New lawsuit says I-5 Rose Quarter freeway expansion runs afoul of city, regional plans

I-5 running under NE Broadway and Weidler through the Rose Quarter. (Google Earth)

If you’re new to the I-5 Rose Quarter project and never looked too far beyond recent headlines or press releases, you’d think it was a community redevelopment project that will build a highway cover, restore a vibrant community, and add a bunch of new bike facilities to surface streets.

But the thrust of the $1.9 billion project from the get-go, and still it’s most expensive element, is something Oregon Department of Transportation officials and other project partners hardly ever mention these days: A significant expansion of I-5 and new freeway lanes between I-84 and I-405 that will exacerbate many of the same community wounds the recent $450 million federal grant aims to heal.

This week a coalition of nonprofit organizations emerged once again to remind ODOT of this inconvenient truth and filed of another lawsuit against their Rose Quarter project. Led by ODOT’s most persistent nemesis No More Freeways, the four other plaintiffs on the suit are Neighbors for Clean Air, Oregon and SW Washington Families for Safe Streets, BikeLoud PDX, and the Eliot Neighborhood Association.

They claim ODOT is not in compliance with city and regional planning documents — specifically the Portland Central City Plan and Comprehensive Plan and Metro’s Regional Transportation Plan. The 15-page complaint (read it below) filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court May 10th calls out ODOT’s failure to comply with Portland’s Central City Plan, which calls for congestion pricing to be implemented in conjunction with any project that seeks to expand I-5 through the Rose Quarter. “No such plans or analyses of congestion pricing or TDM options were included in ODOT’s final Rose Quarter I-5 project as adopted, nor were such analyses included in the project’s published Environmental Assessment, nor were such inconsistencies discussed in ODOT’s findings on supposed compatibility,” reads the complaint.

Litigants also claim ODOT is running afoul of Metro’s RTP, which states that before any road authority adds new capacity or lanes, “agencies must
demonstrate that system and demand management strategies, including access management, transit and freight priority, pricing, transit service, and multimodal connectivity improvements cannot adequately address identified needs.” The complainants state in the lawsuit that, “ODOT has not demonstrated whether any of the listed alternative improvements would be incapable of addressing any identified congestion issues.”

This is the third time No More Freeways has joined with some of these litigants on a lawsuit against ODOT and this project. In two separate lawsuits filed in 2021 they claimed ODOT failed to adhere to federal environmental law and that the plan to expand the freeway ran afoul of the City of Portland’s Comprehensive Plan. Both those suits were withdrawn in 2022 when Federal Highway Administration officials told ODOT to go back to the drawing board and do more environmental assessments.

This new lawsuit that ODOT’s proposal still fails to comply with the City of Portland’s Comprehensive Plan as well as Metro’s Regional Transportation Plan, citing numerous specific details of the proposed expansion that litigants say are, “demonstrably out of alignment with the city’s tentative approval of the expansion back in 2012.”

While ODOT has maintained their freeway work isn’t technically an expansion or that it will add new lanes — preferring more politically innocuous terms like “auxiliary” or “ramp-to-ramp” lanes or the phrase they used in a meeting today, “safety and operational improvements in the areas underneath the highway cover” — No More Freeways and their partner groups see it differently. City Observatory, a website run by economist Joe Cortright, a co-founder of No More Freeways, maintains ODOT is hiding a wolf in sheep’s clothing and their true intent is to double or triple the width of the freeway and make it wide enough to include ten lanes. That would be “in direct contradiction of the city’s formally adopted climate, transportation and lane use plans,” according to a press release from No More Freeways released today.

RQ_10_lanes_color
ODOT drawing obtained via public records request by City Observatory (red annotations by City Observatory).

“It’s absurd for ODOT to claim that their proposed $1.9 billion 10-lane highway is in compliance with the city’s existing plans,” said No More Freeways co-founder Chris Smith. “We filed this lawsuit because state law requires ODOT to follow the city’s clean air and climate goals. ODOT shouldn’t be allowed to advance a project that brazenly violates the city’s adopted plans.”

And Allan Rudwick, chair of the Eliot Neighborhood Association’s Land Use and Transportation Committee added, “The Eliot Neighborhood needs more homes, not more highways. Routing lots of extra traffic onto our roads may put a damper on this revitalization for another century and we continue to oppose ODOT’s road-widening project.”

Nakisha Nathan with Neighbors for Clean Air said she’s joining the lawsuit because ODOT’s freeway plans “would significantly pollute the air in the Albina neighborhood and actively harm the health and well being of North Portland residents.”

For road safety advocate Michelle DuBarry, ODOT’s investment in a wider freeway to increase driving capacity flies in the face of more urgent needs like improving crossings of local streets similar to the one where her 22-month-old son was killed in 2010. “ODOT has continued to prioritize investment in endless freeway expansion instead of targeting improvements to streets like North Lombard, where my son was killed,” DuBarry said in the statement.

This lawsuit and accompanying critiques of the I-5 Rose Quarter project create dissonance in the community. On one hand we have Albina Vision Trust and ODOT’s Historic Albina Advisory Board (made up of Black residents with ties to the neighborhoods destroyed by construction of I-5 in the 1960s) who are eager to start the project and are forging ever stronger ties to ODOT to make it happen. And on the other hand you’ve got the No More Freeways coalition and many local transportation reform advocates who remain appalled by the freeway expansion elements and want to, “Construct the caps. Lose the lanes.”

Whether or not the freeway expansion can be decoupled from the highway caps and surface street elements of the project, depends on who you ask. A clear ruling from a judge about whether the expansion is even legal would help settle the debate.


Read or download the complaint below:

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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Joe Cortright
14 days ago

Here’s what ODOT is really planning at Broadway/Weidler: Not “one auxiliary lane in each direction” but doubling the roadway from 82 feet to 160 feet–easily enough to accomodate a 10 lane freeway–in violation of NEPA and the City of Portland’s Comprehensive Plan.

RQ_10_lanes_color
Chris
Chris
14 days ago
Reply to  Joe Cortright

The diagram modifications seem rather disingenuous. It is 181 feet wide on top of the cap, not below where the freeway is. You can’t run lanes through structural cement piers.

Chris I
Chris I
13 days ago
Reply to  Chris

Yep. Someone who has no technical background. I see enough for 4 lanes in each direction, at most, for that cross section. Also take note of the ventilation system on the inside lanes. That area can’t even be converted to a breakdown shoulder, as it doesn’t have the vertical clearance.

Jack
Jack
13 days ago
Reply to  Chris I

Five lanes could be implemented if 1) nonstandard shoulders are used and 2) the ventilation ducts are widened and flattened such that they don’t extend below the overhead signage allowance depth. Both are very possible since most urban tunnels have nonstandard shoulders and–while I don’t know much about ducts–I’ve never seen any that look like this in highway cover tunnels.

Four lanes is very obviously the plan, but I think the provision of full shoulders and extra space beyond that points to five lanes being a major consideration in setting the tunnel width.

Chris I
Chris I
13 days ago
Reply to  Jack

You would also need sub-standard lane widths to get to 5 lanes here. The diagram is completely disingenuous as it shows shoulder into the footings of the lid structure.

And these fans are common. It would be possible to use a lower profile system, but it looks like this is the design they have in mind:

https://media.licdn.com/dms/image/C5612AQGl-CXWA17TlA/article-cover_image-shrink_720_1280/0/1562161042966?e=2147483647&v=beta&t=ulMmYVJEZfmYYpc9l1-mKpeiVGjTtlYvCWphVGLUyNM

Jack
Jack
13 days ago
Reply to  Chris I

I agree the shoulder mark-up are silly. But there’s about 65 feet of roadway width when the skew and bent thicknesses are taken into account. That’s 81.5 feet * cos(30 deg) – 3 ft – 3 ft. That would leave 5 feet for shoulders. Definitely nonstandard, but I-93 in Boston has 0 ft shoulders.

Wooster
Wooster
13 days ago
Reply to  Joe Cortright

You keep showing this graphic, but it contains a very basic math error, which is that you haven’t subtracted the bridge support beams, which are 4 feet. wide. Since each 81-foot area is inclusive of half the width of each support beam, you need to subtract 4 feet, which leaves 77 feet. The space underneath would not be able to fit five 12-foot lanes and two 10-foot shoulders as you’ve shown here. Either the shoulders would have to be smaller than 10 feet, or there could only be four travel lanes.

I don’t support the freeway project either, but this kind of misinformation is counterproductive and undermines your messaging.

SD
SD
14 days ago

When you realize that the primary goal of ODOT is to spend as much money as possible, it all makes sense.

Michael
Michael
14 days ago
Reply to  SD

It’s a bit of a perverse incentive. There’s Federal money on the table, money that’s available in part from taxation levied against Oregon residents and businesses, so it makes sense in certain ways to try to make use of the money. Otherwise, the money will just be spent out of state and Oregonians will end up subsidizing the freeway system in Alabama or Vermont with “nothing” (other than a transportation authority with a healthier balance sheet) to show for it.

SD
SD
14 days ago
Reply to  Michael

It’s very perverse. Federal funds that will bankrupt Oregonians with higher maintenance costs and all of the harms that come from expanding a freeway are toxic. I have absolutely no FOMO for freeways in the same way that I don’t feel left out for not receiving federal funds for a nuclear waste disposal site.

If ODOT wasn’t run by one-trick dinosaurs, they could compete for federal funds for innovative transportation solutions. Instead, we have banal administrators dangling federal funds in front of gullible legislators while promising to keep doing the things that we know that we should absolutely not keep doing.

Art Lewellan
Art Lewellan
10 days ago
Reply to  SD

Regretfully I conclude existing traffic hazards are made worse but wasn’t recorded in accident ratings, both the number of accidents and their severity; more multi-car pile-ups, more passenger, pedestrian and cyclist injury and fatalities! This project was nothing but a land grab for inappropriate development in a 45+ mph traffic corridor near on/off ramps of I-5 and Sylvan crossing Capitol Hwy. Tri-Met planners are complicit in this regard. 
 
So too, the Rose Quarter I-5 project (as proposed) worsens existing traffic hazards to accommodate poorly located development near I-5 on/off ramps. The recent proposal to relocate the southbound off-ramp from Broadway to Wheeler Way (south of Weidler) is a death trap. The ‘blind’ hairpin turn there will result in an unacceptably high accident rating. So too, retaining the southbound on-ramp at Wheeler Way is absurd. Relocating this ramp to Weidler (as early designs propose) is a safety improvement because it is downhill which gets motorists up to speed more readily, with better visibility and adds distance to conduct the “cross-merge” where entrance traffic must merge left to access I-5 and traffic on I-5 must merge right to access I-84.
I suspect Albina Yards trucking interests pulled strings at ODOT to retain the hazardous southbound on-ramp. 
 
As for the Columbia River I-5 Bridge fiasco, current ODOT director Kris Strickler and Metro Council President Lynn Peterson WsDOT employees were rewarded for their cover-up of what went wrong during project CRC years then holding no agency commission members responsible for inexcusably shoddy engineering…
THANK GOD the SW Corridor land grab did not get the public vote. Inexcusably bad infrastructure engineering roadways first then worsened traffic mayhem. choke. gag.

stephan
stephan
14 days ago
Reply to  Michael

I agree that the incentives are problematic, but ODOT could get federal funds for a Rose Quarter project that does not involve a massive freeway expansion. Such a project could also mean more state funds for other projects, like safety updates, if federal funds won’t fully cover the current Rose Quarter project.

Michael
Michael
14 days ago
Reply to  stephan

100% agree with you, and there’s certainly more at play here than just the availability of Federal grants for a particular type of project. But the fact is that the people running ODOT, including many in the Legislative Assembly and the Governor’s office believe (and not without good reason) that forgoing those Federal grants is politically problematic. Chalk it up to Reason #593 why voting for every office on every ballot is important.

Art Lewellan
Art Lewellan
10 days ago
Reply to  stephan

Stephan, excuse me for requesting an answer or 2 about RQ I-5 some of us call a debacle. But what is it they want? Cheryl Wheeler singstress songsteress “If it were up to me? classic rock n roll.
ODOT plan for I-5 RoseQ is BS, well, a ruse at least worst
impetus for resentment. Let us not resent each other.
Message brought by LOTi amen yes of course…

Art Lewellan
Art Lewellan
10 days ago
Reply to  Art Lewellan

message to U 2 brought by LOTi DESIGN network…

Art Lewellan
Art Lewellan
9 days ago
Reply to  Art Lewellan

Remember Concept #1 a 2008 ODOT plan for Hayden Island?
Well, I approved it instead of Concept D (for duh) access to Hayden Island. Concept #1 was an entrance/exit access ramp from Marine Drive. The latest access road/bridge is similarly from Marine Drive via an eastside location. I’m wondering might Concept #1 be viable?
If not. Why not.

Art Lewellan
Art Lewellan
10 days ago
Reply to  Art Lewellan

Cheryl Wheeler actually sings mostly ballads with acoustic guitar.
Let me rephrase my “ODOT plan is a malignant ruse that hides
its inexcusably dangerous deadly FLAWS.”
Reads better.

Prosecutable felonies:
Reckless endangerment
Negligent homicide
Willful concealment of said flaws
Misdirection of project studies
for predetermined outcomes

Thanx very much 4 putting up with my
probably accurate assessments of
I-5 and Hwy 99W plans these crooks
planning several miles of treescape
clearcut. Near 100 homes and businesses
bulldozed. Lynn is LYING. Dammit!
Kris has too many Ks in his name.

My apologies for my reassessment
of the CRC. I heard the stressed concrete
design got a thumbs down from KBOO. What!
It’s simple, elegant, best view designwork.
Probably least expensive. NEED more
on Hayden Island access.

My earlier 5+4+3 bridge design did
have its merits. There’s no fixing the
ODOT plan for RoseQ. It simply
MUST BE STOPPED!!
The thing to construct first is relocating
the southbound on-ramp from Wheeler
to Weidler. The southbound off-ramp is
also a ruse ODOT knows is NOT possible
NOR advisable if it were.

eawriste
eawriste
14 days ago
Reply to  SD

“If you are paid to fight traffic congestion, it is difficult to imagine a world where congestion is no longer the mortal enemy of transportation systems… Congestion is not only not the enemy. It is our greatest ally.”

Jack
Jack
14 days ago

Worth bearing in mind that the project’s budget is way out of proportion with the project’s stated goals.

– Adding two mostly at-grade lanes for a length of half a mile should cost < $20 million.

– Capping a 6-lane freeway for 2000 feet should cost ~$500 million. (120’x2000’x$2000/sf)

It’s the widening scope beyond 6 lanes that’s driving the project budget.

See Lid I-5’s research on highway covers. $2000/sf is at the upper end. https://lidi5.org/faq/#:~:text=Based%20on%20other%20freeway%20lids,use%20(parks%20or%20buildings).)

Chris I
Chris I
13 days ago
Reply to  Jack

You need to look at the elevation profiles of the area again. Nothing can be added at grade in this area. I-5 goes from bridge to cut to bridge again for that half mile section. Any widening will require significant cutting into the side embankments. And then all of the overpasses have to be rebuilt. And everything has to be built to current standards.

If this widening were easy or cheap, it would have happened already.

Jack
Jack
13 days ago
Reply to  Chris I

Widening a highway by 12 feet on each side by cutting out embankments is easy. Again, tens of millions at most. The cover takes the place of the overpasses, so there are no overpass replacement costs beyond the cost of the cover.

The main cost driver is the width. 80 foot spans require girders that are almost twice as deep as 60 foot spans, meaning the entire existing highway has to be lowered by 2-3 feet. Then the girders themselves cost almost twice as much (per foot) and cover 33% more area. Then add the costs of widening the ROW north and south of the tunnel to accommodate 8-10 lanes.

Art Lewellan
Art Lewellan
9 days ago
Reply to  Chris I

The ONLY salvageable I-5 proposal is to relocate the I-5 southbound Entrance from NE Wheeler Ave to Weidler. Here’s your Hail Mary thoughtful outcome.

Anameofaguy
Anameofaguy
13 days ago

What a dumb take. It’s an interstate. Expansion *will* help climate goals and also reduce local congestion. Fewer jams and backups mean more efficient flow and lower emissions. Less highway connection means fewer people taking the neighborhood streets when the highway is backed up. This should be welcomed.

idlebytes
idlebytes
13 days ago
Reply to  Anameofaguy

Oof talk about a bad take.

Expansion *will* help climate goals and also reduce local congestion.

Nope ODOT themselves have admitted this will not reduce congestion and will only increase throughput. That means more cars going through the same point at the same speeds. All that equals more pollution.

Fewer jams and backups mean more efficient flow and lower emissions.

There won’t be fewer jams because there are other bottlenecks that will create the same congestion. Again more throughput not less congestion.

Less highway connection means fewer people taking the neighborhood streets when the highway is backed up.

Nope it’s been shown in numerous studies that larger freeways increase traffic on surrounding streets. The simple reason why is the greater throughput is achieved by more people driving to the freeway to use it and then exiting it at their destination.

Anameofaguy
Anameofaguy
13 days ago
Reply to  idlebytes

“not reduce congestion and will only increase throughput. That means more cars going through the same point at the same speeds”

That would have to assume more cars or it makes no sense.

“There won’t be fewer jams because there are other bottlenecks that will create the same congestion. Again more throughput not less congestion.”

Aren’t these the same people fighting fixes for those bottlenecks?

“The simple reason why is the greater throughput is achieved by more people driving to the freeway to use it and then exiting it at their destination”

People coming from somewhere, going somewhere. They’re already doing that.

Phil
Phil
13 days ago
Reply to  Anameofaguy

People coming from somewhere, going somewhere. They’re already doing that.

Induced demand – also referred to as latent demand – is the phenomenon that after supply increases, more of a good is consumed. In economic terms, the demand for use of a transportation facility is a function of the overall price to use that facility.

Adding more lanes reduces the price to use the freeway (time). More people using the freeway increases travel times. A new equilibrium is reached where there are now more lanes but just as much congestion.

Watts
Watts
13 days ago
Reply to  Phil

 A new equilibrium is reached where there are now more lanes but just as much congestion.

And more people are having their demand for travel met, which is the whole point of freeways in the first place.

I’m totally opposed to the RQ project, but I am not convinced that adding a lane would “unfill” the facility, or that, if it did, the lesser congestion in that short stretch would “induce” drivers back again. As others have noted, there will still be plenty of bottlenecks controlling throughput in that area.

aquaticko
aquaticko
13 days ago
Reply to  Anameofaguy

Shame we don’t have about 80-100 years of highway expansions proving that the more road you build, the more people drive….Oh, wait.

Anameofaguy
Anameofaguy
13 days ago
Reply to  aquaticko

The issue is we disagree that more driving is bad. There is a need to get places. Expanding the interstates facilitates that. Should we have more public transit? Of course. But as it stands it’s slow, infrequent, unsafe, and gross. metro is wholly incapable of making that happen, so better roads it is

SD
SD
13 days ago
Reply to  Anameofaguy

Why do you want people to waste their lives sitting in cars?
The best way to help people get places is to shrink the distances people need to travel.

Watts
Watts
13 days ago
Reply to  SD

The best way to help people get places is to shrink the distances people need to travel.

I agree, and this is why I have been loudly advocating (so far without much effect) to relocate Mt. Hood closer to the city so that we don’t need to drive as far to ski, hike, and camp.

Please write to the governor and city council to support this effort!

SD
SD
13 days ago
Reply to  Watts

The exception that proves the rule.

Chris I
Chris I
13 days ago
Reply to  Anameofaguy

There are always going to be more cars.