The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has just taken the rare step of closing down its own advisory committee in favor of a new one that will consist of mostly hand-picked members. It’s the latest twist in ODOT’s effort to resuscitate the highly controversial, $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter mega-project that’s been on life support for months.
While ODOT says the move is an effort, “To intentionally center voices of the Black community,” it also allows them to avoid difficult questions from skeptical and frustrated committee members, one of whom had already resigned and several others who planned to follow suit.
In a statement released today, ODOT said the 25-member Community Advisory Committee (CAC) will be shut down in favor of a “board of individuals with historic ties to Albina.” Albina is the neighborhood where thousands of Black people lived before ODOT destroyed their homes with the initial construction of Interstate 5.
In an email today, an ODOT spokesperson said the change comes, “In response to input from the Black community, the Community Advisory Committee and our partners we are taking action to intentionally center voices of the Black community and those who have experienced historic harm from the construction of I-5.”
The new advisory body will be called the Historic Albina Advisory Board and will have 17 members, 11 of which will be appointed by ODOT and their partners.
“Our committee doesn’t have a charter. We’re essentially in a listening session for the first months of our committee’s existence, we have no actual power.”
— Clint Culpepper, CAC member
The end of the CAC marks the second of the project’s two major advisory committees to falter. The Executive Steering Committee (ESC) saw several key members resign over the summer including Albina Vision Trust Managing Director Winta Yohannes and City of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.
The CAC first convened back in March and had met three times since May. From the outset there were concerns that the committee would be a rubber stamp without real power.
At the CAC’s first meeting ODOT held a listening session to hear where committee members stood on a variety of issues. In a slide ODOT shared at the next meeting “Rescope or cancel the project” was the first bullet point.
ODOT was supposed to present the CAC with an official charter in order to clarify how the committee could influence the project. Members felt the charter was key to whether or not they’d wield enough power to make the committee more than window dressing. Several members of the committee had pointed concerns about the freeway-widening aspect of the project, but ODOT seemed unwilling to give them power to influence what was already proposed. According to committee members, they were told the charter would be up for debate and adoption at the July 23rd meeting, but the item was scuttled from the agenda at the last minute.
In part because of that foot-dragging on the charter, ODOT faced difficult questions at the July CAC meeting (which would be its last).
CAC member Saumya Kini was miffed the new charter was pulled from the agenda. “I read in the agenda we were going to be adopting a new charter today,” she said. “I think the language of that charter will answer how we can meaningfully influence the project.”
Another CAC member, Chris O’Connor said, “I don’t want to be window dressing for a project that gets rammed through… You guys have already decided what house to build, how big it is, and we’re just deciding what color paint it is on the side. And then you’re going to tell the neighbors that we were involved in the decision to build the house.”
“I find it frustrating to sit on advisory committees and know that all of the design, financial decisions, and considerations have already been determined long before any real restorative justice can take place.”
— Liz Fouther-Branch
In response, ODOT would only acknowledge the frustrations and make more promises that action would happen sometime in the future.
CAC member Clint Culpepper also expressed frustration about not seeing the charter. “Our committee doesn’t have a charter. We’re essentially in a listening session for the first months of our committee’s existence, we have no actual power,” he said at the July meeting. “Nothing’s been granted to us to actually shape anything other than having a platform to give our comments on… How do you propose moving forward until we actually get some real firm things we can discuss rather than just listening to this list of promises you’re going to give us?”
ODOT Project Manager Megan Channell responded to Culpepper by pleading with him to “stay on board” and promised the charter would be ready by the August meeting. ODOT cancelled that meeting and now they’ve cancelled the entire committee.
One CAC member had already resigned and sources say a mass resignation was imminent.
Retired educator and now consultant Liz Fouther-Branch resigned from the committee on July 1st. “I find it frustrating to sit on advisory committees and know that all of the design, financial decisions, and considerations have already been determined long before any real restorative justice can take place,” Fouther-Branch wrote. “I stand with the Albina Vision Trust, local elected officials, and community partners in pointing out that the I-5 corridor project does not address historic wrongs done to the Black community over the last 50+ years. During this time of protest, it is imperative to reject minimal performative gestures that will not improve air quality, guarantee jobs, create wealth or dismantle policies, procedures, and practices that continue to harm and traumatize us.”
With so much bad publicity already swirling around this project, a walkout of many CAC members would have been another huge blow.
Metro Council candidate and founder of Rose Quarter project opposition group No More Freeways Chris Smith said ODOT’s move is, “Merely the latest example of the agency’s unwillingness to be accountable to everyday Portlanders… Make no mistake – ODOT’s moving forward with a new, handpicked committee because representatives on the existing community engagement efforts were frustrated by the agency’s unwillingness to let them meaningfully critique the project.”
According to a source close to the CAC, “ODOT quit on the people, before the people could quit on them.”
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
— Get our headlines delivered to your inbox.
— Support this independent community media outlet with a one-time contribution or monthly subscription.