Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on April 3rd, 2020 at 2:58 pm
Despite a majority of Metro Council expressing concerns about the future of a nearly $800 million project that will expand the I-5 freeway through the Rose Quarter, only two out of seven members voted against giving the Oregon Department of Transportation $129 million to continue working on it.
The 5-2 vote came at a meeting just hours after the Oregon Transportation Commission gave ODOT permission to move forward with the project without the rigorous environmental analysis called for by hundreds of Portlanders, many organizations and key local elected officials including Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. On the Metro Council agenda was a resolution to greenlight funding that allows ODOT to do two things: Purchase “right-of-way” parcels in the Rose Quarter where they’ll stage future construction equipment; and continue to pay expenses related to project development, outreach and preliminary engineering, and so on. (It’s the same funding passed by a Metro advisory committee last week.
Before voting on the resolution, Metro Deputy Planning Director Margi Bradway assured council members the funds were not tied to construction and that they should be considered in isolation of their feelings about the overall design or merits of the project itself. “You’re voting on a narrow issue,” she said. “Although there are larger issues raised with it.”
“Larger issues,” is an understatement. Just one year ago, Metro’s director of planning wrote a letter to ODOT tearing into claims made in their environmental assessment as being “not objectively true” and, “potentially misleading”.
“It is an impossible dream to relieve congestion at the Rose Quarter without moderating the volume of traffic at the peak periods. Therefore, it makes no sense for me to vote in favor of forwarding this project to its next phase in the absence of an EIS.”
— Bob Stacey, Metro Councilor
All the councilors expressed concern that the I-5 mega-project was moving forward without binding agreements in place with ODOT and there was consensus that more discussion about how Metro can impact the project is needed.
Councilor Bob Stacey voted for this funding last week. Now, given that ODOT won’t be required to perform an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), he wishes he hadn’t. “I feel a little bit sideways about that now. I wish I had the vote to take over again,” he said. At Thursday’s meeting, Stacey tried to delay the resolution in order to get stronger commitments from ODOT about what form the project will take.
“The benefit of having an EIS begins with the definition of a statement of purpose and need (referring to a specific section in EIS documents),” Stacey said. “Here the purpose and need appears to be that the legislature has decided to fund the Rose Quarter project and it’s time to get busy and start digging. A statement of purpose and need that looks at the problem that this project presumably addresses, would start with defining the options for relieving congestion at the Rose Quarter. Those options would include congestion pricing and a wide range of different designs. They would also include a maximum-build scenario, because relieving congestion at the Rose Quarter without congestion pricing is not possible without widening I-5 through the center of the city of Portland and without widening [I-84] as it intersects I-5. It is an impossible dream to relieve congestion at the Rose Quarter without moderating the volume of traffic at the peak periods. Therefore, it makes no sense for me to vote in favor of forwarding this project to its next phase in the absence of an EIS.”
Stacey was not alone.
Councilor Sam Chase, who’s running for a seat on Portland City Council and whose north Portland district would bear the brunt of a wider freeway, was the other “no” vote. He too has even more reservations about the project now that it won’t have an EIS. “The lack of an EIS creates a number of questions about how we’d move forward… I get concerned that we don’t have a clear partnership [with ODOT and the OTC].”
“I’m in a dilemma,” Chase continued, “I don’t feel comfortable moving forward with significant resources without some components more clear.” Chase said he appreciated the letter written by OTC Chair Robert Van Brocklin in January that outlined 11 actions ODOT would take to address concerns from Portland officials. But he doesn’t think the language is strong enough.
“Almost every single one of them says, “we’ll consider” or “may”… It needs to be a commitment that is more forthright, not a ‘We might do these things’,” he said. “It is not a time for us to be hoping down the line that things work out.”
Washington County Councilor Juan Carlos González said he agreed with Stacey and Chase, but that he was “torn” between those concerns and what staff were characterizing as simply an administrative step in the project’s process. González, who also wanted an EIS, said he doesn’t feel comfortable moving forward with non-binding commitments. “However,” he added, “I also recognize that for a project like this to move forward there needs to be a degree of trust and a willingness to continue to have that conversation.” González ultimately voted yes.
“I believe ODOT is capable of designing a project that mitigates the historic negative impacts of [the freeway’s] construction and presence.”
— Lynn Peterson, Metro Council President
Shirley Craddick, who represents Metro District 1, also said she has the same concerns at councilors Chase and Stacey; but she saw the funding vote and the project plans themselves as “two different discussions.” “I think we should move forward…then we need to have that second discussion.” Craddick also voted in favor of the funding.
Before voting “yes”, Councilor Christine Lewis said “It’s a frustrating place to be,” to have to separate support for funding the project when she also feels there’s not enough ODOT accountability built into it yet.
Councilor Craig Dirksen, who represents portions of Washington and Clackamas counties, seemed to be the least concerned member of council. “Based on the fact that this project has been approved at all different levels, and that the state, regional bodies, and even federal government agrees, I see little point in us trying to obstruct.”
In her comments before the vote, Council President Lynn Peterson said she was “disappointed” the OTC voted to not require the EIS. Peterson then expressed appreciation for ODOT’s actions in the past several months. “They’ve committed to expand the scope beyond what they did with their EA [Environmental Assessment] she said, “I think that’s important to note.” “I believe ODOT is capable of designing a project that mitigates the historic negative impacts of [the freeway’s] construction and presence.”
ODOT might not have smooth sailing through Metro from here on out. President Peterson sounded firm about the need for more binding agreements and accountability prior to any further approvals of the project. “How do we move beyond the ‘may’ and ‘consider’? We need to hear back from ODOT in their own words and then get it in an agreement,” she said. “I think we need to make it clear they’re not coming back to us for any further decisions like this unless we have an agreement.”
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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