The controversial, $1.4 billion Oregon Department of Transportation project that seeks to widen I-5 through Portland’s central city and build a large cover over freeway traffic in order to “reconnect” the Albina neighborhood that was devastated by its construction decades ago. ODOT opened a second public comment period in mid-November as part of their federally obligated environmental review process. Many local advocacy groups and committees have written letters outlining their feedback and concerns about the revised design proposal. What is clear — and what will become even more clear at a People’s Public Hearing being hosted by nonprofit No More Freeways in north Portland tonight — is that despite a compromise forged by Governor Tina Kotek and a recent return to the project by the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the project remains very unpopular with many Portlanders who care about the safety of people who walk and bike.
On December 27th, members of the PBOT Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) sent a letter to City Council members that will act as its official comment on the project. “We are deeply concerned that this project fails to meet a wide variety of city, county, regional, and statewide goals,” their letter states. “While the buildable highway cover is a laudable step toward restorative justice,” the letter continues, “the project would still add several lane miles of highway, compromise one of the most heavily used bikeways in the city, expand I-5’s footprint, and increase emissions including greenhouse gasses (GHG) in a marginalized community previously impacted by highway construction.”
The BAC is especially worried about the proposed location of the I-5 southbound off-ramp that will dump thousands of drivers onto North Williams Avenue. They say that decision, which ODOT admits will increase stress for bicycle riders and walkers if built as proposed, “Presents significant safety issues for the most vulnerable roadway users and is inconsistent with the City’s design standards.” The also says they feel putting the Green Loop alignment on Broadway and Weidler is unacceptable and they want the project to add back the formerly proposed Clackamas Crossing Bridge(see above) that would have created a carfree crossing over I-5 south of Weidler between from the Lloyd to the Rose Quarter.
The city’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee PAC is so opposed to the project they want PBOT to withdraw their support completely. Their official letter hasn’t been finalized yet, but a draft version states,
“We call on PBOT to withdraw support of the Hybrid 3 concept, which would introduce a highway off-ramp into an area with heavy foot traffic, remove crosswalks, and generally worsen conditions for active modes. The current proposal goes in the wrong direction on climate, the wrong direction on safety, and the wrong direction on our modal goals, while providing little promise of accountability and follow-through for the few positive claims it can make.”
Their letter with that language was approved by the committee, but when it was submitted to PBOT, the city’s liaison to the project, Sharon Daleo, urged them to revise it. According to an email exchange with PAC members, Daleo said she hoped the PAC could change the wording of the letter so it was more supportive and “less inflammatory” of the project.
Daleo and PBOT are finding out how hard it is to walk the fine line between honoring their constituents concerns and serving their partners at ODOT. Former PBOT Commissioner Chloe Eudaly wasn’t willing to do that, so she walked away entirely from the project and made the unprecedented move of pulling all City of Portland staff off the project. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty reversed that position and PBOT now finds themselves in this unenviable position.
For Pedestrian Advisory Committee members, the project isn’t worth the cost of PBOT staff time that they feel would be better spent elsewhere.
“These negative impacts to pedestrian safety and comfort are notable even before considering how much ODOT is leaning on the City of Portland to contribute staff time and funding toward surface street changes and other support when those resources are urgently needed to mitigate deadly conditions in hundreds of other locations citywide,” their letter states. “We urge PBOT to withdraw its support.”
So far, the PAC hasn’t re-submitted a revised letter. The public comment period ends tomorrow, January 4th.