Funding picture for ODOT’s Rose Quarter freeway expansion looks bleak

I-5 looking southwest between the N Vancouver and N Flint avenue bridges. (Photo: ODOT)

“Given what we all know about our financial picture at this point, I’m not sure how we finance this project.”

– Lee Beyer, Oregon Transportation Commission member

It’s never a great sign for a transportation project when, six years after the legislature came up with a down payment, project leaders still don’t have a plan for how to pay for it.

After being dogged by years of negative headlines, high-profile protests, and shaky support from politicians and key public agencies, the I-5 Rose Quarter project seemed to take yet another step backwards today. The estimated $1.3 billion project seeks to add lanes to I-5 between I-84 and the Fremont Bridge and build a cap over the freeway where it crosses through the Lloyd near Moda Center. At the Oregon Transportation Committee meeting today, the director of ODOT’s Urban Mobility Office (a new department tasked with getting this and other freeway expansions in the Portland region built) Brendan Finn asked commissioners for a big favor: He requested a one-year extension on coming up with a financing plan for the project.

Finn and his team were supposed to present a funding scenario to the OTC by July of this year. But he says he needs more time. According to Finn, there are two man reasons a funding plan has proven elusive: First, the design of the project has changed dramatically since it was first conceived; and second, a recent moratorium on tolls has taken away one of the project’s main revenue sources. Finn didn’t mention at the meeting today that the estimated cost of the project has tripled since it was first endorsed and funded by the legislature.

When ODOT pitched the project to the legislature in 2017, it was all about congestion relief and “fixing the bottleneck.” Rural lawmakers said this section of I-5 was making it harder for their farmers to get goods to market and we heard the usual hue and cry about traffic backups. But once ODOT got into the local politics, they realized that it’s very tough to add driving capacity on a freeway in Portland’s central city — a place filled with politicians and activists who are proud of our freeway fighting legacy and who understand the terrible policy implications of freeway widening. So ODOT tried to shift to making the project about safety. But when called out on that rationale, they could not show a compelling crash and fatality history that would necessitate such an immense cost. Then the project became all about re-invigorating the lower Albina neighborhood (that the original freeway construction wiped out). But smart people realize it’s much easier and cheaper to rebuild lower Albina without expanding the freeway.

When you combine a shaky rationale with an even shakier political footing and what seems like one controversy after another, you get a project that is in a lot of trouble.

The OTC ultimately granted Finn’s request for a delay today, but not without some tough love from the commissioners.

Commissioner Sharon Smith pointed out that, “The longer these projects take, the more they cost and so delay is not always our friend. And especially with escalating costs and impacts it’s just, it’s hard to do because it’s just going to cost us all more later.”

And Commissioner Lee Beyer (a former legislator who spearheaded the 2017 transportation funding package that committed $30 million per year to the project starting in 2022, money which was recently taken away from this project so ODOT could build a wider Abernethy/I-205 Bridge ) said, “It’s obviously been a controversial project.” Beyer says he understands the delays in the funding plan because of how much the project has changed since 2017 (freeway caps were a distant possibility then, but have become the most important — and expensive — part of the project since). “And so the need to develop the funding plan is important and it makes sense to take the time to do that,” he said at the meeting today. Then his next comment really made sit up straight:

“I have to say that given what we all know about our financial picture at this point, I’m not sure how we finance this project. I think it’s going to require some additional legislative action and commitment that we’re going to move forward on this… It’s a challenge financially. And so that’ll be something that I want to make sure from a fiduciary standpoint that we limit our financial exposure while still supporting the project until those finance decisions are made.”

So not only does ODOT have no plan to pay for the project, but the earmark the legislature gave them is being used on a different project, they can no longer count on tolling in the short term, and one of their bosses on the OTC just said he’s not even sure how the numbers will add up.

Meanwhile, while ODOT tries to fundraise for a freeway expansion, the prospects for a separate plan to rebuild the Albina neighborhood over I-5 have never looked better.

In March the nonprofit Albina Vision Trust won an $800,000 “Reconnecting Communities” grant from the Biden administration to jumpstart a planning process with the City of Portland that help solidify their vision. And late last month, Nike founder Phil Knight and his family foundation pledged $400 million to the 1803 Fund, a new group that will spearhead investments in the historically Black neighborhood. The fund will be headed by Rukaiyah Adams, one of the founding board members of Albina Vision Trust.

Funding a project that will make the neighborhood stronger seems to be much more popular than funding one that would do the opposite. Go figure.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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Jay Cee
Jay Cee
1 year ago

That whole part of 5 is redundant anyways. 405 is just 2ish miles to the west and goes in the exact same direction. Why are they wasting money on something that will fall down in the next earthquake. Tear it down, fill back in lower Albina, and open up the east side waterfront. Oh and save billions of taxpayer $$

dwk
dwk
1 year ago
Reply to  Jay Cee

When I moved here in 1989, the first thing I wondered is why in the hell does the city have a Freeway on the most valuable real estate (waterfront) in the city.
Vera Katz proposed burying the damn thing 25 years ago which would have been so cheap back then. Getting rid of it is a decent idea but burying it is second best.
Oregon stopped being cool and progressive about the time I moved here unfortunately and continues the long decline…..

Middle of the Road Guy
Middle of the Road Guy
1 year ago
Reply to  dwk

Incidentally, that is the last time Saturday Night Live was funny.

Trike Guy
Trike Guy
1 year ago

Sooo – we’re blaming DWK for both the decline of PDX and SNL?

🙂

John
John
1 year ago
Reply to  dwk

Hey I just want to say you’ve had some fire comments like this that I completely agree with. Just so I don’t only reply to your comments with disagreement.

Job Lowe
Job Lowe
1 year ago
Reply to  Jay Cee

Preach! Why are we even talking about expanding infrastructure when we can’t afford to maintain what we’ve got? Call me crazy but if motorists are unwilling to pay the fully allocated costs of driving (including the negative externalities) maybe it’s time to admit to ourselves that we tried the whole personal automobile centered approach, it it failed, and now it’s time to cut our losses and move on to more sustainable (and equitable) transportation investments.

Jakz
Jakz
1 year ago
Reply to  Jay Cee

The problem is it’s not. It serves as the east-west connection between US 26 and I-84. The section of highway can only be removed if an alternate east-west connection is provided. This could be done with tunnel similar to the SR 99 tunnel in Seattle. That would be awesome. But it would cost $4B instead of $1.5B.

Todd/Boulanger
Todd/Boulanger
1 year ago

Oh well, if the powers that be won’t use the tolling tool (funding operations & congestion pricing), perhaps its time to pivot AND depave/ arterialize the I-5 segment between the 405 Bridge and 84. This would form a beltway around the core for limiting ICE / regional traffic egress and also start to reconnect the divided Albina sections. The inner SE industrial “preserve” is pretty much on its final leg/ decade and this pivot might be able to free up land for the Portland hub to host the high speed Cascadia rail that Washington State and BC is working diligently on. Things to think about when converting policy/ politics lemons to lemonade.

Chris
Chris
1 year ago
Reply to  Todd/Boulanger

Not to put it down, but they’ve been talking about a high-speed rail corridor between Portland and Vancouver BC for at least 40 years now.

Atreus
Atreus
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris

It was just vague talk in the past, but the current effort is very well-funded, has actual consultants doing plans and business cases, and it seems very feasible. It’s more real now than it’s ever been.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
1 year ago
Reply to  Todd/Boulanger

Please stop conflating ODOT’s tolling progrem with congestion pricing. Portland had an opportunity to implement bonafide congestion pricing and punted. It still amazes me how many of the urbanists clamoring for tolling were so willing to accept Portland’s denial of congestion pricing.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
1 year ago

ODOT is waiting for the 2024 election campaigns to start in earnest – lots of opportunities for last-minute Congressional pork barrel earmarks for useless highway infrastructure amid the campaign promises, since we all know that one of the few bipartisan issues that both parties support is more highway funding.

Jenna Kenshin
Jenna Kenshin
1 year ago

Tolls got shot down? That’s just crazy. We need rail projects and multimodal pathway projects funded by automobile travel. Are there low income people using the roads? Probably, but just have them turn in tax returns for a free toll pass. Are there farmers delivering stuff to farmers markets? Probably, but just give them a dedicated lane where a toll person can look at the cargo and allow them through.

There shouldn’t be tax and infrastructure dollars going to things that make our communities worse, allow roads to encroach on more of the cityscape, and cover our rivers with more and larger bridges that are not for active transport and trains.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
1 year ago

I think have the wrong perception of what happened with Gov. Kotek’s order to pause tolls. The tolling program and work is continuing the very same way…

With all due respect, this seems to be wishful thinking. Kotek paused tolling in response to fierce opposition from local governments in affected communities. These local governments all issued coordinated press statements crowing over this delay. Moreover, even Gov. Kotek acknowledged the coordinated opposition in her letter to legislators:

Since taking office, I have heard consistently from stakeholders and residents that they need to understand more of the impacts and tradeoffs of tolling I-205 and I-5 before these tolls take effect,

https://www.wweek.com/news/2023/05/04/kotek-makes-it-official-shes-ordered-odot-to-pause-tolling-until-2026/

Daniel Reimer
1 year ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

But why would she pause it and not cancel it in this case if there wasn’t intent to continue moving forward with it?

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
1 year ago
Reply to  Daniel Reimer

It’s politically easier to “pause” a controversial program than to cancel it.

Let’s Active
Let’s Active
1 year ago

That’s correct Jonathan. There is no internal pause though, as others note, politics could eventually kill it. And don’t forget about tolling on IBR. That toll system will be run by Oregon so the program needs to be stood up (customer service, computer systems, roadside technology).

Todd/Boulanger
Todd/Boulanger
1 year ago
Reply to  Let’s Active

The new Oregon optics on tolls may be a perfect time for the responsibility for IBR tolling to be handled by WSDoT vs ODoT. It would also be much more efficient (cost effective) since WSDoT already has the staff, system [‘Good to Go’] and back office infrastructure up and going…vs creating from scratch a system in Oregon…unless you count the Oregon staff overing the remaining ‘classic’ river ferries.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_to_Go_(toll_collection_system)

Watts
Watts
1 year ago

 They just cannot collect any tolls until Jan 2026. 

You say that like it’s only a detail, but the whole idea (or so I thought) was to see if tolls would reduce demand in a way that would impact the size of the CRC. If we don’t start tolling until 2026 (and maybe not even then), we don’t have the experience and data we need to better right-size this project, and tolls just become a way to feed the monster we’ve been fighting against all these years.

There’s no doubt that Kotek struck a big blow to those who want a smaller bridge.

Also, tolls will not be any less controversial or heated in 2026 than they are today.

Dave Farmer
Dave Farmer
1 year ago
Reply to  Jenna Kenshin

Toll money cannot be used for busses, trains, separate bike trails, or the non transportation part of freeway caps. Article IX section 3 of Oregon Constitution. It can build potties in rest stops.
No judgement just the facts.

Jenna Kenshin
Jenna Kenshin
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave Farmer

That needs to be fixed

Michael
Michael
1 year ago

they realized that it’s very tough to add driving capacity on a freeway in Portland’s central city

Almost like the freeway never should have been in the central city to begin with….

Fred
Fred
1 year ago

Eventually I-5 will be moved west along the current Hwy 30 alignment and cross the river on a 16-lane bridge at St Helens. It’s all going according to plan. 😉

Lincoln Hess
Lincoln Hess
1 year ago

I have never been happier reading a news article. I agree with the comments that the section of I-5 between I-85 and I-405 is redundant and at the very least should be covered but ideally torn down since congestion is bound to happen when you have 3 mega freeways merge into one all at the same time. It blows my mind that for this entire time ODOT hasn’t been able to see that the problem is the three freeways all coming together that create a problem. How do we shift the conversation to removing that section of freeway?

SD
SD
1 year ago

That picture says it all! The original sin of running I-5 through a community at the core of the city, alongside a beautiful river, necessitated a concrete and asphalt cluster to maintain connections in the city. Piling billions of dollars of more concrete and asphalt that has to be maintained and might not survive a Cascadia quake is not the brilliant idea that ODOT/ Mapps pretends it is. I-5 needs to be removed from the central part of the city and the waterfront needs to be restored.

Chris
Chris
1 year ago
Reply to  SD

I believe the true riverside portion of I5 was always industrial land and old docks between the railroad tracks and the river. I think it cut inland and through Albina at Sullivan Gulch/Lloyd Boulevard.

The freeway was built in its current location to benefit west side Portland. It added enough capacity that city leaders felt they could remove Harbor Blvd from the west bank of the river.

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)
Editor
Reply to  Chris

I thought it was 405 that compensated for closing Harbor Drive.

Gregg Dal Ponte
Gregg Dal Ponte
1 year ago

Price tag wasn’t an issue until a freeway widening project was hijacked by special interests to incorporate buildable “caps” over the highway. I am not saying the Albina neighborhood project is not worthwhile in itself. I do not have an opinion on that subject. I am just saying that a road building project should not be complicated with unrelated costs. If the Albina neighborhood reunification project is worthwhile it should seek its own funding and not complicate the widening project. I’m also aware there is disagreement on whether the widening project should go forward. Here, I am not taking a position on that argument. I’m just making a process comment. If it’s decided to build a roadway project, then build it without inviting add ons from special interests.

qqq
qqq
1 year ago

But price WAS an issue from the beginning–long before the caps. ODOT struggled to make a convincing argument that whatever this project was intending to accomplish (per the article, first traffic flow, then safety) was worth the cost.

And saying the project “was hijacked by special interests to incorporate buildable “caps” ” isn’t necessarily accurate. It may be just as accurate or more so to say the the project needed them–again because ODOT hadn’t made a persuasive enough case that the widening project’s benefits–whatever they were–were worth the cost.

I agree that “a road building project should not be complicated with unrelated costs” but believe equally that a road building project’s budget should include costs of mitigating negative impacts. Current road building projects often fail to do that, and ones from the past (the original freeway project especially) certainly failed to do that, passing on the costs of mitigation to future generations.

It could be that the caps’ costs exceed the costs needed to mitigate the impacts of this widening project, but certainly not the impacts of it plus the original freeway construction, whose impacts were largely unmitigated.

And the costs of mitigating the impacts of this widening project alone (without the caps) would also be significant–I think enough that the project definitely isn’t worth the cost–and shouldn’t be viewed as “unrelated costs” (I realize you may not have been saying they were). Especially in the past, it seems that any dollar not going directly into moving more vehicles was viewed as an “unrelated cost” and just skipped over, creating the need for the next generations to come up with money to fix the resulting problems.

I also don’t like describing people who want “add-ons” as “special interests”, especially when the “add-ons” are measures to mitigate the negative impacts of the widening and the original project being widened. They are no more “special interests” than the people supporting the widening.

SD
SD
1 year ago

Ah yes, the people who live, work and go to school in the area that will be negatively impacted by widening the freeway are a special interest.

On the other hand, I guess state bureaucrats and contractors who are making a cash grab without providing anything of real value are not very special or interesting.

John
John
1 year ago

Here, I am not taking a position on that argument.

Yes you are. You’re arguing they should do it the way you suggest because it would make the widening project easier to fund on its own. That’s a side, and it’s one I and clearly a lot of people take issue with. I’m not ok with billions of dollars being spent on widening a freeway with nothing in return and I want to make it as hard as possible to let that happen. Your argument that we should let that be uncomplicated and just go through is taking the side that we should make it easier to widen freeways, a very distasteful opinion.

Chris I
Chris I
1 year ago

My special interest is not poisoning our children with freeway exhaust. I’m happy to hijack.