After two-year stoppage, Portland ready to work on I-5 Rose Quarter project

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.

“This is a big step.”

– Jo Ann Hardesty, commissioner

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.

“The concessions that have been made around the highway cover design and the width of the freeway itself have all been important.”

– Winta Yohannes, Albina Vision Trust

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.

James Posey testifying at the meeting.

“[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.

Chris Smith testifying at the meeting.

“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.”

“Induced demand only matters if you’re creating an induced demand for carbon-based vehicles that pollute.”

– Ted Wheeler, Mayor

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.

Activists wary as City of Portland plans vote to re-start work on I-5 Rose Quarter project

I-5 at the Rose Quarter in Portland.

After years of back and forth between the City of Portland and the Oregon Department of Transportation on the plan to widen I-5 at the Rose Quarter in Portland, a negotiation may be back on the table. At today’s Portland City Council meeting, the city will adopt an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with ODOT to provide the state transportation agency with planning and design services for the controversial project.

In July 2020, the Portland City Council, led by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and then-Portland Bureau of Transportation head Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, pulled all support for the Rose Quarter expansion and directed all city staff to cease working on the project. A few months later, the city entirely split from ODOT on this project. Eudaly wrote a letter to the Federal Highway Administration which said they were taking this unprecedented step because the project is “not aligned with the values of the city as articulated in [the Central City 2035 plan], Racial Equity Plan or Climate Emergency Resolution.”

With their updated plan for the expansion, some advocates feel ODOT has sufficiently addressed the equity concerns. But climate activists have not been satiated, and they’re calling on the city to call off their participation until ODOT shows they’re serious about tackling the climate emergency.

“The agreement coming to City Council is a big step for PBOT and the city. It marks a turning point for the project.”

– Dylan Rivera, PBOT

Activists have been concerned about the freeway expansion’s impact on the surrounding Albina area, which consists of historically Black neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland that were decimated when I-5 was constructed in the 1960s. The nonprofit group Albina Vision Trust (AVT), formed in 2017 to advocate for restoring the Albina area, has put pressure on ODOT to ensure the expansion won’t recreate the past damage.

While AVT pulled support for the Rose Quarter project in 2020, they rejoined the conversation last year after Oregon Governor Kate Brown stepped in to orchestrate a compromise that would require ODOT to cap the freeway enough to create a street grid over I-5. AVT’s primary goal has been ensuring a robust cap system over the Rose Quarter freeway to create opportunities for Albina neighborhood restoration. Now that ODOT has provided capping plans they find sufficient, AVT is back on board, and the city is following behind.

Current PBOT Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty also signed on in support of this design (dubbed “Hybrid 3”) earlier this year, previewing this PBOT/ODOT Rose Quarter reconciliation.

The expansion and cap design AVT approved of.

Other freeway fighting groups, however, are still not pleased, and they’re asking the city to hold off on adopting an IGA with ODOT until they can more sufficiently leverage their power. Climate activists from groups like No More Freeways (NMF) say adding lanes to the freeway will encourage more driving and increase greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. Right now, ODOT is planning a potential road use pricing plan on I-5 in addition to the lane expansion. But climate activists say ODOT is being wishy-washy on pricing, and they could manage congestion simply by adding road use fee requirements to disincentivize single passenger vehicle trips – no freeway expansion needed.

A June 20 letter to Portland City Council from NMF as well as Allan Rudwick of the Eliot Neighborhood Association and Mary Peveto from Neighbors for Clean Air asks Council to rethink adopting the IGA with ODOT until they analyze a pricing-only alternative to lane expansion. They cite the city of Portland’s Climate Emergency Declaration, adopted two years ago, as evidence moving forward with the project is in opposition with Council’s own goals.

“We are disappointed that the City is not using its leverage in returning to the table for this project to ensure accountability for the climate and environmental impacts of highway expansion,” the letter reads. “ODOT’s position on the timing of road pricing is plainly at odds with adopted city policy.”

Anti-freeway activists want ODOT to complete a lengthy Environmental Impact Statement of the expansion that meets their standards, which the state does not want to do. But they must comply with an environmental analysis requirement from the feds, which has set the timeline for this project back. According to a Council document outlining details of the IGA, the city will not be required to play a large role in the federal environmental review, but will “have an opportunity to review the supplemental environmental assessment” and provide comment to the state and the Federal Highway Administration on the results.

This could be an opportunity for the city to make requests of ODOT local climate activists are asking for.

“We urge you to withdraw the IGA from today’s agenda and renegotiate it to include a commitment to a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) including analysis of a pricing-only alternative,” the letter from NMF reads. “Anything less is willful neglect of your self-declared climate obligations and your duty to the community to ensure accountability for all the impacts of freeway expansion.”

“We urge you to withdraw the IGA from today’s agenda and renegotiate it.”

– No More Freeways

Portland Bureau of Transportation Public Information Officer Dylan Rivera told BikePortland via email this agreement is “a big step” for the bureau and the City of Portland.

“It marks a turning point for the project, enabled by the Hybrid 3 option that Commissioner Hardesty negotiated for the city in talks directly with the governor, regional leaders and community partners in the last year,” Rivera writes. “Everyone agrees that pricing is essential and that it is expected to be in place before the opening of the Rose Quarter project. With the agreement in place, the City will be able to engage and advocate for appropriate environmental study. Since Hybrid 3 is a new option, it requires a re-evaluation of the environmental assessment that ODOT did on the project.”

While the state could theoretically move forward with the project without city involvement, it would be a lot easier for ODOT if they could form a united front.

“At this time, the City of Portland’s participation is crucial to ensure a successful project that stays accountable to the commitments the State has made, and to ensure the interests and values of the City of Portland are represented,” the IGA ordinance impact statement says.

Given the widely-publicized controversy the Rose Quarter expansion project has attracted, it’s hard to imagine this IGA will slip under the radar without a hitch. Stay tuned for details about how the City Council discussion plays out today.