The Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program (RCPP) was established in President Biden’s Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act back in 2021, and Portlanders have had their eyes on it from the start. This program acknowledges the damage some transportation infrastructure — especially freeway projects like I-5 in Portland — has created in communities due to displacement and other negative impacts, and it sets aside $1 billion in federal funds over five years to help make things right.
One of the first beneficiaries of this program will be Portland’s own Albina Vision Trust (AVT), who were recently awarded an $800,000 RCPP planning grant. AVT launched their project (on a bike ride!) in 2017 and has since become a major player in conversations about the Rose Quarter. In June 2021 they inked their first of what is likely to be many real estate development deals.
AVT applied for this grant last fall in partnership with the Portland Bureau of Transportation, and will use it to make initial plans for what the Rose Quarter and Lower Albina areas will look like when/if the Oregon Department of Transportation adds a highway cover to I-5 in the district. ODOT also tapped the RCPP for a very substantial grant of $100 million to construct the I-5 highway covers as part of their Rose Quarter freeway project. But ODOT’s application was denied funding in this cycle.
Other than the starkly different amounts of money requested, AVT/PBOT and ODOT’s applications may seem similar because they both deal with capping I-5 at the Rose Quarter. But while ODOT’s proposal to add covers to I-5 is wrapped up in their highly-controversial freeway expansion plan, the $800,000 in federal funds allocated to AVT and PBOT are not necessarily contingent on a freeway expansion.
Albina neighborhood advocates with AVT have signed onto ODOT’s Rose Quarter plan because they know it may be their best bet to negotiate capping the freeway to reconnect the neighborhood that was so negatively affected by the construction of I-5 in the 1960s. ODOT, meanwhile, knows that including these expensive freeway covers in the I-5 expansion project is the only way they get any federal funding for the plan. But so far, ODOT has been having a difficult time securing that funding even with the Albina neighborhood restoration as part of their pitch.
From the time the RCPP was first announced, some transportation advocates have been concerned that state DOTs would apply for RCPP money under the guise of restorative justice for neighborhoods harmed by infrastructure projects and then use the funding for freeway expansions. A blog post from transportation nonprofit America Walks calls ODOT out for this specifically, saying the proposed cap over I-5 at the Rose Quarter “has the potential to be a positive investment for Portland’s historically Black Albina neighborhood” but the USDOT should deny their application because it “comes attached to an expansion of the highway that will increase environmental and economic damage along the corridor.”
“We’re calling on USDOT to reject proposals like these, as they fail to align with the goals of the Reconnecting Communities program. Proposals like these leave in place the structures that cause damage — or even worse, expand them,” the post continues. “For that reason, they address neither environmental justice nor equitable development and result in either a negligible increase in community connectivity or a net decrease, in the case of proposals that bundle highway expansions into the project.”
Perhaps the U.S. Department of Transportation heard these concerns in their first round of RCPP funding — or maybe they just didn’t want to give ODOT more than half of the $185 million they have allocated for the program in its first year.
There’s still a lot up in the air about this project. It’s unclear how AVT and PBOT might be able to work independently of ODOT to make plans for a future Albina neighborhood that isn’t disconnected by I-5, and there will be more opportunities in the future for ODOT to apply for RCPP funding. But for now, critics of the Rose Quarter expansion project are calling this a win.