By Ruth Eddy
On a rainy Saturday in October 1966, Governor Mark Hatfield presided over a ceremony celebrating the completion of Interstate-5 through the state of Oregon. Construction of the Marquam Bridge had just finished, the final piece of a 308 mile stretch of a highway that cost $300 million and would prove its role as the economic artery of the state.
Fifty years later, the burden of I-5 has only grown in importance. In 2010, government officials began planning for a project to address safety issues on the freeway, especially around the intersections of I-5, I-405, and I-84. The confluence of these freeways had become a predictable bottleneck for an expanding population. Tasked with finding a solution, the Oregon Department of Transportation proposed a project to add auxiliary lanes to ramps exiting and entering the highway, reducing collisions for cars trying to make quick lane changes. In 2017, the Oregon legislature budgeted another $300 million to complete the updates.
Since then, the estimated cost of the “Rose Quarter Improvement Project” has ballooned to nearly $800 million, and public opposition has grown apace.
Aaron Brown, founder of No More Freeways, along with a coalition of neighborhood and city organizers, is pushing for the Oregon Transportation Commission to instruct ODOT to perform an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project. Since the project got funding three years ago, Brown has been working against it as a labor of love. “This is how I’m choosing to spend my time when we have ten years to solve the climate apocalypse, right? Stopping a massive fossil fuel infrastructure in the backyard of Harriet Tubman middle school. It’s exhausting and pretty demoralizing at times and it’s pretty frustrating to see the ways which this project continues to churn forward.”
ODOT performed an Environmental Assessment (EA) in May 2019, which is required of any project that uses federal funds. “We certainly answered an awful lot of questions that you can see in there”, said Don Hamilton, spokesman for ODOT. “A lot of the cultural issues, air quality, noise issues, a lot of things are in there.” However, Brown and his cohort are asking for even more to be done.
An EIS is a more rigorous evaluation than an EA, and notably requires ODOT to look at a variety of alternatives to the stated plan.
“There are different options that are formally posed, usually five, but not always and one of those options is always the do nothing option,” said Hamilton. The ‘Do Nothing’ option is what opponents of the project are most interested in, but with so many government contracts on the line, it is unlikely.
Still, No More Freeways and other community organizations have made enough noise for government officials to take notice. Governor Kate Brown slowed the process last December when she asked the Oregon Transportation Commission to “table the decision on the environmental review path for a few months.”
An important cohort of voices has been the youth movement against the project from the environmental justice club at Harriet Tubman Middle School to the direct action of Sunrise PDX, the local chapter of a national youth organization focusing on stopping the climate crisis.
The students have stood on the bridge near their school in opposition, stood outside of ODOT offices in the rain, and have spoken many times before a variety of state and local governing bodies to add their opinions to the public record.
Students at Harriet Tubman are already affected by the current amount of traffic that passes dozens of feet from their classroom. The school has a multi-million dollar air filtration system that is tasked with cleaning the fine particulate matter exhausted by thousands of diesel trucks every day. Expanding the capacity of the interstate for even more trucks would spell greater health risks to their students and staff.
Opponents of the project have varying reasons for their objections, with overlapping interests.
For Aaron Brown, ODOT’s safety argument is misguided. He got his start as a transportation advocate as the Board President for Oregon Walks, a pedestrian advocacy organization. “Spent too much time speaking at traffic vigils after traffic fatalities and seeing all these vulnerable people died, because we couldn’t get money for an ODOT crosswalk,” said Brown. Meanwhile, Brown says the section of I-5 in question hasn’t seen a traffic fatality in over a decade.
A large amount of the finances for the project would be used to build caps over the freeway to reconnect parts of the community that were bisected by the original I-5 construction, which is a critical component of the design for the Albina Vision Trust, a community partner in the project. Don Hamilton admits this project will not repair the scars from the devastation in the last half-century but said the caps, “will help improve connections and rebuild and reconnect the two sides of I-5…” Hamilton paused, “…to a certain extent. We can’t fix the damage that was done in the past but we can help improve conditions and circumstances.” ODOT also plans to address this impact by contracting with minority-owned businesses.
However, the current plans for the highway caps would be unable to support the affordable housing and other large structures included in Albina Vision’s idea for the future of our neighborhood. Rukaiyah Adams, chair of Albina Vision, wrote to Governor Kate Brown, “The ground is special. It is a place where the racial inequity of urban renewal came, then came again, and again. Promises were made and broken. Black people and immigrants were displaced. Wealth was taken. The construction of I-5 was central to this unjust history and any future investment in the area should strive to repair the damage done.”
The criticisms of the project point in different directions, but all seem to overlap. Harriet Tubman students are not only concerned about air quality, but as a school where 60% of the students are non-white, the effect on their lungs is also a racial justice issue. One concern rolls into the other and together the project has little support in the neighborhood. Still, it continues on.
The ‘Rose Quarter Improvement Project’ is based in our backyard, but businesses from around the state have connections to the economic artery of our state and the west coast. They stand to benefit from their products moving via freight through our neighborhood efficiently. These large economic interests have made themselves clear to state legislators that approved funding for this project in 2017.
The future is unknown. With elections approaching for Mayor, City Council and Metro positions, the partnership ODOT needs from other government agencies could potentially look very different this time next year. The only thing that seems certain is it is a long road ahead.