Growing Oregon: The battle over the Westside Bypass — and the future of how we get around

By OPB staff (OPB)
Aug. 5, 2022 12 p.m.

This month, OPB launched a special project: Growing Oregon. It’s a deep dive into the history of Oregon’s unique approach to managing its land and the impact that the growth system has on all of our lives, every single day.

OPB senior political reporter Jeff Mapes has spent more than a year reporting, writing and producing this podcast and web series, and we encourage you to read and listen to the entire thing. But we also know you’re busy. So for each installment, we’ll offer a boiled-down version designed to make you feel a little smarter about why Oregon is the way it is and, we hope, whet your appetite to go deeper.


This week: The battle over the Westside Bypass

For a period after World War II, highways seemed like the ultimate tool for achieving the American dream.

Builders were turning farms and forests all over the country into suburbia, and residents needed new roads to get them there.

Especially popular by the 1980s: Beltways, or loop roads, that were supposed to help long-distance travelers avoid center city congestion. They’d make it easier to get to all those new jobs and homes in the suburbs.

By then, Oregon and Washington leaders had built half of a beltway — Interstate 205 — through the Portland area’s east-side suburbs and into Clark County. And a lot of influential people wanted to complete the circle around the entire Metro area.

A map of Portland showing major freeways and a proposed corridor for a route connecting I-5 and Hwy-26 in the western outskirts of the city.

The above map is based on a 1988 study showing the planned corridor for a new freeway on the western fringes of urban Washington County. Known as the Westside Bypass, it would have run from Interstate 5 in Tualatin to Hillsboro and the Sunset Highway. The freeway was killed before an exact route was determined.

MacGregor Campbell / OPB

The Westside Bypass

One part of that dream road would start at Interstate 5 near Tualatin and run on the edge of suburbia to Hillsboro and the Sunset Freeway. It was called the Westside Bypass and had gained big momentum by the late 1980s.

Builders, Washington County leaders and state transportation officials loved the idea.


One problem: Opponents said it flew in the face of Oregon’s system of growth controls.

The loyal opposition

Since Oregon lawmakers created the state’s land use laws in the early 1970s, activists, government leaders and interest groups have fought on how to interpret the rules. And critics of the Westside Bypass thought they could use the new system to stop the freeway.

1,000 Friends of Oregon, a watchdog group formed to fight for a tough system, got involved. The group went to court, saying that local and state leaders needed to prove the bypass fit Oregon’s land use goals.

It wasn’t enough to just say traffic demand justified a new freeway. Under Oregon’s growth system, you also have to look at other factors — like whether a new road would endanger farmland.

1000 Friends won the first round of court battles. And they produced a massive study showing how Washington County could foster new kinds of development that would help reduce the need to drive so much in the fast-growing suburbs.

Some of the ideas have influenced development in Washington County. But many of the proposals — like charging solo commuters to park at their workplaces — were never adopted.

But support for the Westside Bypass ebbed, to the point that the project was officially killed in 1997.

The highway dream hasn’t died for many: Legislators periodically introduce bills to revive some sort of freeway on the west side.

The freeway fight leads to new transportation rules

In the wake of the Westside Bypass fight, the Department of Land Conservation and Development developed new rules aimed at laying out how planners should think about transportation projects.

The new rules said cities in Oregon should work to provide more transportation options and reduce how much people drive on average. The initial targets — calling for an eventual reduction of 20 percent in vehicle miles traveled — were watered down. And reducing heavy auto reliance has been challenging.

But Oregon’s growth management system has appeared to help keep us from driving as much as in much of the country. On average, residents in the Portland area drive about 23% fewer miles than people do in other large metropolitan regions.

Next week: In the almost 50 years since Oregon adopted its unique land use system, property owners and builders have tried repeatedly to gut it. The stiffest challenge came with the seemingly unlikeliest of champions, a little old lady named Dorothy English.