ODOT says new advisory committee will have ‘tremendous power’ to ‘reshape’ I-5 project

Coverage from OPB

The Oregon Department of Transportation has made a new promise regarding their controversial I-5 Rose Quarter project.

Asked Friday by the host of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud radio show about how much power the forthcoming Historic Albina Advisory Board (HAAB) would have to influence the project, ODOT’s Director of Urban Mobility Brendan Finn said they’d have, “A tremendous amount of power and influence in how this project shapes out. They’re going to help reshape it with us.”

Finn was a guest on the show along with Oregon Walks‘ Claire Vlach and John Washington, CEO of Flossin Media, and the chair of the Soul District Business Association — both of whom were members of the I-5 project’s Citizen Advisory Committee which was abruptly disbanded earlier this month.

ODOT shut down the committee after just three meetings and the agency said it will be replaced by a new one that aims to, “intentionally center Black voices”. On September 14th a majority of committee members (including Vlach) signed a letter accusing of ODOT of silencing their voices due to fears they were too critical of the agency’s plan to widen I-5.

It’s widely assumed ODOT shut the committee down before a mass resignation turned into yet another PR debacle. ODOT has already been reprimanded by Governor Kate Brown for their mishandling of the environmental review process and has seen nearly every local power player — including Winta Yohannes with Albina Vision Trust, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson and others — walk away from the project.

Think Out Loud host Dave Miller asked about the problems with the old committee and why we should expect the new one to be any different.

Claire Vlach.
(Photo: City of Portland)

Former committee member Claire Vlach told Miller she felt like ODOT wasn’t listening to them at the meetings, “Especially when we asked to talk about parts of the project that we thought were really important — namely, the expansion part,” Vlach said. “When we mentioned that, we were told that that was something that we had no say over. That the project was being built no matter what.”

“Why was that [the freeway expansion] off the table?” Miller then asked ODOT’s Finn.

“Well, as the you know, the project is still pretty much in its infancy,” Finn said, while not directly addressing the question. He then went on to say ODOT is merely carrying out the legislature’s orders because the project was earmarked in the 2017 transportation funding package (legislators voted to address congestion on I-5 through the Rose Quarter, they didn’t prescribe a specific solution).


Then Finn went on about how ODOT is “ready to do things differently” and “ready to be deliberative about our our commitment to our shared values around restorative justice.”

Brendan Finn.
(Photo: ODOT)

“Why disband the committee after just three meetings?” Miller interjected.

“By elevating the voices of those that have historic ties to that neighborhood, we’re now taking action…” Finn replied.

“Some of the people who represented the Albina neighborhood — whose homes or family homes were destroyed [by construction of I-5] — they were on the advisory committee that you have now disbanded,” Miller said in response. “So, essentially, you’re saying, ‘We’re going to elevate the voices of Black people who’ve been harmed by this; but we’re going to do that partly by disbanding a committee that includes many of these voices.'”

Finn countered that the new committee they’ll form in place of old one will be made up entirely of Black people with ties to the Albina neighborhood — not just, “What we’ve done in the past, where we just have one representative seat, or two or three.”

John Washington.
(Photo: Flossin Media)

One of those voices is likely to be Washington. He’s made it clear he wants to hold ODOT accountable but he hasn’t been as critical of the agency as others on the committee. He also didn’t sign onto the September 14th letter.

Asked by Miller whether or not he would trust ODOT’s new direction on the project, Washington said, “That’s like asking me, ‘How am I gonna’ trust the man?'” Washington then voiced concerns that the old committee, “Didn’t have any teeth.” “We simply want to slow the process down a little bit, so that we can begin to talk about the things that are really crucial for us to move this project along,” he continued. “And where we can… can get some benefit out of this that we believe is part of restorative justice… We just don’t want to see no more damage done. And we want to get some upsides in this situation.”

Miller then asked Finn how much power the new committee would have. Finn tried to dodge the question at first, but Miller pressed him with a follow-up. “If they say we want ‘x’, will you do ‘x’? Or will you say, ‘We listened to you, thanks for your input, but we’re going to do ‘y’?'”

Then Finn made the promise: “I think, [the new committee will have] a tremendous amount of power and influence in how this project shapes out. They’re going to help reshape it with us and with our contractor. We’re going to figure it out, we’re early enough on that we have plenty of time to do it. So I think I just answered it. I guess significant, incredibly significant.”

What form the new committee takes — and how or if they reshape this project — is something we’ll be watching very closely.

Listen to the full show on OPB here.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and
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