Freeway Expansion Plan Drafted – Eliot in Crosshairs?

This column has described the NE Quadrant Planning process over the past 20 months of Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) meetings.  That portion of the Central City Plan is nearing its end with the SAC’s adoption of the Facility Plan.  The process has been driven by the desire of ODOT to expand I-5 between I-405 and I-84 and PDOT’s hope of leveraging federal freeway dollars for surface street improvements.  Because the City’s hope depends on federal money, this hope has always been a house of cards and remains so.

The SAC process has been one of the better ones in my experience.  The freeway option the SAC supports is the least intrusive of nearly 100 considered.  The surface street improvements selected will create the foundation for a vibrant urban neighborhood that is more convenient and safer for cars, bikes, and pedestrians.  It will be an environment that is more likely to develop in ways that enhances life in Eliot.  However, if the City’s dreams are not realized, it could be a disaster for Eliot.  The only thing preventing that is trust that the City will honor its commitments to Eliot.  While the State and City staff working on the project are sincere, the State and the City have a poor record keeping their word to Eliot.  Accordingly, the Eliot Land Use Committee voted to oppose the draft plan.

The vote in favor of the plan passed 13-3, with Eliot being joined in opposition by the Irvington Community Association (ICA) and a health advocate stakeholder.  All of the public testimony also opposed the plan.  Our position statement is posted on the web site.

This is the I-5 Broadway/Weidler Plan that was adopted:

I-5 Broadway/Weidler Interchange Improvements

This snapshot doesn’t show the freeway changes (numbers 1 and 2), all of which are in the existing right-of-way and will convert the current freeway bank into a vertical wall. Broadway and Weidler, Vancouver and Williams will function much as they do today; however south bound freeway traffic on Broadway and Broadway traffic north bound to Williams will be directed to a new 2-way Williams overcrossing (5) that will also include bike and pedestrian improvements.  In Eliot, the Flint overpass will be eliminated and traffic diverted onto Tillamook.  The Vancouver overpass will remain, but it will join a new overpass connecting Hancock to North Dixon across I-5 (7).  The proposal anticipates that the freeway will be capped with a “lid” extending from Weidler to north of Hancock (3 and 4 and as noted).

Eliot’s concerns focus on the cut-through traffic the Hancock/Dixon overcrossing and Flint/Tillamook diversion will generate.  Connecting Hancock is intended to create a Broadway bypass that is of particular interest to truckers.  It will also provide a new commute route for employees in Lower Albina so they can bypass current congestion on Interstate.  Finally, the east end of Hancock only allows right turns onto MLK south.  Vehicles who want to go north on MLK or further east will detour to Tillamook.  Increased cut-through traffic will destroy the residential character of Eliot and undermine its character as a Historic District.  This is why Eliot opposed the entire Facility Plan.

The City has “promised” that traffic barriers, diverters, and calming measures (speed bumps on Tillamook) will accompany these changes, however, that is dependent on there being sufficient funds and that the City honors its commitment rather than selling Eliot down the river to favor trucking and commuter interests.  Those interests have always been more important to PDOT than Eliot, which is why we oppose this plan.  Frankly, we don’t trust PDOT or future City government and we have almost 70 years of experience to justify that lack of trust.

This draft Plan will proceed through public hearings, where if reaction to the news stories is any indication, it will generate overwhelming support.  As a result, we may have to live with it, so I will summarize the good and bad elements.  First the good:

It is a Plan.  Transportation planning is a team sport, because all State and City projects draw on the same funds, mostly federal and state gas taxes.  This plan will serve multiple transportation planning purposes.  Traffic studies will be required for any redevelopment in the Rose Quarter/Blanchard areas.  This plan will support those shortening review time.

The surface street, bike, and pedestrian plans are good.  Eliot and other stakeholders believe these should be funded regardless.  Should funding be found, or our views prevail, there is a plan ready to implement that already has stakeholder support.

The Plan includes a commitment to protect Eliot against cut through traffic.

The freeway plan is also a good plan, if you accept the premise it is needed.  It is the least intrusive, disruptive, and costly of all reasonable options.

The proposal for freeway lids with buildings on them is a good idea and a first for Oregon.  The freeway lids are envisioned as extensions of the existing street grid across the freeway which would all but disappear with the I-5 divide replaced with lively shops and offices.

Eliot would be more directly connected to redevelopment west of I-5 and along Broadway.  Once completed, the project will stimulate redevelopment that will provide new employers and services for Eliot residents.

Improved circulation should encourage more Lloyd District commerce, resulting in more employment and services for Eliot residences.

More employment and commerce will increase Eliot property values.

Now the bad (all of which is described in our letter in opposition on the web page):

Transportation plans take on a life of their own.  As a joint ODOT/PDOT plan this one will assume additional credibility despite neighborhood opposition.

The “good” things (surface street improvements, lids, “connectedness”) depend on federal funds as an essential part of a freeway expansion project, which may not sell in the current Republican and deficit cutting environment.

No street improvements without federal freeway funds, says the City staff.

Even with freeway funds, the City staff and Council in place at the time may not honor the commitments made by those in place today.

A long delay for engineering, financing, and construction will needlessly delay redevelopment anticipated from the new streetcar route for 8 to 10 years.

Construction will result in disruption of traffic access to the area and the loss of at least two buildings/businesses.

Construction will result in job and business losses from the Broadway Bridge to Lloyd Center.  All major construction projects impose hardships on existing businesses and residents resulting in layoffs and bankruptcies.

If cut-through traffic is not prevented, historic Eliot will wither away and significant history will be lost.

The claimed benefits of the freeway expansion aren’t worth the cost.

In summary, there are many risks to Eliot.  There are many potential benefits to freeway commuters and the City as a whole, but few for specifically for Eliot and its residents.  Historically, the City has always chosen the “civic good” over protecting Eliot.