Portland-based advocacy group No More Freeways has become a household name among transportation reformers region-wide for their work in opposing the State of Oregon’s I-5 Rose Quarter project. Now the group has turned to another front in their freeway fight: An expansion of I-205 in Clackamas County.
ODOT’s plan for Phase Two of the “I-205 Improvements” project (Phase One is to build a new, wider Abernethy Bridge over the Willamette River) is to add one additional freeway lane for a seven-mile stretch between Highway 42 and Stafford Road.
NMF has launched a campaign urging supporters to comment on the project, which they say will add between 79 and 109 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) a year — that’s about 1.2 million metric tons of carbon by their estimate. “This is directly in conflict with Oregon’s aggressive targets for reducing carbon emissions, prioritizing investments in safer streets, or ensuring ODOT has the resources to invest in basic seismic retrofits for the 700 bridges across the state that need repair,” writes NMF on their website.
When we first reported on this project in 2017, ODOT referred to it as “operational enhancements” and estimated the cost to be $450 million. Today that number has skyrocketed to $515 million (that’s in addition to the $544 million for the Abernethy Bridge in Phase One). By the time payments are due and this phase of the project gets built, it will likely be even higher, since Federal Highway Administration data shows that highway construction costs have risen 50% in the last two years alone.
ODOT is already overextended trying to pay for a slew of freeway expansions across the state. In 2021 they had to go back to the legislature to pass House Bill 3055. That bill, which passed over staunch opposition from NMF and other groups, increased ODOT’s short-term borrowing (bonding) authority from $100 million to $600 million. The bill also earmarked $30 million of those funds to this phase of the I-205 project specifically. ODOT is also working feverishly on a tolling plan that is expected to help pay for this project.
According to ODOT, the project is needed because it’s the last remaining segment of I-205 in Oregon that isn’t already three lanes in both directions. They want to widen it to address “multiple lengthy bottlenecks” that if left unchecked could, “significantly impact state and regional economic activity.” They also cite safety benefits with the new lanes due to fewer weaving movements that will, “allow traffic to flow more freely and reduce the number of crashes.”
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) a coalition of nonprofits that advocate around consumer protection, public health and transportation issues, has called this project a “boondoggle.” “The addition of new lanes to I-205 will have no tangible impact on congestion… either on the freeway itself or on nearby local roads,” they wrote late last year.
ODOT is currently conducting an environmental assessment as part of the federally obligated analysis that must be completed prior to receiving tolling authority.
In addition to concerns about VMT, emissions, and a lack of fiscal responsibility, NMF feels ODOT should conduct a more thorough environmental impact study before moving forward with any plans. They also believe if ODOT were to toll first, they might find that the additional lane isn’t necessary.
“The legal somersaults and fingers-on-the-scale to justify patently absurd numbers about cost benefit analysis and traffic projections would be laughable if the consequences we’re so dire,” NMF writes on their action alert.
If you want to share a comment on this project’s EA through the NMF action alert, the deadline to do it is tomorrow (4/21).