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Metro candidate Mary Nolan’s record on freeway expansion projects

“I trust ODOT to deliver the plan… They’ve made compromises. And I think we should move on.”
— Mary Nolan on I-5 Rose Quarter project (5/5/20)

Mary Nolan

There’s a heated race going on for the seat on Metro Council that represents District 5 — a district that encompasses a vast swath of Portland between our northwest border with Washington County, south to Highway 26 and I-84, and east to our border with Gresham near I-205.

“This was never a good project.”
— Chris Smith (9/9/20)

In the middle of that district is Interstate 5, which is ground zero for Portland’s fight against freeway expansions. The latest debate centers on the Rose Quarter and the Oregon Department of Transportation’s $800 million proposal to widen several miles of the freeway between I-84 and the Fremont Bridge.

The Metro Council race features two candidates — Chris Smith and Mary Nolan — that some people assume have relatively similar politics. But that’s not true on this issue. Or to be more precise, that hasn’t always been true.

Chris Smith has always opposed the expansion of freeways in urban Portland. He was an early voice against ODOT’s failed Columbia River Crossing project. And Smith has not only opposed the I-5 Rose Quarter project since the start, he’s the founder of No More Freeways, the scrappy group of activists that have successfully moved opposition to the project from fringe to mainstream.

Mary Nolan on the other hand, supported the Columbia River Crossing and was a recent supporter of the I-5 Rose Quarter project.


In early May at a debate hosted by City Club of Portland Nolan said she trusted ODOT to carry out their plan to widen I-5. Here’s her answer to a question about the project:

“I trust ODOT to deliver the plan. And I think this goes back to a question you asked us earlier about an instance where you have to compromise. And I think this is an example of very sophisticated, and yet humble, compromise. The original proposal from the ODOT engineers was truly appalling. But local leaders, including Metro President Lynn Peterson, the leaders of Albina Vision pushed back and asked for changes and they got them. They were satisfied that ODOT had heard the concerns of historic displacement of the black community, congestion, air pollution, and they got changes. And I support that effort. They’ve made compromises. And I think we should move on.”

Nolan’s trust of ODOT and willingness to “move on” with the Rose Quarter project came just weeks after the Oregon Transportation Commission (which acts largely as a rubber-stamp for ODOT) said it could move forward without a federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) despite demands for one from groups like Albina Vision, Portland Public Schools, and several top regional elected officials.

Three weeks after Nolan voiced support and trust of ODOT, OTC Vice Chair Alando Simpson donated $250 to her campaign.

Two months after Nolan’s statement at the debate, Albina Vision pulled their support of the project, saying, “We do not see our engagement resulting in meaningful changes to the project or its anticipated outcomes.”

Fast forward to September 9th and another debate between Nolan and Smith, this time hosted by the Democratic Party of Oregon Black Caucus (Facebook recording here).

Asked whether she supported the I-5 Rose Quarter project, here’s how Nolan replied:

“No. Because… I have actually reviewed this proposal and had different perspectives on it, depending on the content of the plan and the commitments that the planners — particularly at ODOT — made to Metro and more specifically to Rukaiyah Adams and the leaders of the Albina Vision project. When ODOT had agreed — or had said they would agree and it turns out that that unraveled — to make the changes around the design that both Metro on behalf of climate issues, and Albina Vision on behalf of historic black community concerns, I was willing to follow the lead of the those leaders of color. But now that ODOT has shown its true stripes, and essentially ignored its promises I think we have to recognize that that project is not going to remediate traffic. And it is going to actually worsen local pollution through that neighborhood and greenhouse gases that accelerate the deterioration of our climate.”

It’s unclear what “changes to the design” Nolan is referring to. ODOT has never offered to change major design elements of the project, especially to the freeway expansion part of the plan.

“I’m delighted that my opponent has joined the freeway fight… Welcome to the side of the angels, Mary,” Smith replied with a smile when he heard Nolan come out against the project. Smith then reminded viewers that he was the first public official to vote against the project way back in 2012.

“This was never a good project,” Smith added. “And I think ODOT’s stripes were on display for the entire period.”

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