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ODOT proposes new I-5 expansion plan that won’t move freeway closer to middle school

ODOT slide of the shift to the west as shown to an advisory committee Tuesday night.

“If [moving the freeway] is an option, then I want to look at moving it even further from the school.”
— Sprinavasa Brown, Historic Albina Advisory Committee

At an advisory committee meeting for the I-5 Rose Quarter project Tuesday night the Oregon Department of Transportation said they have a plan to not move the freeway closer to Harriet Tubman Middle School.

The surprise announcement comes after years of criticisms and concerns related to how an expansion of the freeway would have a further negative impact on air quality at a school already dangerously close to a large amount of toxic vehicle emissions. Just last fall, ODOT resisted demands by Portland Public School Board members to commit to healthy air quality.

The announcement also comes two weeks after a coalition filed a lawsuit against the project and a rally was held at the school to draw attention to it. One of speakers was Tubman alum and ninth-grader Malina Yuen. “We can literally see the smog in the air during recess,” she said. “This freeway is constantly on our minds, and it is in our lungs, and it is a direct threat to the heart of the Tubman community.”

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One day after the rally, OPB reported that previously undisclosed ODOT plans called for the expanded freeway to be even closer to Tubman School than previously thought. Portland Public School board members told OPB the proximity of the freeway might require them to close the school down.

The original plan.

I-5 Rose Quarter Project Director Megan Channell shared the new plan at the outset of the Historic Albina Advisory Board (HAAB) meeting. “As a follow-up to feedback that we’ve received from the community, as well as Portland Public Schools over the past few years, I wanted to let you know that our team is starting to evaluate a design option that is shifting the northern part of the project,” Channell explained. “We’re looking at an option that does not move any closer to Harriet Tubman Middle School to minimize the technical and construction concerns there and exploring this option will also be responsive to a number of comments we’ve heard from this committee specifically as well, around community concern around the proximity of the project to that site.”

The existing plan was to add a new 14-foot wide northbound lane and a 12-foot wide “safety shoulder” to the east side of the freeway, bringing drivers and their emissions 26-feet closer to the school than they are today. The new proposal would not expand the freeway to the east at all and would instead build a new lane and shoulder that would add 24-feet to the west side of the freeway.

“If [moving the freeway] is an option, then I want to look at moving it even further from the school,” said HAAB member Sprinavasa Brown in response to Channell’s announcement. Brown said if a new alignment will improve air quality, she wants more information on how a shift of 50 or 100 feet would impact environmental outcomes.

Brown was also curious why the announcement was just now being made. “What changed? Why is ODOT considering moving this now when at the beginning there seemed like there was no opportunity to move it?”

Asked for a response to that question by BikePortland today, project spokesperson April DeLeon-Galloway said ODOT first identified “technical challenges” with the original plan last year. Specifically, they had concerns about a planned soundwall that would have been built adjacent to the school.

“In late January, following an initial analysis… we were able to better understand those challenges from both a design and constructability perspective, and directed the team to do further evaluation of an alternative alignment,” DeLeon-Galloway said.

ODOT is at “very early stages of that evaluation” and are already in contact with Portland Public Schools and a business on the west side of the freeway that would be impacted by the new alignment.

The next step will be to share concepts with advisory committees in late May and garner more public feedback in June. By mid-July, the project design team will recommend a preferred alternative.

The lawsuit filed by No More Freeways, Neighbors for Clean Air, and the Eliot Neighborhood Association doesn’t ask for the freeway to be moved. It asks for ODOT to do a more thorough environmental analysis. That argument be stronger now even given this major shift in the proposal at such a late stage in the planning process.

In related news, youth activists organized by No More Freeways will take part in a “Strike for Transportation Justice” outside ODOT headquarters in northwest Portland today from 1:00 to 3:00 pm.

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