Oregon Gov. Kate Brown waded into the fight over widening Interstate 5 through Portland’s Rose Quarter Monday by calling for a new line of study on the $500 million highway project.
She said she wants the Oregon Department of Transportation to spend the next few months figuring out how to design the project – including the possible use of tolls – so that it doesn’t wind up just encouraging more traffic through the oft-congested corridor.
Brown also said in a letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission that she wants officials to figure out how to engineer planned covers over the freeway so they could support buildings over them.
The commission plans to consider Brown’s proposal on Tuesday. Commission Chairman Robert Van Brocklin said in a statement that commissioners “will pay close attention to her recommendation” as it decides how to move forward on the project’s environmental review.
The commission had planned to decide on Tuesday whether to accept ODOT’s environmental assessment or follow the lead of an increasing number of local officials who say the general outlines of the project need more work.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, Metro President Lynn Peterson, Portland Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and others have raised several concerns about the project – including whether it would help knit together the Lower Albina neighborhood that was split by I-5’s construction.
In addition, many activists charge that adding additional lanes on a stretch of the freeway through the Rose Quarter would only contribute to global warming emissions by inducing traffic. Joe Cortright, a Portland economist helping lead the fight against the project, said he was encouraged to hear Brown’s call to study the impact of imposing tolls in the area.
“The idea that you look at road pricing makes sense,” said Cortright, arguing that tolls by themselves could help reduce congestion.
Brown said in her letter that tolling – often known as congestion pricing – “should provide an incentive to utilize other transportation modes and enhance mobility options for low-income commuters and communities of color, and it should also provide certainty for freight haulers. We cannot build our way out of congestion while also reducing emissions consistent with the state’s greenhouse gas emission goals.”
At the same time, Brown called the Rose Quarter project – which would run from roughly the Fremont to Marquam bridges – a “vital infrastructure improvement to a transportation corridor that is of statewide significance.” She called the current configuration involving a maze of intersecting roads a safety hazard.
The Rose Quarter project was one of the big signature projects included in a massive $5.3 billion transportation bill passed by the Legislature in 2017 that includes numerous fees and taxes – and that also called for serious study of congestion pricing.