Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and an influential community group pulled their support from the Interstate 5 Rose Quarter project Tuesday, delivering a huge political hit to the embattled freeway widening project.

Wheeler, Eudaly and the Albina Vision Trust, a Black-led group seeking to reestablish a thriving community in the Lower Albina area, all accused the Oregon Department of Transportation of trying to bull forward on the $800 million project without getting meaningful input from local partners.

Winta Yohannes, the managing director of the vision trust, said Gov. Kate Brown and state transportation leaders promised just before the start of the year to “re-set” the project to take local concerns into account. In particular, the trust was seeking more robust covers that would allow development over the newly rebuilt freeway.

“What we’ve found seven months later is that the project is virtually the same,” said Yohannes, adding that “we’re no longer engaging with ODOT on this project.”

Eudaly, who oversees the city’s transportation bureau, said she was always skeptical of the project but hoped that the freeway work could provide new connections over I-5 to help restore a community — once the center of the city’s African-American community — torn apart by the original construction of I-5 in the 1960s.  She said in a statement that ODOT “did not seem to grasp the concept of restorative justice” and that this “is the wrong project for our city.”

Wheeler followed by announcing on Twitter that he would also resign from the project steering committee and withdraw his support.

ODOT officials responded with a written statement from Brendan Finn, the agency’s urban mobility office director: “We’ve actively working to address our partners’ concerns, there is clearly more work to do, and we will be part of the solution moving forward,” he wrote. “… As we move forward, we hope to engage our partners in further discussion to earn the community’s trust — not through words but through actions.” 

The Rose Quarter project has run into a series of hurdles since the Legislature called for it in a 2017 transportation bill that included several provisions aimed at reducing traffic congestion in the Portland area.  The Rose Quarter work would add additional lanes along a stretch of freeway from the Fremont Bridge to the Interstate 84 interchange.

Originally budgeted at $450 million, the highway expansion is now estimated to cost between $725 million and $795 million. Inflation and more robust caps over the freeway could easily drive the cost above $1 billion. This comes at a time when the pandemic has reduced gas-tax revenues, putting a big hole in the state transportation agency’s budget.

At the same time, there has been rising opposition to the project from climate activists who say any traffic improvements will only encourage more auto traffic and worsen emissions. The project has also become a bigger issue in political campaigns, with Eudaly’s fall opponent, Mingus Mapps, declaring months ago that he opposed the project. Wheeler’s fall challenger, Sarah Iannarone, has also been a vocal opponent.