Leaders of I-5 expansion projects sound off at Portland Business Alliance forum

Posted by on January 14th, 2022 at 10:23 am

Alando Simpson (left) is a member of the Oregon Transportation Commission. Greg Johnson is program administrator for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program (and freeway expansion project).

We know what leaders of two major Portland-area freeway expansion projects say in front of skeptical government agencies and advisory committees. But what would they say in front of a more friendly group? We got an answer to that question this week when a member of the Oregon Transportation Commission and the administrator of the Interstate Bridge Replacement project took part in a forum hosted by the Portland Business Alliance.

“The politics is what’s creating a lot of the problems around the Rose Quarter Project… I think we’re obsessed with process and we waste a lot of time and money on things.”
— Alando Simpson, Oregon Transportation Commission

The forum, Cranes on the Horizon: Portland’s Next Construction Boom, featured five speakers and was moderated by PBA President Andrew Hoan. Among the speakers were Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Administrator Greg Johnson and Oregon Transportation Commission Member Alando Simpson, who was there as a representative of the I-5 Rose Quarter project. Much of the one-hour discussion revolved around the challenges both men have faced in moving their respective projects forward.

Their comments give us important clues about what motivates each of these leaders. And we heard especially candid views on the process from Simpson. At one point, when Hoan for an update on the politics and barriers the I-5 Rose Quarter has faced, Simpson let out a nervous laugh and said, “Do I have to be honest Andrew?” To which Hoan replied, “This is being recorded.”

I listened to the forum and here are the quotes that stuck with me (with my emphases added).

Here’s Simpson on where the I-5 Rose Quarter project stands now:

“The history of this project has a lot of scar tissue and a lot negative impact that hindered a community — communities that look like myself… And the realities are that it wasn’t one agency that did that to that community. It was a host of agencies and I would assume probably other private developers and individuals who decided that that freeway was going to go right there through that community…

… This [project] is not much different than the I-205 Auxiliary Lanes project… A lot of people don’t understand that because it was quiet it was not in the media there wasn’t all this contention around it. In fact [the I-5 project] is a smaller stretch of lanes, so we have to be honest about what’s going on with this project.

I think there’s been some wake-up calls along the process that have slow some things down. But, you know, I would have to be honest, slowing things down is only going to cost us all more money. And I don’t think it’s the most sustainable way in which we move a complex projects forward… we have to make these investments now in order to support the demand on the system and more importantly, our economy… the more we delay projects, the more expensive they become.

I think right now is the time we have to get off the sidelines and when I say ‘we’ I’m saying the business community. The business community has been beyond quiet as it relates to this project and the importance and significance of this project.”

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Throughout the discussion the word “politics” seemed to be a euphemism for opposition and/or controversy. Here’s more from Simpson:

“… All I really care about is collaborating with agencies, and putting all the political nuances to the side. I’m not an elected official, so I have no political fight here. I’m just trying to do what’s right for my city and my region… But the reality is, those things [political nuances] get in the way of moving things forward.”

Simpson focused a lot on the “triple bottom line” which he sees as: the value and impact of construction contracts, the potential for “environmental stewardship”, and the reduction of congestion:

“What ODOT has done here is they have positioned themselves to award what will end up being the largest contract that a Black-owned civil construction firm has ever been awarded on the West Coast. Now just let that sit with you… There’s a great opportunity in front of us not only showcase how this region is investing in equity in ways that other places on this side of the country have not, but to also show how we’re actually walking our talk as it relates to environmental stewardship…

The last thing we want to do is allow cars to sit in congestion every day. All that’s going to do is contaminate our community more, and so by getting the additional capacity there to get the auxiliary lanes on and get our freight movement and getting people moving up and down the I-5 corridor a little more efficiently, we will achieve that triple bottom line.”

When asked by Hoan to explain “the politics” and the barriers the project faces, here’s how Simpson responded:

“It’s hard for me to really think about what specifically political barriers are going to be the major hindrance to this specific project because there’s a plethora of them… The reality is this region has lost the art of compromise. This region is lost right now. This region is trying to find its way…

The politics is what’s creating a lot of the problems around the Rose Quarter Project. People love to talk in Portland and people love to meet and there’s not a lot of action. I’m curious how much money is wasted on meetings and talking and process… not to say that process is unnecessary… but I think we’re obsessed with process and we waste a lot of time and money on things.

[Note: The Director of ODOT’s Office of Urban Mobility, which leads the I-5 Rose Quarter and other freeway expansion projects, likes to say “The process is the project.”]

“There has to be a coalition of public agencies and elected officials that are willing to put aside their personal motivations and their siloed approaches and say, ‘Look, this is what we’re gonna have to do collectively in order to get something done.’ And you’re gonna make people mad… Portland is so polite, everybody’s afraid to make people upset about something. And it’s like sometimes leaders are going to make people upset. But as long as you have the right intention in mind, and you’re looking for the right outcomes that really encompasses a triple bottom line, I think you should be fine…

If we can really dial in on that art of compromise and put aside our personal motivations and make every decision we make about ‘we’ instead of ‘me’, I think we’ll be successful.”

Then it was Greg Johnson’s turn to speak for the Interstate Bridge and freeway expansion project:

“I’ve worked all over the country… the passion here for for for different things, is admirable. But at some point, we need to get things done… time truly is money. And we have to get this figured out before this thing becomes so big it can’t be done… Now we’re asking upwards of a billion dollars from each state, so that just puts the timeliness issue up front…

It’s been said that we have a trust deficit between entities in this region that you know, if one partner walks in the room soaking wet and says it’s raining cats and dogs, the others are going to have to look out the window to make sure that it really is raining. So we have to overcome that.

… We’re not always going to agree we’re not always going to make people happy… I think we will get the knot untied on this thing this go-round.”

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The final question from Hoan asked to share a 10-year vision and how PBA and their members can help achieve it:

Simpson:

“If I were to leave everybody with like some kind of idea of where we’re at 10 years from now, I would say that the Portland metro region becomes the international model for sustainable economic development and delegation groups from all over the world come here to see it firsthand. And when you have that kind of attention… guess what happens when that type of tourism takes place? Economic prosperity.”

Johnson:

“In 10 years, I think we’ll see a multimodal corridor… a cleaner, greener corridor that modernizes and brings in the best of transportation technology to solve some of the issues such as climate and greenhouse gas production.”

And Johnson ended his comments by urging PBA members to more actively support the project:

It’s generally the naysayers who come out and and rail against the project. But there are folks who believe in what we’re doing but their voices have been somewhat quiet to this point. So we need folks to come out and talk about what the future of this region can look like with a replaced I-5 bridge.”

You can watch a recording of the forum here.

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zuckerdog
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zuckerdog

What does “sustainable economical development” mean to a lay person?
Asking for a friend

cmh89
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cmh89

It’s this cool new thing neolibs invented where you just get to pretend that electric cars and AI will solve all problems so there is no need to change anything about our society.

Simpson is perfectly happy to let some poor indengenous people in Argentina get poisoned as long as he can sit 10 lanes of traffic jam, but in his electric car.

Mike Quigley
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Mike Quigley

Like the Fed’s Jerome Powell said, our main objective is to sustain stock market returns. In simpler terms, screw climate change.

Alex
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Alex

Process does not equal politics. It’s hard for me to keep listening when someone says and believes “time is money”. Time is worth so much more than money and I would like to have my time spent on the earth be sustainable and the best experience possible.

I don’t want to see more cars sitting in congestion, I would prefer to see trains and buses moving through the area at high speeds. If some cars are sitting in a bit of congestion, that’s honestly fine with me. If we are truly thinking about the community first, I hope they are putting the environment first and increasing the transportation density.

While I don’t love process (especially what has been going on in Portland), I also don’t want to just see billions of dollars of work being done that isn’t well thought through. And we absolutely need to align on politics, because if we don’t do that, the community will continue to not have a voice and to get overrun by the rich and powerful who profit at the expense of the community and planet. We need better engagement, not less or more.

SD
Guest
SD

Simpson and Johnson have the directive to move these projects through. They have no incentive to critically evaluate the consequences. Their convictions are hollow talking points that don’t stand up to scrutiny. They will justify the harm and waste of these projects by saying they were “just doing their job” or “if they didn’t do it, someone else would have.” This lack of integrity has created our current transportation system disasters and will take us all the way to environmental collapse.

cmh89
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cmh89

“What ODOT has done here is they have positioned themselves to award what will end up being the largest contract that a Black-owned civil construction firm has ever been awarded on the West Coast. Now just let that sit with you… There’s a great opportunity in front of us not only showcase how this region is investing in equity in ways that other places on this side of the country have not, but to also show how we’re actually walking our talk as it relates to environmental stewardship…

The amount of doublethink here is amazing. Doing a by-the-book, old school freeway expansion is supposed to showcase that we’re actually ‘walking our talk as it relates to environmental stewardship’…what?

I do love the ‘Black-owned business’ piece of this though, its beautifully cynical and politically calculating. Making some rich guy even more rich is somehow a benefit of this program? Are we supposed to believe that making a wealthy Black person more wealthy is somehow supposed benefit the Black community as a whole? Equitable distribution of contracts should be a by-product of a project, not a selling feature. I guess they gotta pull on the heartstrings of Portlands ‘concerned but uninterested’ majority who only take the bus when its to attend the climate march.

Upton Sinclair
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Upton Sinclair

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

Johnny Bye Carter
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Johnny Bye Carter

The I-205 Auxiliary Lanes project didn’t rile the community because they hadn’t been displaced that far east when I-205 was built. If you tried to build I-205 now and displaced all the lower income people that are currently forced to live out there then you’d have the same problem expanding it.

And the I-205 Auxiliary Lanes project was a failure. There’s still just as much congestion and now you’re in the way if you stop to try to merge into a through lane. You can’t even legally get on a freeway in stop and go traffic and they made it worse.

They’re the ones stuck on the politics of building freeways and ignoring the science.

And yes, we’re tired of compromise because rolling over and letting them ruin the area is what got us here. We’re all lucky people stood against the freeway system in the 70s or freeways would be the norm and nobody would be questioning more suffering.

And don’t pull the race card about giving the contract to BIPOC businesses when you can just as easily give them the contract for something that won’t continue destroying the planet.

Anyone trying to advance a freeway expansion project, no matter how small, is a horrible person.

We should only be repairing existing freeways, and reducing the capacity when we do it, not expanding it.

Ross Williams
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Ross Williams

“And the I-205 Auxiliary Lanes project was a failure. There’s still just as much congestion and now you’re in the way if you stop to try to merge into a through lane. You can’t even legally get on a freeway in stop and go traffic and they made it worse.”

That pretty much summarizes the plans for I-5. More traffic and more congestion. ODOT’s model for the widening of I-5 at Lombard 20 years ago claimed it would reduce traffic and congestion at the Rose Quarter and on the Fremont Bridge. It didn’t.

What it will produce is more commuters from Clark County and more local traffic forced to use local streets to avoid the congestion on I5. If someone needs to get out to Beaverton or Hillsborough they will just have to sit and wait for a chance to get on the freeway filled with Clark COunty commuters trying to get downtown.

The real solution to I-5 is to designate I-205 as the through freeway and turn the I-5 corridor into a parkway that serves local traffic. The land opened for development would do more to spur the Portland economy than encouraging more people to commute from homes in rural Clark County.

There is a good reason this project has been on the drawing boards multiple times over the last 30 years but never got off them. Its a dumb idea.

James
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James

A horrible person, wow.

Allan Rudwick
Subscriber

Maybe the business community is silent because these projects are bad ideas and they’re trying to do the “if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all” thing.

Visionaries have been talking about a greener future and these projects just feel like more of the same. Hard to sell the public on marginal if any improvement for $Billion price tags

Great ideas have way more supporters than these stinkers

Doug Allen
Subscriber
Doug Allen

Neither speaker shed much light on the nature of the controversies surrounding these projects. They also showed no interest in compromising their vision of needless expensive highway expansion. Alternatives have been offered by opponents that would cost much less, but the people running these projects show no interest in dialog. They would rather rally supporters to push their schemes forward.

Don Courtney
Guest
Don Courtney

In the spirit of compromise, as the constituency of this project, ie the rest of the state, has clearly not seen the light, just perhaps let it go, make sure there is a big cap placed over the freeway, which would be a nice improvement over the pavement city that exists there now, and fight like hell for Cadcadia high speed rail?

Also it’s a bit sad to see the lingering attitudes that the I-205 area is some kind of decrepit place, up until the recent.crime surge people actually liked living there, it’s diverse, great food and connectivity, larger lots, and not so many “New Portland” types. And with good houses going for almost 500k, my new neighbors in software and medical fields might take issue with being called “low income”

SD
Guest
SD

If people followed the spirit of compromise, caps wouldn’t even be on the table.
Compromise, at this point, is lazy fatalism.

H. Ovekov
Guest
H. Ovekov

Simpson focused a lot on the “triple bottom line” which he sees as: the value and impact of construction contracts, the potential for “environmental stewardship”, and the reduction of congestion..

And the improved bike infrastructure is another added bonus!

SD
Guest
SD

Greenwashing is not environmental stewardship.
Latest plans are net negative impact for bikes and transit and pedestrians on the east waterfront.

Ross Williams
Guest
Ross Williams

I am not sure that is an accurate characterization. You may have better bike infrastructure where almost nobody uses it. But at the expense of having to accommodate many more motor vehicles on the streets bicyclists actually use.

People don’t end their trip on the freeway. They need to use local streets and they need a place to park. And they need to take their vehicle with them when they go anywhere because they will need it to get home. In the suburbs with unlimited parking people drive across the street, or to the other end of the shopping center, so their car will be handy.

All you have to do is look at Hawthorne. Its been all but impossible to integrate bike infrastructure with four lanes of traffic and the on-street parking needed to serve the motorists. You add more motorists, you have to have the infrastructure to accommodate them. You are essentially trading a bike-able community for a bike path across the Columbia.

Fred
Guest
Fred

No, the bike infrastructure will be much worse. Please go back and read the many BP articles that examined the plans in detail. The details – like the removal of the Flint Ave bridge – are really important.