When up against a state agency with vast resources and a track record of misleading tactics that is desperate to push a controversial project forward, activists sometimes have to get creative. That was the case last night when the nonprofit No More Freeways held a “People’s Public Hearing” on the Oregon Department of Transportation’s I-5 Rose Quarter project.
For over five years now, No More Freeways (NMF) has been locked in a battle with ODOT to stop the agency from expanding I-5 through Portland’s lower Albina neighborhood. When ODOT released the first federally required Environmental Assessment for this project in 2019, NMF used a mix of old and new-fashioned community organizing to collect over 2,000 (yes, thousand) official comments into the project — 91% of which were in opposition. These comments matter because they are entered into the official record by the Federal Highway Administration, which has ultimate control of the project’s destiny.
A focus of NMF’s work is to force ODOT to complete an Environmental Impact Statement — part of the federal review process which would be a more robust analysis of the project’s impacts than the Environmental Assessments that’s been done thus far. ODOT says an EA is sufficient and the Oregon Transportation Commission agreed with them and approved the project. In April 2021 NMF, along with Neighbors for Clean Air and the Eliot Neighborhood Association filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Transportation in hopes they would tell ODOT to halt the project. (Note that NMF and their partners are in favor of the highway lid and neighborhood street improvements. They just don’t believe a freeway expansion is necessary.)
ODOT has thus far managed to keep their ball moving down the field, thanks to a huge assist from former Oregon Governor Kate Brown. The Governor’s compromise — which included a large lid over the highway that could one day be developed on — triggered enough changes to the project to require a Supplemental Environmental Assessment (SEA).
Tonight (Wednesday, January 4th) is the final day for the public to submit comment on the SEA.
NMF was highly skeptical when ODOT scheduled the SEA comment period over the holiday, knowing it would suppress public engagement. The nonprofit group asked for a public hearing, but ODOT said no. So NMF held their own.
Over 40 people filed into the cafeteria of Harriet Tubman Middle School Tuesday night, just a few hundred feet from the hum of traffic on I-5. Several dozen of them walked up to the mic, started into a camera that was livestreaming the event to YouTube, and spoke their comments directly to ODOT. While unsanctioned and unofficial, the novel format was surprisingly empowering. People from many viewpoints shared strong testimony and seemed to relish the opportunity — even if ODOT staff weren’t seated across from them.
Here’s what some of them said:
Taylor Walker, 16 years old:
“What’s even worse is that time and time again, after we’ve gone to countless meetings for city council members, Metro and the Oregon Transportation Commission, after I and 1000s of my classmates took to the streets and protested and shouted at the adults in charge of the city to change and stand up against climate change. They keep making stupid decisions like the rose quarter expansion project. I’m 16 years old now. Climate scientists say our fate will be largely sealed by 2030. In 2030, I will be 23 years old. The kids that go here now will only be 19. What kind of life is that for us? Are we really willing to give up and succumb to this future? I’m not. It is time to fight. We cannot let this expansion pass.”
Nakisha Nathan, Neighbors for Clean Air:
“ODOT has failed to adequately address the increase in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that will result with the addition of over a million additional vehicle miles of travitt travel that will come from aspects of this design… This project is a disaster for air pollution in a community trying to heal from repeated harms caused by ODOT and institutional systemic racism.”
Joe Cortright, economist and co-founder of No More Freeways:
“This is a giant freeway, don’t listen to talk about so-called auxiliary lanes, it will increase traffic and greenhouse pollution according to the best available scientific information. Congestion won’t go down because of induced demand. It isn’t really needed because traffic in this area has stabilized and if anything declined, this is a hugely expensive project that they don’t have the money to pay for. And if they implement tolling, we really don’t even need to expand the freeway here.”
Alan Rudwick, Eliot Neighborhood:
“This neighborhood wants to be an urban neighborhood. It’s an inner area close to downtown, it has great access to lots of things. And this project has been hanging over the area for the last 13-14 years, delaying development. I’ve seen multiple projects proposed and get shelved. And a big part of it is, ‘Well what’s gonna happen over there with the freeway?’ So hurry up, kill it already so we can get on with building ourselves back up and realizing the vision that people have for greatness here.”
Michelle DuBarry, Families for Safe Streets:
“[My one year old son Seamus] was one of hundreds of people who have been killed and injured on ODOT roads. So when I hear the agency asking taxpayers to foot the bill for a $1.5 billion highway expansion, their claims about safety ring pretty hollow. Families for Safe Streets does not accept the deaths and injuries of our loved ones, the poisoning of the air or the destruction of our planet as acceptable trade offs for faster freight transport, or convenience of motorists.”
William Henderson, business owner:
For a state agency, who supposed to be working for us to be rushing through a project, trying to hit a arbitrary 2023 construction deadline they’ve set for themselves so that other folks can rush through our neighborhood. That is not what Portland’s about. That’s not why I started a business here. I don’t think it’s what makes Portland great. And I think we can do better.
Ukiah Halloran–Steiner, Sunrise Rural Oregon/Youth Vs. ODOT:
“I’m just a 17 year old girl, but I’ve done my research and I’m asking ODOT to do theirs. Hey ODOT, conduct an environmental impact statement on this unstrategic, polluting, dangerous money-sucking freeway expansion before it’s too late!”
Joan Petit, mother of two Black children and Tubman parent:
“And now ODOT wants to double down on the harm to this community with an unnecessary freeway expansion. Even worse, they are calling it restorative justice, as if paying Black contractors to further destroy their communities and to hurt Black children is anything other than cynical exploitation. Is the health and well being of my children irrelevant to ODO? Are their lungs just collateral damage? Shame on ODOT for their cynical marketing, for their branding and rebranding. For their lies. For only seeing cars and trucks on the highway. For not really seeing the kids in this neighborhood in this school, who are as deserving of clean air and good schools as every other child in the state.”
Tegan Valo, B-Line Urban Delivery:
“I categorically reject any narrative that pits the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, the environment and the citizens who live here against the needs of freight, trucking the economy. Those needs are not mutually exclusive… our electric freight tricycles prevented over 500,000 pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere and reduced over 320,000 traffic miles that would have been done by traditional vehicles.”
If you haven’t commented yet, you have until midnight tonight (1/4). Make it happen on ODOT’s project website or via NMF’s handy comment generator. You can watch the livestream of the event here.
UPDATED: Watch our video below of the testimony from Portland folk musician Paul Rippey:
Allan Rudwick’s testimony makes an essential point.
Inability to agree on ‘what to do about the freeway’, has held this area moribund for many decades.
My requests to ODOT include:
Craft a well-planned congestion pricing program and other Transit Demand Management strategies that will eliminate the perceived need to widen the freeway.
Construct buildable lids over the existing freeway, without widening it.
Contribute to surface street and land use improvements that will help make this valuable, close-in, historic area the thriving walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented neighborhood that our city deserves.
Help atone for past wrongs by providing the infrastructure needed to support Albina Vision Trust’s plan for developing this area.
I agree with you 100%. Especially the congestion pricing plan. I keep hearing about how these highway widening projects are all about “freight movement”. In reality, whenever I watch these freeways during busy periods, maybe 10% of the vehicles I see are trucks, vans, and other commercial vehicles. The rest are single-occupancy SUVs and pickups that are in the way of those who drive for a living.
A $3 congestion charge is marginal compared to a whole load of goods on a truck, and may even save money if the reduction in traffic makes the run faster or more efficient. I say, do the congestion pricing now and invest the money ODOT wants to spend widening the freeway on more frequent transit service.
It is unethical to charge tolls on roads that were built to be free of charge. The middle class is already struggling as is. But the D.M.V. could create a civilian license more advanced than the class E license and extra traffic school training for all prospective buyers of S.U.V’s and pickup trucks with added registration fees. Family cars in urban areas whether single occupancy or high occupancy are no threat to the quality of life in cities. I have no idea why Class E license vehicles are becoming the size of freight vehicles.
No more spending, no more votes for even a single additional ton of greenhouse gas emissions! We need to take the climate crisis seriously now, not in 5 or 10 or 20 or 50 years.
If we were to take the climate crisis seriously there would be efforts to dramatically lower the embedded (and exported) CO2e associated with consumption — the single largest source of emissions in fantastically wealthy cities like Portland. Advocates/activists would also not be spending enormous amounts of energy and time seeking to maintain the freeway status quo (in essence, NMF’s position vis a vis freeways).
Your nonprofit corporation has never once publicly campaigned for freeway removal or freeway lane removal despite being named, “no more freeways”. And even more absurdly, your nonprofit corporation openly supports a proposal for a multi-billion dollar freeway project (e.g. the JCA call for a new, slightly smaller, I5 bridge*). I think describing NMF as status quo oriented is a very generous description.
How many years will it take for liberals to understand that preservation of the status quo is a climate crisis failure?
*Despite the fact that independent analyses by earth scientists find little risk of I5 bridge collapse, JCA orgs are hiding behind ODOT-commissioned seismic risk analyses to justify a multibillion dollar freeway expansion.
I’m sorry No More Freeways isn’t sufficiently radical enough for you, Soren, and I’m kinda flattered you refer to us as a “nonprofit corporation” to make our rinkydink little operation sound nefarious. I’m only really commenting to say that we absolutely have included freeway removal as a concept in various letters over the years, and that it’s entirely possible an overtly public campaign for freeway removal may not be the most strategic to actually getting it accomplished. I can’t speak fully on JCA as it is a coalition and not an individual organization, but JCA has never advocated for any project that included any additional freeway lanes. It’s also remarkable to watch you blast a bunch of teenage climate activists who held events for over a year by suggesting they are part of an effort to “preserving the status quo.”
You’re more than welcome to start your own group, maybe call it “No More No More Freeways.” You clearly possess both the policy chops and the organizing prowess that NMF has demonstrably lacked the last five years. best of luck out there
I emphasized this because the move to incorporate is a move to become more respectable to the establishment (and almost always a move away the grassroots).
The entire purpose of a non-establishment org is to have demands that are not part of the overton window. The fact that freeway removal is only a “concept” is precisely my critique of NMF.
I very specifically criticized NMF which, I believe, is comprised of three adult founders. However, the idea that I should not disagree with young people is an interesting position to take. IMO, some “climate activist” adults should stop fetishizing youth and start pushing for the “radical” change that is necessary to reduce the misery and death that will result from global heating.
I’m taking time off from organizing *** moderator: deleted remainder of comment ***
Global warming is not a crisis yet but if China and India don’t do their part to ban air and water pollution then it eventually will become a threat. In the U.S. most rivers and lakes and its animals have been restored to perfect health due to the banning of water pollution by President Nixon and also the Clean Air Act also signed by Nixon. Air in U.S. urban areas have been cleaner than they have ever been before the 1970s and the quality of urban life has increased despite our car-centric mindset. We will eventually restore our transontinental passenger rail network but It is going to take some time to undo the mistakes of the 1950s and restore cities to their recreational automobile era glory.
Here is a link if you would like to watch all 24 of the community testimonials:
One of the more notable speakers was Joe Cortright, who has written often about the sales job that ODOT has done on expanding the freeway. For over 100 years, starting with dirt roads, America has been increasing roadway capacity, throwing an occasional bone at non-motorized roadway users. The red/bike death statistics show what 100 years of “bones” has given us. It is way past time for stopping the madness of adding more vehicular capacity. The Rose Quarter project is the best opportunity we have to stop that madness. Thank you No More Freeways and all the others at the meeting for attempting to do just that. Anyone who values active transportation should join in on that battle.
If we genuinely wanted to address the madness we would be reducing vehicular capacity, not preserving it. For example one of the three lanes on the current bridge could be dedicated to transit (and the ped/bike lane could be expanded a la the Hawthorne bridge).
I agree completely.
Not to worry. It’ll never be built with Congressional gridlock for the next two years, at least, and the increasing possibility of The Big One happening (according to those studying it), You can also kiss off the CRC, which won’t happen in the lifetimes of anyone living today.
I have no problem that you all want the freeway torn down. My problem is that you guys want road pricing which would be used to bruttaly cooerce people out of their cars rather than build diesel powered commuter rail infrastructure in which some drivers will choose to take the train rather than drive. Tolling the bridges across the Columbia River is unneccessary and as in regards to the Interstate 5 drawbridge the Interstate can be converted to a boulevard with Interstate 5 re-routed to Interstate 205 where it should have been built in the first place. And this bridge crossing for this boulevard would be free of charge consisting of 4 travel lanes, 2 light rail tracks, and 4 bike lanes.