Rose Quarter project keeps rolling as FHWA gives green light

ODOT’s revised build alternative from the Revised Supplemental Environmental Assessment.

After winning a $450 million federal grant to build highway covers as part of its I-5 Rose Quarter project, the Oregon Department of Transportation announced more big news this morning: The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has given the project a green light to move forward with an official “finding on no significant impact” (FONSI).

The FHWA decision puts the project back on track after they rescinded a FONSI in January 2022. These steps are related to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law all major projects must follow. ODOT conducted an Environmental Assessment as part of the NEPA process in 2019 and the FHWA supported it in 2020. But the project that decision was based on was politically infeasible. While ODOT’s internal modeling showed the expansion of I-5 between I-84 and the Fremont Bridge wouldn’t have negative impacts on climate change, air quality, or traffic operations, major project partners weren’t on board. A major sticking point (beyond expanding the freeway) was that ODOT didn’t want to build highway caps that would be robust enough to spur the type of development required to realize the plans of Albina Vision Trust, the nonprofit that wants to rebuild the neighborhood decimated by the freeway’s construction in the 1960s.

It took major intervention from former Oregon Governor Kate Brown in 2021 to broker a compromise and come up with a new design (“Hybrid 3”) with larger and stronger highway caps. That new design triggered the additional Environmental Assessment that the FHWA just decided on this week.

This green light from the FHWA also makes it less likely ODOT will heed calls from anti-freeway activists to conduct a more robust environmental analysis known as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). A memo signed by FHWA Oregon Division Administrator Keith Lynch signed March 6th says, “The FHWA concludes Project impacts would not be severe or intense enough to cause significant environmental impacts that would warrant preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement.”

Notably, ODOT shared a statement of strong support this morning from Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Millicent Williams. “The I-5 Rose Quarter Project has come a long way,” Williams said. “Thanks to the deep involvement of local community stakeholders serving on the Historic Albina Advisory Board, the leadership of the Albina Vision Trust, and the work of PBOT staff, this project has gone from exacerbating past harms to an effort that can help repair and restore a community.”

It’s great news for ODOT that PBOT is now strongly in their corner. Four years ago, under former PBOT Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, PBOT walked away from the project completely. PBOT continued to keep the project at arm’s length under former Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty; but by June 2022 ODOT has made enough changes that the ice began to thaw. But even as recently as February of last year, PBOT leadership expressed serious reservations about the project.

ODOT acknowledged this checkered past in their statement this morning. “It wasn’t long ago that some project partners and community members pulled back from the project because of disagreements with the design. We have worked hard to incorporate the perspective of our partners and community, and we believe we now have the right project for this region and this moment.”

This recent string of good news for ODOT marks a striking turnaround for the project. Just last summer, a high-profile ODOT staffer was overcome with emotion and had to leave a meeting of the project’s Historic Albina Advisory Board after sharing news that the project would be put on hold.

Ironically, for an agency whose past decisions are guilty of displacing hundreds of Black families from lower Albina, ODOT’s recent progress is entirely the result of centering Black voices and leaning into the work of Albina Vision Trust. (Note: The Historic Albina Advisory Board meets today from 4-7:00 pm.)

While expanded freeway lanes remain a part of the project, there is no money to fund them and it’s not clear if ODOT can convince politicians to support them. Nonprofit No More Freeways is seizing this moment to establish a new campaign to encourage ODOT to, “construct the caps and lose the lanes.”

Now that Governor Tina Kotek has told ODOT they must scrap the Regional Mobility Pricing Project, which was the most likely funding source for the expansion of I-5 through the Rose Quarter, that mantra carries more weight than ever.

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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Ray
Ray
2 months ago

I know it’s been said before and I’m not the only one who believes it, but the SB exit to Williams/Wheeler is going to kill people.

lvc
lvc
2 months ago
Reply to  Ray

Like Fred alludes to, it appears that they want to shunt bicycles and pedestrians to that absolutely awful “Ramsay Design Option”. Got to get them out of the way! Cars comming through!

Michael
Michael
2 months ago
Reply to  Ray

THE LEVEL OF SERVICE MUST NOT BE DIMINISHED!

-An automaton in ODOT, probably

Aaron
2 months ago
Reply to  Ray

I have a hard time truly absorbing these road design mockups but once I took another look at this spot following your comment I was horrified. I ride up Wheeler several days a week and that crossing is already way too open and vulnerable with many lanes of traffic trying to get onto the highway. Adding an off-ramp of people going highway speeds directly into where I’d be crossing on my bike sounds like it will turn my usual route home into a scary death trap.

That doesn’t even get into the point that funneling highway traffic directly onto a primary NoPo bike connection will have more people driving even faster and more aggressively on Williams than they do now. What would the city do? Add speed bumps to annoy those drivers even more? Add some plastic flex posts to the bike lane buffer? Those solutions generally do very little for safety in my experience, but not funneling highway traffic onto this bike connection would do a lot more.

Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
2 months ago

…there is no money to fund them

House Bill 2017 increased the motor fuel tax to specifically fund construction of the I5 RQ freeway project. House Bill 2017 also create a new yearly highway fund carve out to provide leverage for bond issuance for the I5 RQ project. And, finally, House Bill 2017 instructed ODOT to issue 1 billion dollar in bonds to help pay for this project.

https://www.oregon.gov/odot/About/GR/2023_ODOT_Conditional_Fuels_Tax_Increase_Report.pdf

Gov Kotek and Democratic party leadership have also publicly announced that new funding for the I5 RQ freeway project will be a PRIORITY for the 2025 long session. Like it or not this project is getting built.

Art Lewellan
Art Lewellan
6 days ago

This F-ed up project may be like the CRC (now IBRP) I-5 Columbia River Bridge replacement, so badly engineered, planners know it won’t be built as proposed. ODOT racists swapped sensible bridge type “single-deck” for “double-deck” in 2009 after African/American President Obama was elected. Racist ODOT & WsDOT directors and department heads took Senator McConnell’s vow to “not cooperate with the new administration” as CONSENT to scuttle the project within the planning process.

Fred
Fred
2 months ago

If the caps will be strong enough to build on, why can’t they construct a direct bike route across them?

There’s no better visualization of ODOT’s disregard for bikes and peds than the long, looping bridge that we’ll be forced to use to get across the much-widened highway.

The message is clear: People in cars get the fastest, most direct route, always, while bikes and peds – already disadvantaged by low power – have to take an even more inconvenient route to reach their destination.

Gee-thang
Gee-thang
2 months ago

As a young person, it’s wildly depressing to see money being shoveled into these highly debatable “improvements” when just up the 5 there’s a vital interstate connection about to fall into the river that yearns for progress :/

Ray
Ray
2 months ago
Reply to  Gee-thang

The “projected budget” for that project is at least triple what these funds are. That project also is grossly over-inflated in scale in many people’s perspectives and the holdup is that many believe that widening the freeway is unnecessary and irresponsible.

The largest issue with this project is the orange lines you see in the drawing above.

Chris I
Chris I
2 months ago
Reply to  Gee-thang

Both projects are moving forward. They’re going to turn Hayden Island into a freeway interchange.

dw
dw
2 months ago

While I do appreciate the need for development in the area, building stronger caps seems like a wildly over-engineered solution to get more developable land. Why not build a cap that can support a nice park or plaza, then use the money saved to incentivize building on what’s now being used for surface parking? The Lloyd/Albina zone is just absolutely lousy with mostly-empty parking lots.

Fred
Fred
2 months ago

The caps really seem like a performative thing for me – a visual manifestation of a desire to “heal the wound” that ODOT inflicted on the Albina neighborhood’s Black population.

Once of the symbolism of the gesture takes hold, there’s no getting anyone away from it, apparently – no matter how much good buildable land there is in NoPo, as dw points out.

PS
PS
2 months ago

7.1 acres suggests a cost per acre of $70,000,000 per acre. There is nowhere in the city that even gets close to that cost, particularly for 3 or 6 story assets. No advocate of this would ever support it if a private developer had proposed it, so that makes it performative and an inefficient allocation of capital.

Mark
Mark
2 months ago

What’s the point of that new pedestrian & bike bridge? What route does it improve:

  • People going to/from the Broadway Bridge are better served by proceeding from/to the Broadway/Weidler couplet, using the “Multimodal Local Street Improvements.
  • The bridge is very out-of-the-way folks going to/from the Rose Quarter

And what are the white dots on that bridge along Ramsay? Stairs or a ramp?

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
2 months ago

If a third of all workers are now not even bothering to leave home to get to a worksite that no longer physically exists according to the latest PBOT bike count report, just to virtual jobs on Zoom or TEAMS, why are we still adding capacity to freeways at all? Even drive-alone numbers and rates are dropping.

James
James
2 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

I imagine it’s for all the freight full of junk that everyone keeps buying while sitting on their couch at home.

GF
GF
2 months ago

lets just make the whole I5/I405 loop a one-way..either clockwise or counter-clockwise..
only having to deal with (1) on/off of freeway exits/entrance per would be much more manageable in space constrained areas.