Portland City Council says yes to I-5 Columbia River bridge project

Zoom screengrab of today’s Portland City Council meeting.

There was almost no concern or skepticism about the Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) project at Portland City Council today. The mayor and four other commissioners all voted to endorse the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA), a decision that helps pave the way for project staff and the transportation departments of Oregon and Washington to move forward to the next phase of the federal environmental review process.

The IBR will be Oregon’s largest-ever freeway expenditure and is likely to cost at least $5 billion. The LPA lays out a draft concept of how I-5 will be updated across at five-mile corridor between north Portland and Vancouver, Washington. The concept includes adding light rail, new interchanges, and a new auxiliary lane on the bridge.

Related: A moment of truth for local politicians and the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project

There’s no organized opposition to the project so far. Instead, a coalition of environmental and transportation advocacy groups have formed a coalition (Just Crossing Alliance) to help influence it. They wanted Council to vote “no” today and to force the IBR project team to carry a wider range of design options into the next phase of review.

“Our job as a city has been to help the state make a project this that does not undermine the city of Portland’s goals, and this LPA does that.”

– Jo Ann Hardesty, Portland city commissioner

As Portland Bureau of Transportation leader and member of the project’s Executive Steering Group, it was Commission Jo Ann Hardesty’s job to introduce the resolution. She acknowledged it’s not the project Portland would build if given the opportunity, but since the LPA has widespread support among agencies across two states, it’s worth supporting. Hardesty’s support for the IBR LPA comes less than one month since she proudly re-engaged with ODOT’s other freeway widening project just a few miles south at the Rose Quarter.

“The investments in biking walking and rolling across into Vancouver will be transformative and we’ve reached agreement for providing no more than one auxiliary lane in each direction over the Columbia River. That’s a significant accomplishment in our effort to address and fight climate change,” Hardesty said today in her opening remarks.

Hardesty feels the City of Portland has secured commitments from project staff that whatever they build will not undermine the city’s values around community engagement, climate change and equity.

Despite those assurances, several people who testified asked council to vote “no” and it was clear there remains widespread distrust of the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and IBR project staff.

Chris Smith with Just Crossing Alliance said his group still wants zero new lanes (auxiliary or otherwise), but they support the project overall. He used his three minutes of testimony to implore councilors to add more designs into the LPA. He’s concerned that the “tall bridge” monolith will be difficult to finance (because it can’t be phased) and will have grades so steep it will make active transportation trips “impractical”.

The most pointed testimony in opposition came from youth climate activist Adah Crandall. She said the project is, “climate arson in disguise”. “If you were given five billion dollars to create a project that would address seismic, climate, and economic concerns, is this really what you would end up with? Or is it just what ODOT is forcing you to settle for by providing no other options?” she said.

There’s no reason for concern about induced demand with this project, said Sorin Garber, a transportation planning consultant and member of the PBOT Freight Advisory Committee who testified after Crandall. He did his own research and couldn’t find any evidence that auxiliary lanes lead to more driving. “There’s never been a serious study that validates that hypothesis. Auxiliary lanes do not encourage more people to drive.”

Persistent freeway project critic and founder of City Observatory, Joe Cortright warned that project staff is trying to pull the wool over councilors’ eyes by waiting to share a detailed financing plan after the LPA is endorsed. His testimony also tried to sow distrust of IBR project staff and DOT leaders who he believes will expand the freeway and bridge footprint wide enough to add more lanes in the future. Cortright also said IBR Program Administrator Greg Johnson has not told the truth about bridge height concerns raised by the U.S. Coast Guard. “The Coast Guard that has absolute authority over the height of the bridge… So when [the IBR project team] presents this as somehow ‘working it out between agencies,’ that’s not true.”

When it came time to vote, Hardesty set the stage for the unanimous decision by saying the LPA vote is just, “a vision for moving forward” and heaped praise on the working partnerships between agency and political leaders. Parroting a talking point of IBR project staff, Hardesty said there will be many opportunities for council and the public to influence the project in the future.

The way Hardesty sees it, the project is very far from “climate arson”.

“When people say we are expanding the freeway, that is absolutely not true. We’re adding one auxiliary lane. It’s a smaller bridge, it’s a bridge with light rail. When we talk about mitigating climate change, how can we do that without light rail?”

“What I see us doing is something that we never been able to do as a region: To respect each others’ perspectives and vision and then move cooperatively together to see if this works. Who knows… right? There are a lot of ways for this to go off-the-rails. But it certainly shouldn’t go off-the-rails for the first vote.”


Metro Council takes a similar vote tomorrow (Thursday) and insiders say we can expect much more skepticism than we heard today. Stay tuned for our coverage.

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ITOTS
ITOTS
2 months ago

The glad-handing and 5-0 vote was pretty jarring following significant concerns aired during testimony and Council’s own questioning; that incongruity is something I expect of Oregon Transportation Commission meetings, not Portland City Council. Comm Mapps was clearly reading from prepared remarks just before the vote; no assessment of the preponderance of the testimony could have led anyone who was listening to vote “Aye” on this LPA. I’d hoped our leaders would be more engaged approaching this decision point. It seems significant questions were raised (cost; opportunity cost; climate impact; river clearance; flexibility of design going into NEPA; suitability of design for transit, freight, and active transportation) and no good answers provided, the solution somehow to constrain options without understanding implications and keep moving forward, City Council trading away one of its veto/leverage opportunities for no gain. Hats off to the IBR Program and Administrator Johnson for orchestrating this dissonant-but-ultimately-successful-for-the-project Act I. Not a big surprise we can’t look to our leaders for leadership here—for them to back up their talk of climate emergency, equitable benefits and burdens, and fiscal responsibility with teeth. Disappointing all the same.

maxD
maxD
2 months ago
Reply to  ITOTS

comment of the week!

Boyd
Boyd
2 months ago
Reply to  ITOTS

Comment of the week

Will
Will
2 months ago

Well, there goes the neighborhood

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
2 months ago
Reply to  Will

Will the Portland City Council next endorse a 10% sales tax on food and bicycles to pay for the bonds on it? Maybe an excise tax on water, electricity, wifi, and internet services?

Mick O
Mick O
2 months ago

The bridge “will have grades so steep it will make active transportation trips ‘impractical’”

But… ebikes, right? Full speed ahead!

soren
soren
2 months ago

Chris Smith with Just Crossing Alliance said his group … support[s] the project overall

The cognitive dissonance of a founding member of “NoMoreFreeways” advocating for a multi-billion dollar freeway project is beyond irony.

Instead of burning many thousands of tons of carbon and billions of $$$s to build a new freeway bridge and its associated freeway lanes, much of this funding could have been used to BEGIN* to decarbonize Oregon.

*45+ years after climate scientists began begging us to take the climate crisis seriously

Will
Will
2 months ago
Reply to  soren

Keep in mind, the project was initially billed as a seismic retrofit. Chris is on board with that and the addition of transit and active transportation across the bridge. The JCA is clear about what they want and don’t want on their website.

soren
soren
2 months ago
Reply to  Will

The web page calls for a freeway “lift bridge or tunnel” (along with many miles of new freeway on either side, of course).

Chris I
Chris I
2 months ago
Reply to  soren

A lift span solution wouldn’t require as much rebuilding north and south of the actual crossing. It’s the cheapest solution, so of course ODOT is not considering it.

X
X
2 months ago
Reply to  soren

Yeah. A 5 billion $ investment in the stuff that got us in this mess. Stop digging…

I’ve envied the design I saw in Seattle where express buses ran in the left hand lane of a monster freeway and took dedicated exits to their stops. That’s a big infrastructure investment and seemed out of reach but if we’re dropping so much money why can’t we have that?

Auxiliary lanes my *, it’s a wider freeway. I’m disappointed in a lot of people here but Garber is just shopping for his facts.

soren
soren
2 months ago
Reply to  X

A lane on the existing bridge could be re-allocated to bus rapid transit for a thousandth of the cost of either the multi-billion dollar JustCrossingAllicance freeway project or the IBR freeway project.

Doug Allen
Doug Allen
2 months ago
Reply to  soren

Please re-allocate the lane for us. I will support you all the way. Make it happen!

soren
soren
2 months ago
Reply to  Doug Allen

A no new bridge alternative is a good step towards this goal.

X
X
2 months ago
Reply to  soren

The tricky part is getting buses into and out of the reserved lane. Today, Vancouver buses use the HOV lane on I-5 N after 3 PM but they have to merge across 3 lanes to get there. One extra passenger is a pretty low bar for HOV in my opinion.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago

Hardesty: When people say we are expanding the freeway, that is absolutely not true. We’re adding one auxiliary lane.

So it is true. Thank you, Commissioner Hardesty. I have defended you in public many times for being a straight shooter. I no longer need to carry that increasingly heavy burden. Being in power changes us, no?

Cale
Cale
2 months ago
Reply to  Watts

People don’t drive on auxiliary lanes, right? If it adds light rail and its not too steep to bike across then overall I feel like its a win. On the other hand there are probably other projects that would be more cost effective for public transportation…

Watts
Watts
2 months ago
Reply to  Cale

If by “auxiliary lane” she meant “light rail track”, I’ll rescind my comment. I’ve always heard that term used to describe an auto lane that for some reason “didn’t count” .

And it will be too steep to ride across.

X
X
2 months ago
Reply to  Watts
Chris I
Chris I
2 months ago
Reply to  Cale

The “auxiliary lanes” ODOT is proposing extend from Marine Drive to Mill Plain. So yes, people will be driving on them. This is a capacity expansion.
Even worse, because the new choke point will now be north Portland, these new aux lanes will encourage people to divert onto local streets in north Portland so they can skip the choke point and enter the bridge from Marine Drive.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago
Reply to  Chris I

After writing my follow up to Cale, I went back and checked the documentation and confirmed this exact fact. I’m really not sure how Hardesty calls this “absolutely not expanding the freeway”. Perhaps she’s been hitting the ODOT koolaid a bit too hard, or perhaps she’s been swayed by ODOT’s racial gerrymandering of citizen advisory committees (who, coincidentally, seem to have stopped pushing back on the expansionary nature of this and the RQ projects*), but this project very much will expand the freeway.

*These projects must be understood to be two phases of a larger highway expansion project of I-5 all the way from Vancouver to Portland or beyond.

dwk
dwk
2 months ago
Reply to  Watts

You were duped… straight shooter is laughable… she did not change at all.
You and JM just liked the look and never the reality.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago
Reply to  dwk

Unlike most people here, I will defend people I disagree with if they have integrity or other laudable characteristics.

I reject tribal politics.

Fred
Fred
2 months ago
Reply to  Watts

Put not your trust in city council, in whom there is no help. They goeth forth, they returneth to the earth; in that very day their thoughts perish.

Dwk
Dwk
2 months ago
Reply to  Watts

Hardesty is the definition of tribal politics… she reaches out to no one.

Mike Quigley
Mike Quigley
2 months ago

Bets are on. It will never be completed. Started maybe, but not completed. Mother Nature calls the shots now.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
2 months ago
Reply to  Mike Quigley

All kinds of things could kill it – war, recession, a statewide ban on gas taxes, protesters blocking construction equipment, another plague, a resurgence of the not-yet-ended-pandemic-even-if-we-really-want-it-to-be, lots of other possibilities. Shoot, even the Washington state legislature could choose to kill it – imagine that.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
2 months ago
Reply to  Mike Quigley

ODOT has somehow figured out how to raise $5 billion for this project, over and above all its other commitments such as outer Powell, the Rose Quarter expansion, roadway maintenance, and the other STIP projects. Given that muni bonds are usually issued for a 30-year period, that works out to $167 million per year, every year, for 30 years, over and above all other revenues. If we assume that the project is suddenly cancelled in 2024 (Dear Leader/POTUS pulled the plug through an executive order?), the first $333 million will likely be used for design, public meetings, designing logos, and so on. That leaves $4,667,000,000 for the next 28 years.

And so the real question for everyone is, what would you spend that money on?

Remember we are talking about Oregon here – its citizens and state legislature seem to have it hardwired into them that transportation funds can only be spent on transportation stuff, and not on say housing, schools, parks, police, the homeless, etc, like you can do in most other states. The money is going to be raised, nothing you can do to stop that, and it can’t be returned. So how are you gonna spend it?

dwk
dwk
2 months ago

This is a Vancouver project.. they created the mess and are too damn cheap to pay for it.. They all moved there to supposedly save money on housing or taxes.
Let them sit in traffic for 2 hours everyday. I could care less.

buildwithjoe
2 months ago

“The most pointed testimony” called this Climate Arson.

I showed up and went further in my speech. 

This is climate mass murder. Kenosha and Uvalde and most mass shootings had a family buying the gun for the mass shooter, and driving them to the scene in some cases.

The council said that in 100 years this will be seen as the right decision. I disagree.

This will be seen as mass murder.  Our leaders talk about love then form agreements with those committing mass murder. We are handing ODOT the money, we are handing them all the weapons they need. 

The council has knowingly funded and re-engaged with an abusive and lying agency who does not answer questions and is about to commit mass murder on our planet through climate destruction. This project design ( extra lanes, extra shoulders for future lanes, fixed bridge, too steep and too high ) is a near clone of the project over the last 30 years.   We had no cardboard or 3d modeling despite spending 300 million by 2013. We still have no cardboard or 3d modeling

The council says ODOT has changed. We are told this is a new equity ODOT. The council says we can leave this relationship in 2 years when we check in on the “conditions” that were posted on the slide show ( see link click here )

These conditions are vague and toothless and without any means to measure them as passing or failing.  

As Greta says, our lawmakers keep pushing us closer to the edge of climate chaos and mass murder



Here is the text of my speech

You say you Listen.. yes you do   Listen to environmentalists and then say love wins.. y’all just said love wins 20 minutes ago

 But I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do…  Your actions systematically accelerate climate change when you have the power to reverse it. 

The events in Kenosha, Highland Park and Uvalde were planned by a person but funded by a family.

You are the listening, loving family funding this climate mass murder.  The 27 non profits are simply asking for more school shooter drills.  You all drank the ODOT Kool aide. 

 You are literally handing the AR-15 to ODOT and unlocking the bank account and when the next heat dome hits you will be caught off guard and claim you did the right thing
 
Today you are murdering hundreds, perhaps millions, by failing to stop the systematic plans for murder today. 

If you slap on the propaganda of community values you can pass anything.  You are abusive.. You are abusive because you are using community values to kill the planet.  Let’s put your names on this $8 billion bridge and call it the community values bridge.  

Metro council has noted just 4% of our transportation budget goes to transit.  Four percent for transit.

This is a Portland project. You can spin this as not a Portland project but your are lying. You are part of the family arming ODOT.  You have veto power. Salem is accountable to you as much as Salem is accountable to me.  You can put a wrench in these murderous plans.

It is a lie that ODOT can’t answer questions because we are in the “early stages”.    The lack of answers and lack of details is a game we know very well.  My questions in the ODOT public records have not been answered for 15 years. 

As David Brandon said , ODOT is either incompetent or lying.  We don’t even have a cardboard model.

I will not yield the remainder of my 3 minutes.  We will sit in silence together for all the victims of gun violence and systematic climate murder through government projects and double speak elected officials like you.

If I can’t have silence I’ll just say aye for the remainder of my time

SolarEclipse
SolarEclipse
2 months ago
Reply to  buildwithjoe

If only your over the top rhetoric was instead for the project people just might come out against it. C’est la vie.

eco
eco
2 months ago
Reply to  buildwithjoe

Thank you.

Measured response
Measured response
2 months ago

Time to start gathering signatures for a ballot measure to overturn this. Okey and climate arson. How about, “any project costing more than $100 million must be approved by a statewide vote.” Fiscal conservatives will vote no, so will environmentalists, and it will fail.