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Lawsuit filed against USDOT over state’s handling of I-5 Rose Quarter expansion

Flyer for Friday’s rally on North Mississippi Ave.
(Photo: No More Freeways)

“This lawsuit is our mechanism to try to force ODOT to answer to the community’s concerns.”
— Aaron Brown, No More Freeways

A lawsuit launched today against the United States Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration by a trio of Portland-based community advocacy groups seeks to force the agencies to declare that the State of Oregon’s I-5 Rose Quarter project is in violation of federal laws and should be paused until a more comprehensive analysis of environmental impacts and potential alternatives are considered.

The 24-page complaint (PDF) was filed in U.S. District Court on March 2nd by No More Freeways, Neighbors for Clean Air, and the Eliot Neighborhood Association. It marks a high point in the fight against the Oregon Department of Transportation’s $800 million project launched by activists with No More Freeways in August 2017 and it’s just the latest salvo against the embattled proposal.

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View full lawsuit below.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue the federal government erred when they declared a freeway expansion in Portland’s urban core adjacent to a middle school, housing, and parks would have “no significant impact” on the surrounding environment.

“Defendants’ authorization of the Project without preparing an EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] violates NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] because the Project is a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” the complaint states. (In April 2020, in clear defiance of thousands of public comments and widespread opposition by community groups and elected officials, the Oregon Transportation Commission agreed with ODOT and ruled that a less-comprehensive Environmental Assessment would suffice).

In addition to a pause on the project to perform more comprehensive environmental analysis, the plaintiffs want ODOT to study more options that will address traffic issues without adding lanes to I-5. Page 20 of the complaint states, “The agencies failed to consider, in detail, an alternative that would not require hundreds of millions of dollars in public financing and still satisfy the purpose and need of the Project.” Instead more freeway lanes, plaintiffs want ODOT to consider alternatives like congestion pricing, lane closures, or more robust public transit.

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No More Freeways leader Aaron Brown in March 2019.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

In a statement released Monday, organizer Aaron Brown with lead plaintiff No More Freeways said, “This lawsuit is our mechanism to try to force ODOT to answer to the community’s concerns.” “The public has every right to know the impacts this proposed freeway expansion would have on our neighborhood streets, on the lungs of our children, and the planet they stand to inherit.”

Mary Peveto, Executive Director with Neighbors for Clear Air said, “Transportation infrastructure projects like the original I-5 freeway have created an environmental justice catastrophe for the surrounding Albina neighborhood. We’re eager to join this legal action to hold this agency accountable for the air pollution they are clearly intending to add to this already polluted neighborhood.”

Allan Rudwick, co-chair of the Eliot Neighborhood Association whose members live in the path of I-5, added, “If close to a billion dollars is going to be spent in the area, we need to get immense returns on that investment. We shouldn’t spend a single dollar increasing pollution or prioritizing cars in a time of climate emergency.”

The plaintiffs are represented by four lawyers: Sean Malone (from Eugene), Mike Sargetakis, Doug Hageman, and Karl Anuta. As part of their demands, they want the court to compel the US DOT to require an EIS from ODOT and to declare that their actions thus far have been, “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, are not in accordance with law.”

This lawsuit is just the latest in a pile-on of bad news for ODOT and their handling of the I-5 Rose Quarter Project — from opposition of a key racial justice group and silencing of an advisory committee, to an unprecedented level of objection by the City of Portland.

In February the agency’s dubious claims about the width of the planned expansion were picked up by the Willamette Week. And last week ODOT staffers tried to greenwash the added lanes as bus lanes, much to the surprise of our regional transit agency.

Despite the very bumpy path this project has been on for years, influential regional and statewide elected officials have continued to allow its progress. This lawsuit might force them to rethink their positions.

In the years since No More Freeways has organized a massive local groundswell of opposition to the I-5 Rose Quarter expansion, a national movement is giving them even more momentum. In late March a county judge in Texas sued that state’s DOT over a proposed freeway project and the FHWA — under a newly-sympathetic Biden Administration — lent it key support.

On Friday, No More Freeways and youth climate change activists will hold a rally at Harriet Tubman Middle School, just yards away from where ODOT wants to add more lanes to the freeway and an increasingly powerful coalition wants to stop them.

Read the full complaint below:

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