After years of wrangling, the Oregon Transportation Commission has granted conditional approval for a plan to widen Interstate 5 through Portland’s Rose Quarter corridor. The original funding was approved by the Oregon Legislature in 2017. The newest plan includes “caps” over the freeway to enable some redevelopment of the former Albina district, the historically Black neighborhood that I-5 destroyed when the highway was initially constructed. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about how all this will work, and where the money will come from. We dig into the details with Oregon Transportation Commission Chair Bob Van Brocklin and OTC Vice Chair Alando Simpson.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with the latest on the proposed expansion of I-5 in Portland’s Rose Quarter. In case you’ve missed it, this has turned into a real saga. Four years ago, the Oregon legislature included money for the highway expansion in its statewide transportation bill. At the time, the Oregon Department of Transportation said that this project would cost about $450 million. Critics lined up immediately. They talked about climate justice and fears of increased greenhouse gas and diesel emissions. They talked about the agency’s shameful history of destroying huge swaths of Black neighborhoods with its earlier projects. And they talked about specific fears of air quality for students at the Harriet Tubman Middle School, which is right above the freeway. Earlier this month, the Oregon Transportation Commission, which oversees ODOT, voted unanimously to move forward with one particular design plan. But the project now has a much bigger price tag, as high as $1.4 billion, which leads to a new question: Where might that money come from? I’m joined now by Bob Van Brocklin, chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission, and Alando Simpson, vice chair of the OTC. It’s good to have both of you on the show.
Guests: Thanks for having us, Dave.
Miller: Bob Van Brocklin first, as I noted in my intro, you voted unanimously a couple weeks ago to move forward with this plan, but it’s far from being a done deal right now. Just can you outline for us what has to happen before this project could actually involve shovels?
Bob Van Brocklin: So what we ended up doing at our September 9 meeting was approving a motion which supported the, what we’re calling the Hybrid 3 design, which is the design you’ve mentioned, with a couple of conditions. One [condition is] related to having a funding plan and seeking to get enough funding to do the project. As you mentioned, the cost is significantly higher with this option, the Hybrid 3. And second, by the end of next year, to have done an additional set of actions related to ensuring that we had looked carefully at what the new design would mean in terms of diversity and environmental impact, if any, and what intergovernmental agreements would need to occur and a range of things. We had five or six things we wanted to make sure were done during this immediate time frame of the next year.
Miller: Alando Simpson, what are the funding sources and ballpark amounts that seem possible right now? I know this is what you’re asking to get information about, but from the sense you’ve gotten, how might this money be cobbled together?
Alando Simpson: Thanks Dave. Appreciate the question. To be honest, that is really still to be determined. The state obviously would play a role in that and obviously the federal government would need to play a role in that. We’re all aware historically that the federal government played an instrumental role in infrastructure and their piece of the pie was a lot larger than it is these days. So, given that that is a real reality now, we’re just trying to figure out how to meet that shortfall. And so trying to engage and incorporate a collective, positive relationship with our other local partners and agencies to see how we can make this concept a reality is going to be our main motivation now.
Miller: Bob Van Brocklin, caps were always going to be a part of this project. But now it seems like they’re being singled out as one of the biggest reasons for the project’s ballooning budget. From, as I mentioned, 450 million to 1.2 or maybe 1.4 billion depending on how high you can build above the tunnel or the cap. But how much of that increase is because of ODOT’s initial assumptions and the faultiness of those initial assumptions?
Van Brocklin: So, simply put, when House Bill 2017, which is the funding bill the legislature enacted at the 2017 legislative session, was passed and signed into law by the governor, part of what the legislature did was ask for an initial estimate. That was before either Alando or I were on the commission.. well, before I was on the commission; Alando was on it. And that was the $450 to $500 million you referred to earlier. There was also in the bill a requirement that there’d be an updated cost estimate which would be delivered to the Transportation Commission in January of 2020. When that estimate was done, it showed that there were a few failures in the initial estimate and that the actual number was closer to $750 than $500 -- I’m just gonna use round numbers here -- somewhere between $700 and $800 million rather than $450 to $500 [million]. And one of the primary things that was missing from the original estimate was taking into account inflation. So the actual estimate that we had that we were working with, based on the prior design that we were considering, was in the $700 to $800 million range rather than the 450 to 500.
Miller: How can you not include inflation in something like this? It just seems like a flabbergasting mistake.
Van Brocklin: Well, it’s a good question and I’d love to be able to answer it, but I wasn’t on the commission and I wasn’t involved in House Bill 2017. Maybe Alando has some perspective on that, but I don’t think the commission was really engaged at all in that. Is that true?
Simpson: Yeah, the commission wasn’t. I mean, I’m not an engineer by trade and so it’s not my expertise..
Miller: But I guess the reason I bring this up is because it’s one of many pieces here, a huge one, that calls into question the competence and the believability of what we’re hearing. I mean, if something so basic as something like inflation leading to a near doubling of a project’s cost seems to have been just a mistake here, how can the public trust the people behind this project?
Van Brocklin: I guess my answer to that, Dave, would be that my understanding, since I’ve joined the commission, was that at that time there was a lot of pressure to get that bill through the legislature. And the cost estimate, I believe, came relatively late in the process and I suspect was somewhat rushed. The January 2020 updated cost estimate -- which was required in the bill, so they anticipated having to look at it again -- ODOT was able to spend substantially more time on it. So I think that it’s a little bit apples and oranges. The initial cost estimate, I believe was done quickly and obviously not correctly..
Miller: Well, if that was apples and oranges, we now have a grapefruit or a watermelon, with 1.2 to 1.4 [billion].. I don’t want to spend this whole limited time we have just on the money because there are so many other issues. So let me move to another one. A lot of advocacy groups and elected leaders were unsatisfied with the environmental assessment of the previous version of this project and instead called for the more rigorous version of an inquiry: an environmental impact statement. The analysis that ODOT did do, looked at essentially two scenarios, if I understand this correctly: what would happen if we build out the highway and actually do this expansion or don’t do it? The no-build scenario, i.e. the status quo, was tied to a seemingly alternate universe where the Columbia River Crossing, I-5 bridge project, happened. That never happened. But that was the assumption built into the traffic figures for this inquiry. That’s one of the elements of that inquiry which is why critics say it was faulty. In addition to not taking into account, for example, induced demand. So, Bob Van Brocklin, will you call for a full environmental impact statement for this new iteration?
Van Brocklin: Well, we haven’t discussed that as a commission. We put the condition forward as part of this motion we passed two weeks ago and we’re going to need to have more discussion about how to complete all of these elements.
Miller: But why not? This is something that elected officials -- so many of the biggest names in the Portland area and at the state level -- called for more than a year ago saying, do this more robust inquiry. Why not just call for it?
Van Brocklin: Well, one reason not to call for it is that, when we did the initial environmental assessment, we went through.. First of all, this is all compliance with federal law. The law is the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA. NEPA sets out guidelines for determining whether to pursue an EA or an EIS, which are the two avenues, as you said. It sets forth a technical analysis that needs to be done to determine whether to pursue one or the other. ODOT did that technical analysis and also was in consultation with the lead federal agency which ultimately has to make a decision on whether or not the NEPA standard was met. That was the Federal Highway Administration at USDOT and they agreed with the conclusion that was reached from that technical analysis, which was that an EA was all that was necessary and so that went forward and…
Miller: What you’re talking about there is that there is no evidence that I have seen that the agency or the Transportation Commission have not followed federal law. And I don’t mean to imply that. So let me put it to you this way: Based on some of the things that have come out from critics and from calls for public documents, do you still yourself have faith in the assessment that was done by the agency or have any of the reporting that’s come out in the last two years, has it for you called into question the the accuracy of that assessment?
Van Brocklin: Well, the way I’d answer that is, not only was there the process which led to a finding of no significant impact by the US Department of Transportation, but there was a separate environmental report that was commissioned by ODOT from a very prominent environmental firm here in Portland [Metro] Region, and one that I’m familiar with from my law practice. I read that report. There were no other technical reports submitted by anyone. There were a lot of assertions, but there was no evidentiary kind of submissions. And the third thing is, a year and a half ago, in January of 2020, I asked for a peer review and we had a group of national environmental experts that came in and reviewed all of that analysis to determine whether we were missing something.
Miller: If I understand correctly, some members of that peer review panel now are saying that they didn’t investigate or poke or question the assumptions behind the numbers provided by ODOT. Instead they took those numbers as a given, including for example, what I mentioned earlier, that the numbers for the no-build scenario are about a world where we have a new bridge over the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. A bridge which obviously didn’t happen, which is why some critics call into question the entire premise of the numbers that had been looked at. I want to move on to other issues here because there are a lot of other things here.
Van Brocklin: If I can just say one other thing, we are now pursuing the interstate bridge again. So it’s on the table.
Miller: Yes, that is absolutely true, but it’s also a fact that it doesn’t exist yet. It is a project that may or may not happen at some point in the future.
Alando Simpson, there’s been a lot of talk about economic and restorative justice and racial justice as tied to this project. Let’s say that the funding comes together and this project goes forward. What impact do you think that a few new buildings and a few newly connected streets, just north of the Moda Center, would have on Portland’s Black community?
Simpson: You know what? I’m not sure because a few buildings is not a lot, as it pertains to restorative justice and economic empowerment or economic development in the Black community in particular. I think what it is, it’s a catalyst. And that was the whole goal initially, in starting these processes and getting all the stakeholders involved on the front end, was that we’re not going to have a perfect process here, we’re not going to solve every problem in society, or every problem that exists in the Black community for that matter. However, with the public investment of this scale, we can use it not only as a catalyst to rebuild the community that was severed generations ago, but we can more importantly use it as a model of how you actually can use public, private, philanthropic investment models in order to achieve restorative justice and social equity. And I am a firm believer that Portland can be the innovator of that for the rest of this country.
Miller: Acknowledging that ODOT’s actions, along with decisions by city and state leaders, directly led to the destruction of huge swaths of Black neighborhoods. It doesn’t necessarily mean that an ODOT project is the best way to fix those problems. I mean, if you had say $400 or $450 million dollars in public funding to redress racist development policies and to help Black Portlanders, would your top priority be adding a few acres of buildable land just north of the Moda Center?
Simpson: Well, that’s a good question. You started alluding to, I guess the questioning around the need for environmental impact and I have a reservation of trying to understand the environmental benefit of living on top of a freeway. And so I wouldn’t necessarily say that that is the golden key, for lack of a better term, in terms of achieving these outcomes. But if those resources were handy, to me personally, I think the process that the department and the agency has stood up in terms of engaging community stakeholders from the historical Black community, that represent the community, that currently live in the community, that have been displaced from the community, be leaders and spokespeople for what they feel is in the best interests of their future is key. And so I wouldn’t be in a position to answer that question adequately because we haven’t actually worked through our processes yet adequately without their having the room and space to have these true genuine deliberations with the community at hand. So, to me, I would leave it to the community to decide how they would see what would be best fit to invest capital of that scale, to foster more beneficial, prosperous impacts for the Black community.
Miller: Let me see if I understand what you’re saying correctly, that this wouldn’t be necessarily your first choice for addressing racial equity and trying to reverse decades of historical racism in Portland, the best use, say, for $450 million. But, if an ODOT project to add two lanes or potentially more lanes to I-5 here is going to happen, this is a better way for it to happen. Is that a fair way to shorten what you just said?
Simpson: I think it’s a start. Like I said, I don’t think it’s going to get to the end game in which the community is asking for, which is genuine long term restorative justice. But I think, if we have these types of resources that have been approved and are statutorily available to the community to utilize, as you would say, like an equity injection to a longer play in a bigger vision for this particular part of the region, I would say it’s definitely a good start in the right direction.
Miller: Bob Van Brocklin, just briefly, the governor has said that Tubman Middle School should move now regardless of what happens with I-5. Does that fit into the project that you’re talking about?
Van Brocklin: The governor is conferring with Portland Public Schools currently, in a separate conversation, about Tubman. We’re very supportive as an agency, but I view that as a separate discussion. And I think the governor does.
Miller: Bob Van Brocklin and Alando Simpson, thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.
Van Brocklin: Thank you very much, Dave.
Simpson: Thanks, Dave. Happy Friday.
Miller: Yeah, I forgot that. Happy Friday. Alando Simpson is the CEO of City of Roses Disposal and Recycling; he’s the vice chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission. Bob Van Brocklin is a lawyer at Stoel Rives, the chair of the OTC.
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