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


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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