The Oregon Transportation Commission, seeking to bolster support for its controversial Interstate 5 widening project in Portland, on Thursday promised to do more to study numerous environmental and social concerns raised by local officials and critics.
But the commission put off until March a decision on whether to conduct a more intensive environmental review of the project.
And the panel also didn’t act on calls from regional, county and city officials to give them a decision-making role in the design of the project, which has skyrocketed in cost since it was approved by the Oregon Legislature in 2017.
“We’re in a listening mode,” said commission chair Robert Van Brocklin after hearing local officials make their pitch for more control over the shape of the project. “We’re certainly listening to what they have to say.”
Elected officials from Metro, the City of Portland and Multnomah County told commissioners in a meeting in Lake Oswego that the Oregon Department of Transportation — commonly known as ODOT — has not focused enough on the impact to the nearby community of what’s viewed officially as a congestion-relief project.
Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who runs the city’s transportation bureau, said she is hopeful the agency is starting to take local concerns more seriously.
But, she added that “there is simply no way forward without partnering with community leaders and a broad range of leaders.”
“We never envisioned ODOT taking shortcuts to a decision and a design,” added Metro Council President Lynn Peterson.
“The risks to those shortcuts are now playing out.”
The cost of the project, initially estimated at $450 million, has now climbed as high as $800 million, according to a new ODOT projection.
And that estimate doesn’t include some key elements sought by local elected officials.
Most notably, they’ve backed a drive by local African American leaders to build more extensive covers over the freeway to help them recreate the lower Albina neighborhood that was devastated by the original construction of I-5 and other urban renewal projects.
They say these covers could help knit the neighborhoods on each side of the freeway back together, particularly if the covers are strong enough to support multi-story buildings.
And they want ODOT to do more to protect the Harriet Tubman Middle School, which backs up on the freeway. Michael Alexander is one of the leaders of the Albina Vision Trust, which has developed plans to revitalize the area.
“We represent voices of the historic Albina community, and voices of conscience throughout our region who believe that future investment should help restore that historic harm,” Alexander said.
The commission agreed to more extensively study highway covers and take another look at noise and air quality concerns.
In addition, the commission said it would establish additional advisory committees and study moving more quickly on establishing congestion pricing — a form of tolling aimed at reducing traffic during the busiest times.
The commission also heard from several critics of the project who said it would only exacerbate climate change by making space for more vehicles.
But Van Brocklin reiterated after the meeting that any attempt to pull back on the project would have to be made by legislators and Gov. Kate Brown.
The project, running roughly from the Interstate 405 to just north of the Marquam Bridge, would add several auxiliary lanes aimed at making it easier to merge. ODOT also hopes it would reduce the large number of crashes in the area.
The current plan calls for construction to begin in 2023 and end in 2027. If the commission decided to do a full environmental impact statement, that timeline could be delayed.