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.
By Ruth Eddy
The Oregon Department Of Transportation’s (ODOT) plans to expand I-5 in our neighborhood are not moving at highway speeds. The reshaping of an asphalt landscape is slow. The big machinery that digs the dirt is quiet, the bureaucratic gears of planning and design are fully in motion, with three significant meetings occurring in the last few months.
First, the Oregon Transportation Committee (OTC) met on April 2nd to make a decision that had been delayed since December at Governor Brown’s request. At the end of the three-hour meeting, which was held on Zoom and live-streamed for the public on YouTube, the five-member board voted unanimously to move forward into a design phase on the I-5 Rose Quarter Project without completing an Environmental Impact Statement
In response to the forward motion set by the OTC, the project’s Executive Steering Committee (ESC) had its first Zoom meeting on May 22nd to set a framework by which to make future decisions about the project. The 16 members of the ESC were led by facilitator Dr. Steven Holt. Half of nearly two-hour-long meeting was dedicated to introductions. Dr. Holt asked each of the members to answer the question, “What does restorative justice mean to you?” The answers varied in detail but addressed similar themes. Marlon Holmes answered succinctly, “Calling on a community to address ills or wrongs committed against that community, and with the perpetrators addressing how those ills and wrongs have affected the community.”
A week later, on May 28th, the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) held its second meeting, also on Zoom. According to Megan Chanel, the Rose Quarter Project manager, the project design was approximately 15% completed and CAC would advise all further work. “Think of it as we’ve brought the sandbox, but we need your help in burying some sand helping us build the sandcastle,” Chanel said.
Christopher John O’Connor, one of 24 members on the committee, believed the metaphor to be overly optimistic and offered his own saying, “The house has been built, we know how many bathrooms there’s going to be, we know what the general layout is, we’re going to be discussing… what color to paint it.”
Another member of the committee, Liz Fouther-Branch, expressed frustration with the obtuse language used to describe components of the project. Fouther-Branch said, “We need to be able to go back to our communities and speak to them in plain English about what the benefits are, what the impacts are. Breaking down the transportation language into community language so that you can build that trust in community.”
The CAC will meet again on Tuesday, June 23, 5:30-7:30. The next ESC meeting has not yet been scheduled, but all meetings are open to the public and archived on ODOT’s Youtube page.
How I-5 was planned and built through Eliot in the 1950s and why we should not widen it
At a recent meeting, my Co-chair, Jimmy Wilson, asked me a pertinent question: “Where were white folks standing when Interstate-5 (I-5) was run through North Portland in the 1950’s?” I decided to dig through archives to find out, visiting the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) website and then spending a significant amount of time on the Oregonian’s historical archive (found through Multnomah County Library). I also tried to find some other local news sources like the Northwest Clarion but unless I go find someone with an extensive microfilm archive and dig through it manually I don’t think I would find anything.
In Northeast Portland, the intersection of Urban Renewal policies and Freeway Construction Policies combined to remove the heart of the Black community’s housing stock (over 800 units from the Eliot area alone) between 1955 and 1970. The Eliot and Lower Albina neighborhoods were decimated to make room for I-5, but even larger pieces were removed to make Memorial Coliseum and its parking lots. Later, Emanuel Hospital’s expansion dreams and the I-405 off-ramps removed even more of the community’s buildings and dislocated its people.
I was struck by the sheer pace of highway planning and construction during the late 1950’s through the Portland region. Planning or construction of all of the highways we now know within 5 miles of Eliot happened within 5 years. The roadway engineers had a seemingly limitless budget during those days, and they had tremendous power to reshape the city as well. They knew that highways became clogged with cars a few years after they were constructed through a process we now call “induced demand.” The highway engineers knew that I-84 (“the Banfield Freeway”) would soon become congested and had plans for a “Fremont Expressway” taking an east-west route through Northeast Portland and another “Mount Hood Freeway” taking an east-west route through Southeast Portland. Those routes will never be built, and from what I can tell, many of the existing highways should not have either. Uprisings over the removal of so many housing units prevented the later highways from being built, but not before Eliot and North Portland received the scar of I-5. These routes have served to increase the geographic footprint of our region and helped make everything more quickly accessible by car. In doing so, these highways have also increased the dependence on the car for transportation throughout our region, increased the average distance of trips and increased the basic cost of living of citizens of the Portland Metropolitan Region.
The Interstate System was funded through the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 which authorized $25 Billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of the Interstate Highway system over a supposedly 10-year period. In the act, a Highway Trust Fund was created that paid for 90% of highway construction costs. This meant that state highway engineers could dream up huge plans and only needed a 10% match from local governments to build highways. This amazing subsidy may have helped highway builders of the time become desensitized to the value of the buildings they were destroying in the name of “progress.”
I found that there were other options considered for the “Minnesota Freeway” that we now know as I-5 from I-405 to the Washington border. However, the main other option was the “Delaware Freeway,” a route more along N Greeley and N Delaware Avenues, one which would have removed slightly more houses and been slightly more expensive to construct. This option would still have taken the same path through the Eliot Neighborhood. The opposition to the Minnesota option was disorganized and didn’t coalesce around one specific alternative, which contributed to it being ignored. There was a bridge built at N. Ainsworth across the highway to mollify the principal of Ockley Green School, which would have had its district separated by the highway had that bridge not been built. To this day N. Ainsworth is one of the calmest places to cross I-5 in north Portland.
After this research, I thought to myself, okay, what about the section of highway that actually runs through Eliot? It turns out that this was a bit challenging to find out about because it was actually considered a part of the “East Bank Freeway” even though this stretch between I-84 and N. Russell Street was not along the river. This route may have been chosen by planners at the City of Portland signing off on plans prepared by the Oregon Department of Transportation. From the news of the day, it appears that the people living and working on the east side of the river were not substantially consulted in the process, even though hundreds of families would be displaced for the highway project. The first mention of this highway running through Eliot in The Oregonian was from January 1959, and in February and March there were some articles talking about the number of buildings to be torn down. At one point they were referred to as “Ancient Buildings.” By December, the right of way had been cleared. This is unbelievable to me: Less than 6 months from the first timely public mention of the highway going through this area to the mayor approving the demolition, and 12 months from the first mention of the highway to complete demolition. A cursory note of the design of the Broadway, Williams, Weidler, Flint and Vancouver overpasses was made, as was a note that 29 other streets would be “terminated” or turned into dead ends.
During the demolition process, salvagers would pay prices as low as $5 for the right to salvage parts out of houses that would be demolished for the East Bank Freeway Route. One hundred and eighty households with 400 people were displaced by one count; another count I read included 250 households. Is it possible that those with the power to demolish buildings might not have been particularly concerned with those they were displacing? To me, this is obviously the case. One article I read talked about the shocking record of non-litigation by homeowners on the route. Either property owners thought they were getting a fair deal by the Oregon Department of Transportation, or they had no leverage in the courts to make it worth the legal troubles.
With the power of hindsight, we do not have to repeat the mistakes of the past. ODOT is planning to widen I-5 underneath the 5-bridge intersection we now have around Broadway, Weidler, Vancouver, Williams and Flint Avenues. During the 1960s, there were a series of highway revolts across the country, resulting in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1959 governing roadway construction. As a result of this, the current proposal by ODOT to widen I-5 around the Broadway/Weidler Interchange, rebuild all of the roads that cross the highway, and provide some minor and questionably valuable “ community benefits” has been in the planning and engineering process for the past 10 years. During the time since the planning process started, the process of “approving” this project has been orchestrated in a way that no elected body has had a simple vote on whether they wanted to build this project or not. There have been several votes about what type of environmental review process to do, about whether we want to pass a huge transportation funding bill including this project, and about whether to approve buying land for the right of way of the project. However, no politicians have ever been asked to vote on whether to actually build this project.
The project is not particularly popular. Roughly 90% of the public comments about the project have been in opposition to building it, including the Eliot Neighborhood Association’s comments at every step of the way. The effects of highway construction are generally worst for those that live and spend their lives closest to the freeway. The local residents are subjected to detours, construction noise and pollution during the construction process. In addition, after project completion, the increased traffic on local streets and the highway will make quality of life for those living around the project worse. That increased traffic is all but guaranteed while widening highways. There is a nearly 1-to-1 relationship between the number of highway lane miles and traffic, whatever name you give to the lanes that you are building. If we look closer at what “local benefits” the project would have, we can see that just tweaking the street grid above the highway will have minor impacts at best. A new pedestrian crossing between Winning Way and NE Clackamas street was intended to be an asset, but highway planners have put such a curve in it that it will not shorten any journeys with its meandering path above a noisy highway. The Hancock-Dixon overpass will not substantially connect streets that are not served with the current Flint overpass we have now. Even the new “public spaces” created by the project will be small and triangular, possibly the site of camping since no accommodation for productive buildings on them is being made.
The only real change the project would make to the surrounding area would be widening the highway, a car-capacity increase that will barely change travel times through the area. It would also serve to put more cars into our local street network, which has led to renderings showing even wider streets through the area than we have now. This would increase road noise and reduce the value of land around the project area. Although trumpeted as a “traffic and safety project” it serves neither. Safety on other ODOT-managed streets is a much higher priority than in this corridor, which has not seen any deaths in a decade. Only congestion pricing has proved to improve traffic in urban environments, and we should be pursuing that sort of system instead of putting down more concrete.
Before this project started, drawings of how to reconstruct I-5 in a wider configuration with “minimal” impacts to traffic above were generated. This project has always been about a wider I-5 through the Broadway interchange, and everything else is just window dressing. It is not too late. Any benefits this project might have could be achieved at a much lower cost through other means. We can still stop this $800 million boondoggle, which is clearly a continuation of the shameful history of highway construction in Portland’s inner neighborhoods. It is not too late.
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.
The future of Eliot was hotly debated during the NE Quadrant (NEQ) plan process with most of the NE neighborhood representatives opposing widening I-5, replacement of the overpasses with “lids,” and the Hancock overcrossing. The NEQ increased allowed building height and density along Broadway and in the area across Broadway from the Rose Quarter. City Planners believe the new lid and Hancock extension will “reconnect” Eliot to a new “Pearl District East” development across Broadway from the Rose Quarter and along Broadway on Eliot’s southern edge.
The recently adopted NE Quadrant Plan (a part of the Central City and Comprehensive Plans) was conducted in cooperation with the Transportation offices of the State (ODOT) and City (PDOT) to coordinate ODOT’s plans to expand capacity on I-5 through the Rose Quarter and the I-5 ramps with PDOT’s plans for the area between at Broadway/Weidler, an area known as “the Box”.