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Portland makes ‘unprecedented’ withdrawal from ODOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter project

Posted by on October 15th, 2020 at 5:46 pm

“Bringing these issues to you in our role as a partner agency is unprecedented in our region’s history… we hope that agency leadership will take them seriously.”
— Chloe Eudaly, Portland City Commissioner

For the first time in history, the City of Portland has officially withdrawn its status as a “partner agency” on a project with the Oregon Department of Transportation. It’s a major step beyond the “stop work directive” Portland issued on the I-5 Rose Quarter project back in July.

In a letter to Federal Highway Administration Division Administrator Phillip Ditzler dated Friday October 15th (embedded below), Portland Bureau of Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly wrote, “As a former Project partner, we felt it important to ensure the FHWA is aware of the current lack of local jurisdictional and stakeholder support… Bringing these issues to you in our role as a partner agency is unprecedented in our region’s history. Nonetheless, we hope that agency leadership will take them seriously.”

Portland’s withdrawal follows an exodus of support for this project from organizations and elected officials around the region. Major cracks in the facade started forming in early spring of 2019 when ODOT leaders heard withering criticisms at its first public hearing. By April, Metro planners called ODOT’s environmental analysis of the project, “inadequate” and “potentially misleading”. By July, every major elected official in the region had publicly pulled their support.

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In their new letter to the FHWA, Commissioner Eudaly says ODOT has simply failed to adequately change course or address concerns. Here’s more from the letter:

“The land below and around Interstate-5 (I-5) in this area is special. Before the highway, Albina was the heart of Oregon’s African American community. The project area encompasses Harriet Tubman Middle School, which preceded the construction of I-5. The forced displacement and associated investment in the decades following I-5 construction is our shared history. This Project provided an opportunity to tell stories from Albina’s rich history, create new transportation systems that help heal and connect us, and demonstrate responsibility for the past and commitment to a shared future. Unfortunately, the Project has not leaned into this opportunity and ODOT’s efforts have fallen short.

Due to this lack of forward and transformational movement by ODOT, the Project concept as defined in the EA is not aligned with the values of the City as articulated in our Comprehensive Plan (Central City 2035), Racial Equity Plan or Climate Emergency Resolution.”

It’s notable that Commissioner Eudaly is in a fierce re-election campaign where polls show her trailing her challenger. Some observers will think this is a mere political stunt; but Eudaly has been critical of the project for a long time. In early 2019 she pushed ODOT to hold a public hearing on the project and then in March of that year heard a litany of opposition to it. By April 2019 Eudaly had begun publicly questioning the project. By June 2020 Eudaly voiced clear opposition. This formal withdrawal is a natural next step in a timeline of opposition.

Meanwhile, ODOT project staff are plowing ahead as if nothing’s wrong. In a recent briefing to the state legislature, ODOT made no mention of the loss of support from Portland. It remains to be seen how ODOT can move forward on a project of this scope without any local jurisdictional partners.

View the letter below:
FHWA_ParticipatingAgencyStatus_CityOfPortland_10152020

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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27 thoughts on “Portland makes ‘unprecedented’ withdrawal from ODOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter project”

  1. Avatar Aaron says:

    Thank you, Commissioner Eudaly!

    1. Avatar bob steets says:

      hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

  2. Avatar Joe Suburban says:

    Sorry to be crass, but Portland needs a decent highway that does not clog from 6am to 9pm. Have you seen how the Chinese build highways through mountains and valleys, straight as an arrow? Yes if a village with 100,000 needs to be moved they do it pronto. Not advocating that level of strong-arming but just a little optimization here and there will go a long way. Short of making a Big Dig from the Couv to about Wilsonville and re-building the neighborhood on top, there’s no way to make the descendants of those who lost homes there whole again.

    1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

      What does “making them whole” even mean in this context?

    2. Avatar squareman says:

      Have you seen how the Chinese build highways through mountains and valleys, straight as an arrow? Yes if a village with 100,000 needs to be moved they do it pronto. Not advocating that level of strong-arming but just a little optimization here and there will go a long way.

      Res ipsa loquitur.

    3. Avatar Matt says:

      The traffic is us. Be the change you want to see in the world, and stop clogging this precious highway of ours. Anyway, you’ve heard of Induced Demand, right?

      1. Avatar Doug Hecker says:

        Oh boy lol

      2. Avatar Zach says:

        A lot of people claim to understand induced demand, but also claim that whatever project is being discussed is somehow an exception.

    4. Avatar Chris I says:

      Strongly disagree. We have spent billions on freeways in this region. We need alternatives so people don’t have driving as the only viable option.

  3. Avatar Tom says:

    Any chance this is a calculated political stunt by a couple of vulnerable politicians the week ballots arrive in mailboxes?

    1. Avatar squareman says:

      The timing likely is. The act itself should have been done a while ago.

      1. Avatar David Hampsten says:

        IMO, you are correct, this should have been done long ago during the NEPA (EA) process. Since the city officially endorsed the project at that time, they cannot later withdraw that approval. This move is totally meaningless from the point of view of FHWA and ODOT. The city is legally stuck into the contract, and they are fully aware of it.

        And yes, this sort of political maneuvering happens all the time – that’s one of the main reasons for having a NEPA process in the first place – to get all major political jurisdictions to officially agree to a common project alternative, so no one can back out later on.

        1. Avatar Doug Allen says:

          Can you cite some regulation saying they can’t withdraw their approval? The City of Portland certainly withdrew its prior support for the Mt. Hood Freeway, leading to its cancellation and transfer of the funding to other projects. That happened after the National Environmental Policy Act was passed. Of course the cancellation wasn’t like flicking a light switch. There were multiple steps involved. But the City had a significant role.

          1. Avatar David Hampsten says:

            For a funding transfer to another project, all parties have to agree to it. From what I’ve seen, the Oregon governor and state legislature have been digging in their heels on going ahead with the project. The most that the City of Portland can do is refuse to pay for any local match required of them, but at the risk of losing out on other unrelated projects. I have yet to see the city suggest that the RQ funding should go elsewhere for a specific project, which is why I’d say the City is posturing rather than seriously negotiating. But of course they could be working on some slimy back-room deal with the state – who knows?

            The Mt. Hood Freeway was done (or undone) at a time when the Feds were paying 90% of project funding, with the state picking up most of the remaining match. Those days are long gone. This RQ project is a mostly state-funded highway with very little federal funding, and also very little local funding. Portland withdrawing will have little financial impact on the project; the feds withdrawing (a very unlikely outcome but possible) will have a bigger impact, but alas won’t kill the project. It’s always been the state government that’s trying to push this through – if they really want to do it, they will, city support or not.

  4. Avatar Matt says:

    Not to thread-jack, but I submitted a comment about this project using the official online form a while back (as suggested on this blog), and ever since then I’ve been receiving email updates from ODOT about the project. The emails have an “unsubscribe” link at the bottom, but the link is broken. Anybody know how to stop them? I’ve taught my inbox that they’re spam, but I’d rather they just effing stop.

  5. Avatar Hotrodder says:

    Can you imagine the things that could get done if every year was an election year?

    1. Avatar David Hampsten says:

      You would have fewer Chris Smiths and more Mary Nolans – career politicians who know how to get re-elected year after year. Probably more street paving and fewer long-term transportation improvements. Same lousy policing.

  6. Avatar Bob Weinstein says:

    Gee, interesting that Chloe Eudaly waited to send this letter until precisely the day when voters are receiving ballots. What a coincidence.

    Only surprise is that it was on official letterhead rather than campaign letterhead.

  7. Avatar Dan Wilson says:

    How is this likely to impact the process? What role was Portland playing previously as a partner agency?

    1. I’m still working on some follow up reporting to understand ramifications. But at this point, what I know is the “partner agency” term isn’t just a term. It’s an actual defined role that the FHWA requires state DOTs have as part of their NEPA process. So by formally saying “We’re no longer a partner agency”, PBOT is forcing (hopefully) the FHWA to then go to ODOT and say, “Hey, you need a partner agency, what the hell is going on over there?” And it might jeopardize federal funding and force ODOT to either pause the project altogether or make a huge shift and finally do some of the changes required to earn PBOT (and others) partnership once again.

      1. Avatar David Hampsten says:

        My understanding is that the physical project starts somewhere near Woodburn, and that the partners include Woodburn, Oregon City, and Metro, so having Portland in partnership is not strictly necessary, that Metro is a good substitute, in FHWA’s eyes. Under a Biden administration this might change, but I doubt it.

        When you investigate further, you might check with WaDOT (SW Washington office) to give you an independent assessment, as they know the process but have no skin in this project.

      2. Avatar citylover says:

        So if PBOT steps out as a partner agency, the funding cannot be moved to another project a la West Side MAX was in the 90s, correct?

  8. Avatar roberta says:

    Thank you Team Eudaly.

  9. Avatar Jm says:

    Has Mingus Mapps made any public statements about his position on this project?

    1. At the transportation forum back in March Mapps said he wants to try free public transit during peak commute hours as a way to relieve congestion on I-5 through the Rose Quarter — instead of expanding the freeway. https://bikeportland.org/2020/03/11/20-candidates-vie-for-votes-at-transportation-forum-312344

  10. Avatar Rach Nettleton says:

    So far I have not seen one obvious solution to the back ups on I-5 which is metering the on ramps so that cars are allowed on I-5 when traffic is flowing at 55 mph. The ramps would back up from time to time but they would move a lot faster when they did get on the road. Some drivers would alternate routes if they had to wait too long. With the technology available this is possible right now. It is worth a try.

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