The Human Cost of the I-5 Widening Project

The State and Regional governments renewed their commitment to the community destroying I-5 project by accepting the Transportation Department’s (ODOT) Environmental Assessment (EA).  To recap, ODOT, with the support of State leaders, intends to increase travel lanes in the Rose Quarter to eliminate the current lane-change bottleneck.  ODOT has tried to justify a project likely to cost a Billion dollars (!) for multiple reasons but has settled on “accident prevention.”  In so doing it can claim the additional lanes will not increase traffic volumes or speeds.  What it will do is make it easier for truck traffic from Lower Albina to merge onto I-5 and for all trucks to switch lanes to and from I-84 and I-405.  In other words, they claim commuters won’t benefit from time savings but lane changers will have fewer accidents.  Most of these claims have been either proven false or dependent on false assumptions.

To proceed with the project ODOT needed to address environmental impacts.  The National Environmental Protection Act requires an “impact statement” but allows for an Environmental Assessment (EA) instead of the larger, more detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) IF the impacts are not considered to have a long-term or large-scale impact.  Be recasting the project as “accident prevention,” ODOT justified the use of the EA process and was able to claim the project wouldn’t make anything worse, including human impacts from pollution changes.  That assumes the new ramps, overpasses, and lanes do not increase traffic.  As noted, the primary beneficiaries of the project will be the railroad and trucking firms and warehouses in Lower Albina, which will surely increase the use of the new ramps, overpasses, and lanes and increase pollution, mostly diesel pollution.  Support of the project by State leaders continues their willingness to favor trucking interests over the human costs of this project and existing pollution on the local neighborhoods. 

The EA ignores any public health, economic, or social welfare impacts on Eliot and other N/NE neighborhoods.  This is despite the fact pollution impacts on Tubman school have been at the forefront of the debate over the project.  Those impacts extend beyond Tubman to the entire area.  The impacts of air pollution on health are well known.  Simply stated, it makes you less healthy every day and shortens your life.  Many compare it to being a heavy smoker.  Being sicker and living shorter is bad enough, but there are corollary, but oft-overlooked, impacts on intelligence and therefore future economic welfare and future income for area residents.  Recent research confirms intelligence in infants is significantly reduced from pollution but also indicates these effects are persistent resulting in poor performance on tests and higher rates of dementia.  In other words, pollution from the current freeway and future growth in vehicle traffic will directly lead to area children of all ages having lower IQs and lower test scores resulting in limited access to higher education and higher-paying jobs.  And, for those who are no longer children, there is a higher risk of dementia.  For reference see “The Impact of Exposure to Air Pollution on Cognitive Performance,” The impact of exposure to air pollution on cognitive performance | PNAS.

As noted at the outset, pollution impacts weren’t unknown.  Instead, they were knowingly ignored.  A fact noted by ODOT’s hand-picked Peer Reviewers.

The Review Panel noted two issues for further exploration, though not required for the EA. First, diesel particulate matter (DPM) was briefly presented in the technical report and EA, and analysis showed a negligible reduction in DPM emissions associated with the Build Alternative compared to the No-Build Alternative. DPM is a substantive health concern for communities near transportation facilities where diesel engines operate. The report should highlight DPM instead of, or in addition to, benzene or formaldehyde as a key measure of health impact. Second, when the construction plan is put together, careful attention needs to be given to the impacts of potential truck re-routing on the neighborhood streets and air quality in terms of DPM.

In other words, ODOT ignored diesel pollution and the increase of it and other pollution from trucks certain to use the new lanes and ramps.  Also, the project will remove the existing Flint overpass, which is a major route for parents and buses to Tubman and bikes and pedestrians going downtown.  It is planned to be replaced by a new overpass that connects Hancock to Lower Albina.  This will provide trucks with a way to bypass Broadway and the I-5 ramps by going through South Eliot’s historic area.  Naturally, the increased traffic on Hancock will expose more residents to diesel exhaust, and the loss of the Flint overpass will make it less safe for bikes and pedestrians. 

The bottom line is that it is all but certain this project will make the lives of area residents worse today and reduce their future prospects and incomes.  It will also reduce the livability of South Eliot and increase the danger to pedestrians and bike commuters.  ODOT’s current strategy is to get “community buy-in” by hand-picking supporters in the Black community so it can argue it has “community” support.  It should be noted ODOT tried this twice already and was unable to get noted Black and other neighborhood leaders to support the project.  Almost every representative organization in N/NE Portland is on record in opposition to the project.  ODOT and State leaders are clearly favoring trucking industry donors over citizens. 

One parting note.  The City of Portland has consistently opposed the project due to community opposition and is to be commended.  It is also about to propose a carbon tax to address climate change.  While addressing future impacts the changing climate is certain to have, it seems more appropriate to me for the City to focus on present environmental damage and address the pollution from the railroad, trucking, and warehousing in Lower Albina that is currently damaging the health of N/NE residents and their future.  That is a clear and present danger, not one decades in the future.