This week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown broke the stalemate over what direction the Interstate 5 Rose Quarter Project will head in by recommending the Oregon Transportation Commission move forward under hybrid option 3.
This version of the project is one of several proposed by the Oregon Department of Transportation. It would see the state spend more than $1 billion to renovate and “cap” I-5 through the Rose Quarter section.
The cap would essentially make this stretch of the freeway into a tunnel, on top of which light development could take place for buildings of up to three stories. Capping the freeway would also let planners reconfigure much of the streetscape to allow for better pedestrian and bike access.
The project would also add one auxiliary lane in each direction and improve access ramps between I-84 and I-405 to reduce accidents and improve traffic flow through the area.
Stakeholders such as Albina Vision Trust say that consensus between local groups, the city of Portland, Multnomah County and Metro has been steadfast for a project that prioritizes capping the freeway entirely and providing new development opportunities for the community.
But gaining support from the state and ODOT to pursue their vision hasn’t been quite as easy.
Advocates have pushed for a project that reconnects the former Albina District’s streetscape that was torn apart by the construction of I-5 in the ‘60s. Until Brown’s announcement this week, it seemed as though stakeholders were deadlocked with ODOT on how to proceed.
Brown is calling the decision to move forward under hybrid option 3 a “win-win” compromise for everyone involved, but climate activists remain unsold that adding lanes won’t increase the number of vehicles on the road, thereby increasing the amount of carbon emissions.
She spoke to OPB Wednesday about her decision to intervene and refocus the project’s intent on repairing the historic harm caused by the development of this freeway and providing opportunity for restorative justice.
OPB: We heard that you might have been initially leaning toward an option that wouldn’t entirely cap the freeway, how did you land on this compromise to go with hybrid 3 and what specifically tilted the scales?
Brown: It’s fair to say that this wasn’t an easy conversation. When the I-5 project was originally developed, this not only tore apart the community, the Albina community, it tore apart families, and we are dealing with that level of mistrust to this day. I think it was about making sure that we could get everybody in agreement on the values that we held for the project, as well as making sure that everyone was in agreement about the outcomes that we wanted.
OPB: How does this iteration of the project help the state meet its climate goals? Can you explain how climate change impacted your decision?
Brown: This project, hybrid number 3, will allow us to address the safety and congestion concerns that are part of I-5 right now. This Rose Quarter is currently a pinch point. It is one of the worst congestion points on the I-5 corridor. It is also, frankly, one of the most unsafe, and it’s critically important we address those issues with the hybrid number 3 scenario. We’re able to move forward on our bicycle and pedestrian options, and we’re able to implement the auxiliary lanes to reduce congestion and increase safety.
As you are well aware, the state continues to move forward in many ways to reduce emissions, including our efforts to electrify cars, buses, vehicles and trucks and transitioning to lower carbon fuels, as well as our efforts to accelerate congestion pricing, which helps reduce vehicle miles traveled.
OPB: Some stakeholders have expressed concerns over a gap in funding from what was originally budgeted to where the project is looking like it’s headed now, and what the state might get out of the federal infrastructure package. Do you have concerns about this? And what assurances have you received from Oregon’s federal delegation?
Brown: Our federal partners are certainly aware of this conversation, and it’s going to take all of us working together— city, Metro, county, state and federal partners, along with our community partners — to ensure that we can receive additional federal dollars for this project. I was fortunate enough to have multiple conversations with (U.S. Transportation) Secretary Pete Buttigieg about this particular issue and project.
What I knew was, if we didn’t get to consensus on the project, that it would be very very difficult for our federal partners to invest. Now that we have what I think is a consensus on an incredibly important project, I think we can all work together and we can all link arms to seek additional federal assistance. I know that the Biden-Harris administration is absolutely committed to investing in projects that repair the harms of the past and restore our communities, particularly our communities of color that have been damaged by these projects. So I’m confident that we will get solid support from the Biden Harris administration, and I know that we have an amazing federal delegation that’s going to step up and ensure that Oregon gets its fair share of transportation resources to help build out this particular project.
OPB: Do you think that the project could have moved forward in this way if you had not stepped in? How does your intervention change the dynamic of how ODOT continues to work with stakeholder groups?
Brown: There’s absolutely no question that what was needed here was a thoughtful collaborative process that included community engagement. What I will say is that was the hope when ODOT created both the Historic Albina Advisory Board (HAAB), as well as the Community Oversight Advisory Committee (COAC). And clearly, it wasn’t enough. I felt strongly that this project was incredibly important to the state. It has to be a project that repairs, revitalizes and restores the community to the extent that’s possible. As well as, we wanted to make sure that we kept the contracting agreements in place. So, with a lot of hard work, with a lot of compromise, and a lot of time and energy, we were able to reach a consensus. I’m really pleased we were able to make that happen.
OPB: How do you anticipate this decision and the way in which the project moves forward will impact your relationship with Oregon’s Black community? Do you think the project is heading in a direction that allows for healing?
Brown: Absolutely. But again, we’re talking about both historic trauma and current trauma. And I think folks, at least those that I’ve spoken with, are really clear that I am committed as the CEO of the state that this project has to be a part of not repeating the historic wrongs caused by the displacement of black families and the resulting generational damage. So, repairing these harms is certainly a shared responsibility. The state obviously bears a significant portion of that. But obviously there are other governmental entities that do as well, and racial justice has to be the centering principle of the project.
It’s not just the Rose Quarter project itself. We are continuing conversations about Harriet Tubman Middle School. I think it’s absolutely critical that we find a path forward, that we work with parents and community members to identify a possible new location for the school, and what a move would look like. Obviously, the state needs to be part of that conversation, but certainly community members, particularly voices from the Albina community, need to be the center of that conversation.
OPB: Are you able to share whether there have been sites thrown around in preliminary discussions of where the middle school might be moved?
Brown: I’ll just say that I’ve reached out to both the city and county to help us identify potential sites, and I’ve certainly had conversations with Portland Public Schools board members. I know they’re also looking to identify sites, but it needs to be a collaborative effort that centers voices of the community members moving forward.
OPB: What is your office doing to ensure that those voices are heard and this restorative justice piece isn’t lost as the project moves forward?
Brown: We would not have arrived at this place without the work of the Historic Albina Advisory Board, the Community Oversight Advisory Committee and Executive Steering Committee. They played an incredibly important role, and I see these community led processes as instrumental to moving the conversation forward. I expect and I hope that they will continue their work to supplement the project design work that’s happening at the technical level.
I’ve been clear to community partners, local governments and, frankly, to the state and ODOT team, that I fully expect restorative justice and racial equity to be the center of this conversation. I’m certainly conveying that very strong message to the Oregon Transportation Commission as well. The good news is that we can do restorative justice and tackle climate change at the same time. This project can be a model for the country.