping of LRT MAX extension out for a CTRAN BRT extension instead.]
Just a reminder, but the CRC was ultimately blocked by the Washington state legislature in Olympia, on the basis they needed the money for the I-90 and SR520 floating bridge rehab projects. Vancouver and Clark County’s support or opposition were irrelevant to their decision.
I’ve never heard that before. Everything that I’ve read in the past was that the Republicans had a slim majority in the Washington State Senate and a Clark County senator lead the push to stop funding for the CRC. Probably because of bridge height, light rail and who knows what else.
There is concern by legislators that Oregon would not be able to afford to do both the Rose Quarter (Broadway-Weidler facilities project) and a new I-5 bridge at the same time. In fact the chair of the Joint Transportation committee has suggested that Portland pay for its own urban renewal embellishments on the Rose Quarter project—-that the state should only be on the hook for roadway costs.
My view is that many of these other ’embellishments’ will be useful, but we should wait a bit until more advanced construction technology is available at an affordable price. There should be some long-spanning metal or polymer alloy products that will make covering portions of I-5 easier to do. Poured-in-place concrete is very expensive, especially above a busy roadway or a waterway. And I don’t know why the public should be paying enormous sums so certain developers and landowners can benefit.
“. . . $58 million [for right-of-way acquisition] to purchase property needed to stage construction vehicles and to access future work sights. Putney said they must start negotiations on these purchases now . . . .” https://bikeportland.org/2020/03/26/regional-leaders-greenlight-129-million-for-i-5-rose-quarter-project-312985
Consider the significance of ODOT having the money and power to start commandeering private property now.
For example, read about The Hill Block here https://djcoregon.com/news/2017/08/01/broken-promises-making-good-after-decades-of-neglect/ “In the early 1970s, the city of Portland, in concert with Emanuel Hospital’s expansion plans, leveled the commercial center of the historically black Albina neighborhood . . . . ” After razing peoples homes and businesses Emanuel never even ended up developing the 1.7 acre Hill Block. This property has sat vacant now for more than 40 years.
With this JPACT vote, ODOT may now be able tie up property and allow it to sit dormant for many years while the freeway project does or does not advance. Much of the property they are acquiring is part of the African American neighborhood that was destroyed by the freeway to begin with. This ROW acquisition funding release is one step further toward undermining efforts at reparations and restoration in this area as proposed by Albina Vision.
Land use and travel disruption outside the project footprint is a huge and seemingly unreckoned cost of construction projects. There are some parts of Portland where it’s presently really hard to travel even when your vehicle is no more than 24″ wide. Could we request that construction projects be limited in the time and spread of their entitlement to public space?
Did ODOT provide any details about the specific properties that they are looking to acquire?
This is the exact opposite of holding ODOT accountable. I’d love to know what the other candidates for Eudaly’s seat think of this.
At the TPAC meeting on March 6, the discussion mentioned that a property owner had applied to the City of Portland for a building permit for a structure that would lie within the path of the RQ expansion, and that ODOT would rather buy land now than a tall building later. Mark Lear of PBOT may have been the member of TPAC who mentioned this, if I remember right. I was at TPAC to testify against the RQ project and ask for an EIS.
Chris Warner looks like Paul Allen.
I put the question re Rose Quarter I-5 project to Sam Adams: “Sam, If elected, will you everything you can to kill ODOT’s RQ I-5 foolishness? Sounds like Eudaly is talking through both sides of her mouth on it.
Adams wrote back:
“Lenny, it is great to hear from you. I hope you are well. Yes, oppose 1-5 boondoggle. Congestion toll Columbia River crossings first and now. Best, Sam”
I think Eudaly is losing my vote over this.
Cap with lids, close the ramps, build Albina. Great idea, the problem is they have an entire team they have to keep going, this is the exact same team that delivered this disaster. The prime contractors should be under a stop work order. Reassign project to MBE primes. They are private contractors and consultants who have built into their billing prices extra money for LAYOFFS. We need a team with integrity not AECOM. Why are we giving an $700 million dollar project to a global company that doesnt understand this community and does not have the communities best interest. They are beholden to stock holders, not Oregon taxpayers. We deserve better for that kind of money.