Some harsh words were spoken about the legacy and impact of I-5 through the Rose Quarter at a Portland City Council meeting Wednesday. But for a project that has withstood years of stinging criticism and controversy, the overall tone was downright collegial.
At one point, the leader of Albina Vision Trust, a nonprofit that walked away from the project in 2020 said, “This is a family reunion.”
After two years of keeping their distance from the contentious I-5 Rose Quarter project — a project that would expand the freeway between I-84 and the Fremont Bridge, build a highway cover and update surface streets — Portland City Council made it clear they’re ready to join forces with the Oregon Department of Transportation to move it forward.
As commissioner-in-charge of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, Jo Ann Hardesty had to walk a fine line in her introductory remarks. Just two years ago, the project was so out-of-step with Portland’s values that Commissioner Hardesty’s predecessor took the unprecedented step of issuing a formal stop work order. The project has also faced stiff opposition from people who don’t trust ODOT and who fear any new capacity on I-5 will create more driving and move us in the wrong direction in the battle with climate change.
On Wednesday’s agenda was the first reading of an ordinance that would reverse the 2020 order and enter the City of Portland into an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with ODOT so the state can pay nearly $5 million for PBOT planning work related to the project.
Hardesty’s comments struck a tone of indignation with ODOT’s legacy and past decisions around I-5, and at the same time painted her agency’s work as a major win.
“The Black community bore the burdens of this highway and the city’s failed urban renewal efforts. Instead of a neighborhood we have a trench filled with inhospitable highway traffic and pollution. All this for the sake of making it easier for people who live further away,” she said.
Left to their own devices, Hardesty said ODOT would have added even more lanes to the freeway and would have made the same mistakes over again. “The City of Portland stopped that plan,” she continued. “Today I’m proposing that the City of Portland come back to the I-5 Rose Quarter project. This is a big step.”
Hardesty gave her bureau a lot of credit, but she didn’t mention that it was the work of activists like Sunrise PDX and No More Freeways who pushed the Overton window and helped create space for elected officials like her and the more conservative advocacy group Albina Vision Trust to force ODOT into compromises.
PBOT says they’re back at the table, not only due to the deal forged by Governor Kate Brown last August, but because ODOT has committed to several promises. According to Hardesty, ODOT will: use congestion pricing to manage traffic and reduce emissions, move Harriet Tubman Middle School away from the freeway, work closely with Albina Vision Trust (AVT), and award construction contracts to Black-owned firms.
“[These construction contracts are an] opportunity to make our community whole… to build economic capacity for black people. That’s huge as far as I’m concerned.”– James Posey
James Posey is co-founder of the National Association of Minority Contractors of Oregon and was invited to testify in support of the project. Posey, also a member of the project’s Community Oversight Advisory Committee, said despite ODOT’s “historical problems” the agency has “bent over backwards” to do things right this time around. Posey called the construction contracts an “opportunity to make our community whole” and a way to “build economic capacity for black people.” “That’s huge as far as I’m concerned.”
AVT Executive Director Winta Yohannes credited the City of Portland for standing up to ODOT. “Because of the city’s clear and decisive action, the community did not get steamrolled,” she said. “The concessions that have been made around the highway cover design and the width of the freeway itself have all been important.”
When public testimony began, the glowing reviews ended.
“We have allowed climate justice to be pitted against racial justice. In the long run, we can’t win if we allow those two things to be put in opposition to each other.”– Chris Smith, No More Freeways
No More Freeways co-founder Chris Smith testified that he is supportive of the highway cover and surface street improvements, but not the wider freeway:
“We are both celebrating and mourning today. We’re celebrating the achievement of our friends at Albina Vision and the HAAB [Historic Albina Advisory Board, convened by ODOT]… But we’re mourning the missed opportunity on climate. Your own climate emergency declaration says that we should consider pricing solutions before widening freeways. ODOT has deliberately manipulated the process so we will do it in the other direction. We will program the expansion and then we’ll talk about pricing.”
Every (non-council member) speaker at Wednesday’s meeting who spoke in favor of the project was Black and everyone who opposed it (just two people) was white.
Smith, who is white, was the only person to address this when he said, “What’s happened here is we have allowed climate justice to be pitted against racial justice. In the long run, we can’t win if we allow those two things to be put in opposition to each other.”
Terrence Hayes put a fine point on this dynamic. He testified as an employee of Black-owned Raimore Construction who said his job allowed him to recently purchase his first home. “I see that there’s a lot of different concerns and those concerns are fair. I think the city needs to also take climate and all those things into consideration. But when we talk about the black community — the community that was more affected by that original redlining than anybody else — we have to hear from folks from that community.”
After public testimony, councilors discussed the ordinance.
Commissioner Mingus Mapps said he wanted to hear more about how to answer the many environmental concerns he’s received from constituents. ODOT and PBOT staff answered by outlining their efforts on congestion pricing.
ODOT Urban Mobility Office Director Brendan Finn said they hope to have an I-5 pricing system up and running in the Portland region by the end of 2025. Then he appeared to misspeak when he said pricing would happen, “prior to the construction… or prior to the completion of the construction of the project.”
That gets at the heart of Chris Smith’s comments that ODOT is doing this backwards. “We could cap the existing freeway and manage the congestion with pricing, and get the same benefits while dramatically reducing the negative impacts and probably save money in the process,” Smith said. He wants Council to pause, renegotiate the IGA and do a full analysis of the pricing-first strategy.
Given the tone of comments Wednesday, that seems very unlikely. And given a comment by Mayor Ted Wheeler, more cars on wider freeways isn’t necessarily bad for climate change.
Toward the end of the meeting, Mayor Wheeler said the only analysis he’d like to see is how many people will be driving “zero emission vehicles” in the future. “Somebody raised during public testimony the issue of induced demand… but my question is demand for what kind of vehicles?… I’d like to know what the assumptions are for zero emissions transportation, because induced demand only matters if you’re creating an induced demand for carbon-based vehicles that pollute,” he said.
Wheeler is dead wrong. Emissions are just one of many ways cars pollute and have a negative impact on our city, but that’s a post for another day.
For now, the ordinance will come back next week for a vote. If it passes, the agreement will be in place for two years. At that time, project staff must return to City Council to make the case that ODOT has kept its promises.