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I-5 Rose Quarter project updates: City of Portland pulls all support, The Columbian weighs in, what comes next

Posted by on July 6th, 2020 at 4:14 pm

Last week we wondered how the Oregon Department of Transportation could possibly carry on with their I-5 Rose Quarter project without support from a key organization or Portland’s top elected leaders.

We’re about to find out.

The City of Portland just pulled even further away from ODOT’s beleaguered project. But that’s just one of the updates worth sharing. Here’s what you need to know…

Cease and Resist

The Oregonian’s Andrew Theen just reported via Twitter that all four Portland City Commissioners sent a letter to bureau directors today telling them to cease all work on the project. No meetings, no emails, nothing until further notice from City Council.

This is an extremely rare move that shows just how deeply ODOT’s hubris and lack of respect for key project partners has influenced this project.

It all started last Tuesday when leaders of Albina Vision Trust announced they would no longer support the project. “Unfortunately, despite two-plus years of engagement, ODOT has failed to make tangible commitments to the outcomes articulated by the Albina Vision Trust and shared by Multnomah County, the City of Portland, Metro, and other partners,” AVT’s Managing Director Winta Yohannes said. “We refuse to endorse projects or processes that do not align with our commitment to creating a thriving community that centers both Black life and Black prosperity.”

That move led to PBOT Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler pulling support as well. “ODOT did not seem to grasp the concept of restorative justice, and we were unlikely to achieve the outcomes we were seeking,” Eudaly said in a statement.

If ODOT thought this was just a bump in the road and they could just say a few contrite words at the start of the next meeting and keep marching along, they were very much mistaken.

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Just a “Roadblock”

Meanwhile, for the paper of record in Clark County just over the Columbia River from Portland, these demands for racial and restorative justice are mere “roadblocks.” In an opinion piece published over the weekend The Columbian Editorial Board made it clear their main priority is the 70,000 people who drive into Portland on I-5 every day.

Calling the last week’s news on the project “disappointing,” they expressed concern that a failure to widen the freeway at the Rose Quarter might hurt the chances of an even bigger project to widen the freeway and interchanges further north. “Improvements to the Rose Quarter area are inextricably linked to Clark County and efforts to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge… Those efforts often have focused on the need for improvements through the heart of Portland, with critics pointing out that a new bridge will be inadequate if southbound drivers suddenly come to a standstill because of backups in the Rose Quarter area some 6 miles to the south.”

The paper hopes “visionary leadership on both sides” will be enough to get all the freeway expanding back on track.

What Comes Next

The blow from Portland isn’t fatal, but it puts the project in the Intensive Care Unit. I’m hoping to hear from as many experts and insiders as possible as to how ODOT ended up in this mess and what might happen next.

Here’s what former Metro Council President and current Executive Director of Transit Center David Bragdon told us:

“This final gambit was doomed by its core fallacy, the Governor’s apparent belief that a faux ‘engagement’ process manipulated by the State Highway Department with a predetermined outcome in mind would somehow produce the ‘right’ way to do something that is inherently wrong. The flaw in that assumption is that there is no ‘right’ way to inflict more traffic and pollution on children of color and a waterfront park, and create more congestion – which is inevitably what this project was going to do, pretty drawings and insincere promises about caps notwithstanding.

The State Highway Department tried to variously either co-opt, dupe, bully or bribe everyone, with falsified traffic forecasts, fraudulent fiscal fantasies and general incompetence and bad faith. Those standard ODOT tactics have now earned widespread, inalterable opposition from the community and a majority of local elected officials.

Unfortunately the power, unaccountably, is in Salem. The only sane resolution now is for Governor Brown and state legislators to order the State Highway Department to cease and desist from trying to impose this 1956 project on 2020 Portland. More years of futile ‘consensus-seeking’ can’t overcome the internal contradiction that there’s not a good way to do a bad thing.” 

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And here’s what longtime project critic, policy expert and Metro Council candidate Chris Smith said (statement made before today’s announcement from City Council):

“We’re at an interesting stage. The Governor and ODOT will clearly try to get AVT and the City back to the table. If those parties are really done with the project, a very strong signal would be for Commissioner Eudaly to direct all PBOT staff to stop working on the project (that may have its own challenges, because ODOT will be funding those folks by reimbursing the City). It would be a very powerful signal if Commissioner Eudaly did that. 

A more technocratic response would be to pick up what I tried to do in 2017 and remove the project from the TSP [Transportation System Plan, created by City of Portland]. The disconnect between the TSP and RTP [Regional Transportation Plan, created by Metro] at that point would probably block further federal dollars. That might be a tactic, but would not solve the problem permanently.

The $30 million per year beginning in 2022 earmarked by the Oregon Legislature is a very powerful thing. We need to get that either removed (not clear the tax revenue behind it is going to stand up in the current economy) or ideally redirected to something positive for the region and not to some freeway widening elsewhere like the Abernethy Bridge or Highway 217.

I don’t think this will be really over until after the Columbia River Crossing is settled. The CRC discussion should be about the whole I-5 corridor from Battle Ground to Wilsonville (or Salem) and ideally would include the whole freeway network in the region. We need to establish the role of the freeway network in our climate change plans. We can’t do that effectively project-by-project.”

Stay tuned. We hope to share more from Albina Vision Trust soon about their next steps.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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Roberta
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Roberta

My mouth is hurting so bad because my smile is so big. Hurts so good. Lol crying!

David Hampsten
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David Hampsten

ODOT and the governor got (tricked?) Portland’s leadership to sign onto (buy into) the project when they needed them, to get federal funding, in spite of widespread and forceful opposition from the community. Now that same leadership is facing a runoff election and daily protests, so the members of the Portland City Council are having major buyer’s remorse. Members of the Portland City Council, what you are doing is not only slimy and unethical, but much too little too late to be effective.

“Unfortunately the power, unaccountably, is in Salem.” pretty much sums up the situation. Kate and Co. are going aren’t worried one iota about a Portland backlash at the polls – what’s Portland going to do, suddenly vote Republican? Portland residents, along with those in the rest of the state, long ago gave away all powers of tax collection and distribution to Salem – and such tax collection powers come with the ability of deciding what gets spent where and when.

Oregon is a state big in area but small in population relative to most other states, so the “outside of Portland” car lobby will always be stronger than the city. Even Portland’s urban suburbs want the RQ project, as well as 205 expansions and an outer bypass.

Look on the bright side, at least you don’t have to pay for I-73 and utterly pointless $1 billion suburban bypasses.

Fred
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Fred

What is “slimy and unethical” about doing the right thing, finally? The unethical thing was buying into ODOT’s rhetoric about “inclusion” and “restorative justice,” etc, when they never had any intention of doing those things.

David Hampsten
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David Hampsten

They are “doing the right thing” just in time for an election, but far too late to have any significant actual impact on the project. And they know better, even if their potential voters might not.

Michael Mann
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Looks like Clark County is (still) absolutely clueless on this project, both from a racial justice perspective and a transportation priority perspective. They blew it years ago when they said no to light rail, blew it when they refused to even consider tolling Clark County residents who cross state lines to work in Oregon, and remain all about making it as easy as possible to get SOV’s across the river. I say conditions to even coming to the table have to be that any new bridge WILL include tolling for SOV’s, dedicated transit laes and/or light rail, and protected and sheltered bike infrastructure (not like 205). non-negotiable.

Chris I
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Chris I

I think they fully understand their position, it’s just that they are sociopaths. They would love for Oregon to pay to destroy N Portland with a 10-lane freeway. Anything that makes their drive a bit faster, as long as they don’t have to pay for it.

Matt D
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Matt D

A bit faster for a few years and back to being terrible again*

Jeff
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Jeff

This racial justice argument is a fallacy – there is no actual plan to turn the Albina area back into a neighborhood populated by African Americans. This Albina Vision thing has existed for 4-5 years now and there isn’t a single tangible goal. At least the climate change argument has some reality behind it. Does anyone really expect a new urban neighborhood to be created that in anyway reflects the racial makeup of what was there in the 50s and 60s?

Dave
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Dave

As Rose Quarter I5 conditions stand now, collisions in the area being widened occur at fender-bender speed; I don’t recall hearing about a motorist fatality there in many years. If the project increased driving speeds would the state or ODOT then be liable for any worsening of crash injuries? By the way, Clark County–not Vancouver city–leadership is a mental prisoner of the 1950’s about transportation; they need progressive change rammed down their throats because it may be generations before they are capable of accepting and welcoming it!

Bikeninja
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Bikeninja

Maybe if we put huge daily tolls on the Interstate bridge, like the GW bridge in NYC. Leave them there until Clark County can come to the table and join the 21st century of transportation. At least ,while the tolls are in place, it might keep Clark County residents from traveling to the Oregon Coast where they shoot off illegal fireworks and threaten innocent families, or heading to the Oregon side of the gorge to start forest fires with fireworks.

Fred
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Fred

Well, it seems as though you are cherry-picking the bad apples, if you’ll pardon my mixed metaphor (mixed-fruit metaphor??).

The vast majority of commuters from WA are decent folks who followed economic incentives to buy houses they couldn’t afford in Portland. Now they need to be given the right incentives to take light rail, buses, carpools, vanpools, van with bike, etc to get to work. Widening the freeway to make it easier for them to keep doing the wrong thing is the wrong type of incentive.

Bikeninja
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Bikeninja

To extend the fruit metaphor, a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch. But you are right, I have lived in Portland since the Kennedy administration and I have met a decent person from Clark County, once. He rode the bus everyday to Tualatin because he did not want to turn out like his neighbors in Clark County who had all been driven insane by the automobile commute.

David Hampsten
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David Hampsten

To make hard cider from your spoiled apples, a great many poorly-paid City of Portland employees who have families live in Clark County, since that’s where they can afford to live and have yards for their kids (and pets) to play in, including several PBOT employees and soon-to-be-defunded police officers.

Chris
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Chris

I hope you’re not a Portland transplant with comments like that.

David Hampsten
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David Hampsten

Yes, we wouldn’t want any crab-apples, would we?

Dave
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Dave

And, if both Oregon and Washington instituted price controls on housing.

Peter W
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Peter W

I just made a small donation to Albina Vision Trust. I hope they continue their strong leadership!