Science & Environment

Portland groups sue to delay I-5 widening, demand study of environmental impacts

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
April 5, 2021 8:05 p.m. Updated: April 5, 2021 9:48 p.m.

Critics say the freeway widening project is bound to increase pollution. Federal agencies say the proposal would have no significant impacts on the environment.

A trio of community advocacy groups are asking a judge to put a controversial freeway widening project near Portland’s Rose Quarter on hold until the Oregon Department of Transportation does a more rigorous review of the environmental impacts.

No More Freeways PDX, a local group opposing the Interstate-5 expansion, joined environmental nonprofit Neighbors for Clean Air and the Eliot Neighborhood Association in a federal lawsuit filed Friday.


The suit argues that when officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration greenlit the project without requiring ODOT to conduct a full environmental impact statement, the agencies violated a host of federal laws — among them the National Environmental Policy Act, a 1970 law requiring federal agencies to consider environmental impacts of a project before making major decisions.

The Rose Quarter project would add additional lanes to a leg of freeway stretching from the Fremont Bridge to the Interstate 84 interchange. The Oregon Department of Transportation says the project, now estimated to cost $800 million, is necessary to relieve congestion in the city. Critics say it will just do the opposite, bringing more cars onto the freeway and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Last summer, a slew of proponents pulled their support, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and the Albina Vision Trust, a Black-led group pushing to reestablish the Lower Albina area, once the center of the city’s Black community.

Traffic rumbles by on Interstate 5 near the back of Portland’s Harriet Tubman Middle School.

Traffic rumbles by on Interstate 5 near the back of Portland’s Harriet Tubman Middle School.

Jeff Mapes / OPB


At the time, Portland leaders said the state agency had not been forthcoming about with local officials about plans for the project. Organizers said Monday the agency hasn’t been upfront about the downstream environmental impacts, either.

“The public has every right to know the impacts this proposed freeway expansion would have on our neighborhood streets, on the lungs of our children, and the planet they stand to inherit,” said Aaron Brown, an organizer with No More Freeways in a statement. “This lawsuit is our mechanism to try to force ODOT to answer to the community’s concerns.”

Instead of conducting a full environmental impact statement, ODOT conducted a simpler environmental review. Based on that review, the federal agencies determined in October that the freeway widening project would not have significant impacts on the environment.

In a statement released Monday, the state agency said it believes the initial assessment should be sufficient to assuage any environmental concerns.

“This project underwent a robust environmental assessment that showed future air quality would improve in part due to the congestion relief provided by this project. Those findings were reviewed and confirmed by a panel of national air quality and transportation experts,” the statement read. “We are confident in the findings.”

The lawsuit argues the assessment was flawed, failing to consider how increasing the width of the highway could lead to increased demand and, ultimately, more congestion. With this information taken into account, the group argues the freeway expansion, which would encroach on Harriet Tubman Middle School in the Rose Quarter, is consequential enough to warrant the full environmental review.

“The Project will jeopardize the safety of children and staff at the Harriet Tubman middle school by widening the highway immediately adjacent to the school and increasing the capacity of the highway to accommodate greater traffic loads,” the suit states. “That traffic will, in turn, increase air pollution and greenhouse gases.”

The groups are asking a judge to delay the project until a full environmental impact statement is completed - a process Brown estimates could take years.


Related Stories