The Oregon Department of Transportation lost a lot more than the support of a local nonprofit today when Albina Vision Trust pulled their support of the I-5 Rose Quarter project.
That earthquake has already had major aftershocks. Portland Bureau of Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler have both pulled their support as well. This means ODOT is left trying to complete a controversial mega-project that doesn’t have support from the very city it would be built in.
And while we’re still estimating the damage, ODOT says they’ll try to do better. “We’ve been actively working to address our partners’ concerns,” ODOT Urban Mobility Office Director Brendan Finn shared with us today. “There is clearly more work to do, and we will be part of the solution moving forward.”
Before we consider what happens next, let’s see how Commissioner Eudaly and Mayor Wheeler frame their new positions.
Mayor Wheeler tweeted this earlier today:
With the history of transportation infrastructure dividing communities, it is critical that entities like Albina Vision, which champions restorative justice, equity, and forward-thinking – are at the table for this process. At every step, I have asked ODOT for specific goals to be met around climate, community, and economic development. Those goals have not been met. Therefore, I am withdrawing my support for the I-5 Rose Quarter Project.
Wheeler’s statement is good politics, but it makes him appear more skeptical of the project than he actually was. As we reported in 2017 he used to defend the project and even dismissed people who opposed it as being “ridiculous”.
And here’s the statement Commissioner Eudaly released today:
“From the beginning, I’ve made it clear that the Rose Quarter I-5 project did not fit the priorities or values of PBOT, the City of Portland, or myself. While the interchange is poorly designed and could stand to be reconfigured, it was hard to justify such a huge investment in a project that would not significantly decrease serious injuries and fatalities on our roadways and would deliver a very modest and short-lived decrease in congestion and carbon emissions. Approximately half of Portland’s traffic fatalities happen on ODOT properties, which only make up 12% of our roadways. There are many more urgent and worthy projects if you value human life.
The Rose Quarter I-5 corridor is a monument to the racist legacy of our transportation system. In 1962, ODOT dug a trench through Oregon’s largest Black community, demolishing 300+ plus homes, disrupting and destabilizing the community, and polluting the environment. The only consolation of this project in my opinion, was the promised investment in the surface streets, and in particular the caps, that were intended to help stitch Lower Albina back together and pave the way for development focused on racial equity and restorative justice.
At every step of this process I have fought for community interests and demands—we had some wins and losses. Portland City Council made congestion pricing a requirement for the project through the Comp Plan. I successfully advocated for ODOT to hold a public hearing, extend the comment period, and create an executive steering committee. But despite the fact the City, County, Metro, and Portland Public Schools—along with hundreds of community members—called for a full Environmental Impact Study (EIS), the OTC determined that a much less rigorous Environmental Assessment (EA) would suffice. We then pivoted to outcomes for the Black community, working closely with Albina Vision Trust.
However, after the first executive steering committee, it became clear to me that ODOT was determined to move forward with the project as planned, that they were resistant to congestion pricing, that the steering committee was to be treated as an advisory body with no governing authority, that ODOT did not seem to grasp the concept of restorative justice, and we were unlikely to achieve the outcomes we were seeking. I am so pleased that so many of us have now come to the same conclusion. This is the wrong project for our city. I am stepping down from the steering committee. I do not support the Rose Quarter I-5 Corridor project. And I urge the state to prioritize safety, climate change, and racial justice in all future transportation investments.
Eudaly echoes some of the frustration shared by leaders of the Albina Vision Trust — that despite months of letters and public comments ODOT isn’t taking the community’s values seriously enough.
It’s unclear what all this means to the project. It’s a major body blow, but the fight is far from over.
What we do know is that the support of PBOT and the City of Portland has been used by ODOT from the very beginning as a firewall against opposition. ODOT has always known that Portland would be the hardest place to expand a freeway in the entire state. Portland is legendary for its transportation activism (made even stronger by teaming up with climate change activists) and ODOT is deeply disliked in Portland for myriad reasons (from their love of big freeways to their deadly arterials). Many activists and bureaucrats see ODOT as the prime suspect in many crimes against safe and sustainable transportation. Having PBOT on the team gives them a progressive front to smooth those rough edges.
For their part, ODOT likes to claim the Rose Quarter project was already endorsed by Portland City Council and that the two agencies have “a unique collaborative partnership.” The truth is Portland City Council has only adopted a conceptual freeway project in long-range planning documents, they’ve never voted specifically on ODOT’s widening project. That’s why Portland Planning Commissioner (and Metro Council candidate) Chris Smith tried to force that vote with some procedural maneuvering in 2017. Smith’s gambit didn’t work, so he took a different route and helped form No More Freeways, a group that would become the project’s chief antagonist.
The fact is, if Portland City Council were to vote on the I-5 Rose Quarter project today, it would not have enough votes to pass.
But the fact also is, the expansion of I-5 in the Rose Quarter is part of several key adopted plans like the Transportation System Plan and Metro’s Regional Transportation Plan.
While there’s been well-deserved celebration from transportation reformers today, this project is far from dead. ODOT believes they have a mandate from the Oregon Legislature who enshrined funding for the project into law in 2017. Getting ODOT and state lawmakers to re-allocate funds already earmarked for a freeway expansion to other uses would take another, more powerful earthquake.
Asked for a response to today’s big news, ODOT Urban Mobility Office Director Brendan Finn didn’t sound too worried.
“We acknowledge that historic transportation investments caused harm to the African American Albina community,” Finn said. “We are committed to doing business differently… As we move forward, we hope to engage our partners in further discussion to earn the community’s trust – not through words but through actions. We’ve got to get it right and meet the community’s needs – we will keep showing up to do just that.”
Will ODOT win back support of Portland-area electeds and organizations? Is it even possible for a freeway expansion project to meet climate change, racial and social justice goals? How much more time and money will ODOT spend trying to convince us that it is?
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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