Feds say ODOT must do more environmental assessment on I-5 Rose Quarter freeway plan

I-5 northbound through the Rose Quarter.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Much to the delight of a large coalition of Oregon Department of Transportation critics, the federal government has given them another assignment before graduation.

“I hereby rescind my approval… I request additional analysis.”
— Phillip Ditzler, FHWA

On Tuesday, the Oregon Division Administrator for the Federal Highway Administration Phillip Ditzler sent a letter to Oregon Department of Transportation Director Kris Strickler with eight words that could throw a wrench into the project’s progress: “I hereby rescind my approval of the FONSI.”

FONSI is short for Finding of No Significant Impact, a key decision all mega-freeway projects must go through to complete legal process laid out in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Ditzler’s decision is a setback for ODOT, who’s been directed by the Oregon Legislature to address congestion on the freeway with requisite urgency as the top transportation priority in the state. ODOT has decided that more lanes for car and truck drivers is the answer and they’ve already spent millions of dollars planning it.

In the NEPA process, a FONSI is what comes after an agency has completed an Environmental Assessment (EA). The FHWA approved ODOT’s EA for this project and granted the initial FONSI in November 2020, but only after ODOT scaled back its intention to expand southbound I-5 lanes over the Eastbank Esplanade and Willamette River.

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With that hard-fought feather in their cap, I-5 Rose Quarter Project Direct Megan Channel seemed eager to move on. “While this closes the chapter on the Environmental Assessment,” she said in November, “Now the real work begins.”

Channell’s statement is half right.

The recission of the FONSI means Channell and her team must re-open the EA and do more work to prove to Ditzler that the project won’t have “significant impact”. If they are unable to do that, they will be required to conduct a much more rigorous and detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) — which is a time-consuming step ODOT and their bosses at the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) have been desperate to avoid and critics, major advocacy groups, and many regional elected officials have demanded for years.

A coalition of critics disagreed with ODOT’s EA findings and filed a lawsuit against the agency based on the FONSI in April 2021. Plaintiffs on that suit include No More Freeways, Neighbors for Clean Air and the Eliot Neighborhood Association. They dispute ODOT’s findings about the extent of negative environmental impacts this project will have on adjacent neighborhoods. ODOT has said a wider freeway with more capacity for driving will actually improve greenhouse gas emissions because, they claim, it will lead to less idling in traffic. (That is such a dubious claim ODOT themselves is grasping for friendly research to support it.)

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In a press release issued Wednesday night, No More Freeways co-founder Aaron Brown said he is “delighted” with the FHWA’s decision. “No More Freeways has said for a long time that ODOT has not meaningfully studied the disastrous impacts this proposed freeway expansion would have on our community. We look forward to continuing to encourage Governor Kate Brown to demand that ODOT complete an Environmental Impact Statement that will study alternatives to freeway expansion.”

No More Freeways co-founder Aaron Brown at a rally against the project in April 2021.

While ODOT has tried to move on from these controversial steps in the NEPA process, project detractors have not. Yesterday a group of youth climate activists, their supporters, and Portland City Council Candidate AJ McCreary stood in the rain on the Flint Avenue bridge overlooking I-5 traffic for week 19 of their “Youth vs. ODOT” rally.

Adah Crandall, a youth organizer with Sunrise Movement PDX, said in a statement yesterday, “We are grateful to see ODOT finally held accountable for their neglect to fully study the impacts of this project, which is a direct threat to our communities and climate.”

The lawsuit from No More Freeways accuses the agency of using faulty traffic projections that, “included multiple egregious errors and outdated assumptions”.

In his letter Tuesday, the FHWA’s Ditzler told the director of ODOT he made the decision based on a re-evaluation of a new analysis of the project and that ODOT must submit “additional analysis… so that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) can render an appropriate decision on the significance of the impacts based upon the new information.”

In a statement released Thursday morning, ODOT clarified the FHWA’s decision is related to changes in the project related to the highway cover design, which changed after the FHWA’s initial decision was made. Channell says the FONSI decision won’t cause a delay. “With guidance from and in partnership with the FHWA, we can still begin construction on time in 2023.” “Updating the Environmental Assessment is an important step to advance the community’s preferred Hybrid 3 highway cover design and is a step we anticipated and are excited to take,” she added.

Technically ODOT cannot move forward with the project until they satisfy Ditzler and all EA requirements. That means more process and more time. Given their urgency around this project, ODOT will likely move quickly to convince Ditzler to reinstate the FONSI. In a panel discussion hosted by the Portland Business Alliance this week, OTC Member Alando Simpson said, “I think we’re obsessed with process and we waste a lot of time and money on things… The more we delay projects, the more expensive they become.”

The OTC meets today. The initial agenda did not include a discussion of the I-5 Rose Quarter project or this announcement by the FHWA. When I checked the agenda again a few minutes ago, the link led to an error page. We might not hear ODOT staff and/or the OTC address this decision at their meeting today, but it’s almost certain project critics will bring it to their attention during the public comment period.

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Ted Timmons (Contributor)

Interesting how ODOT’s 8am press release barely hints at this. Basically says it’ll “address local concerns”, “we can still begin construction on time in 2023”, but gives it away with “updated Environmental Assessment involves a review of the scope of the project and evaluation of project impacts” and “ODOT is not delivering the project’s finance plan to the Oregon Transportation Commission at their January 20 meeting”.

I’m mildly dizzy from the spin.

Boyd
Boyd
10 months ago

Thanks fhwa. At least make ODOT go through the formality of repeating their unfounded assertions that building more freeway lanes will emissions.

Boyd
Boyd
10 months ago
Reply to  Boyd

Reduce

Maria
10 months ago

I want to give a great big SHOUT OUT to Aaron Brown for all the work he’s done on this and how he’s spread the word to the rest of us to help us help him. Way to go, Aaron and No More Freeways and all the people who’ve had a hand in this!

maccoinnich
10 months ago

How was this not completely predictable? Hybrid Option 3 makes a number of big changes to what was described in the original EA, including: eliminating the Clackamas Pedestrian/Bike Overcrossing; moving the southbound offramp from Broadway/Vancouver to Williams/Winning; removing the Hancock/Dixon connection; and retaining N Flint Ave. All of that will have a big impact on circulation through the area, with corresponding impacts to the traffic studies, etc. I’d be very surprised if it didn’t affect what land ODOT needs to acquire.

joan
10 months ago

Cheers to Sunrise PDX youth for their persistence in this fight, and cheers to No More Freeways, Eliot Neighborhood Association, and Neighbors for Clean Air for their excellent organizing and advocacy.

J_R
J_R
10 months ago

The additional analysis to prepare an EA will not produce any meaningful information that will result in the elimination of any of the auxiliary lanes. It will cause a significant cost increase of the project due to delay. The cost increase will be mitigated by reducing or eliminating some of the projects that will benefit bicyclists and pedestrians. This is not something to celebrate.

Chris I
Chris I
10 months ago
Reply to  J_R

The project is already over budget by hundreds of millions:
https://www.oregonlive.com/commuting/2022/01/rose-quarter-freeway-project-in-portland-short-hundreds-of-millions-odot-says.html

Advocates are rightfully feeling vindicated now that ODOT has been caught lying. Maybe this should be a lesson to listen to well-researched criticism before approving these projects (looking at you, local leaders, Metro, etc).

Don Courtney
Don Courtney
10 months ago
Reply to  J_R

100 percent. Let’s focus on building a great cap and reconnecting and enlivening what is now a concrete wasteland. Unless of course the protest community can muster up something like they did against whatever it was they were protesting before—but alas climate/health care issues don’t seem to resonate with the pop mob.

Doug Allen
Doug Allen
10 months ago
Reply to  J_R

A major goal of freeway protestors is to force consideration of reasonable alternatives that are cheaper and might actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not perform meaningless analysis. When ODOT, local governments, and the Oregon Legislature decided to skip that consideration, and focus on a pre-determined blunt force freeway expansion, they left themselves open to legal challenge. If ODOT attempts to go forward with meaningless analysis instead of looking at reasonable alternatives, they risk wasting a lot of taxpayer money. There are choices to be made here by ODOT, Metro, the City of Portland, and the Oregon Legislature that could avoid the need for further protests and lawsuits.

Brent
Brent
10 months ago

ODOT had a bad day yesterday regarding this mega project. Apparently they also announced they are short $500 million in funding for this project. That’s a between 1/3 and 1/2 of the expected costs.

Here’s a link to the Oregonian article https://www.oregonlive.com/commuting/2022/01/rose-quarter-freeway-project-in-portland-short-hundreds-of-millions-odot-says.html