The Oregon Transportation Commission has agreed to temporarily delay a final environmental decision on a controversial plan to widen Interstate 5 through Portland’s Rose Quarter after Gov. Kate Brown and other elected leaders demanded more study of potential impacts.
Commissioners agreed Tuesday to come up with a to-do list based on Brown’s demands while postponing a decision on whether to require any additional environmental reviews of the proposed $500 million freeway project. They’ll debate what comes next in January.
Brown said in a Monday letter to the commission that she wants them to study how potential congestion pricing tolls could impact the project. She also wants transportation officials to move quickly on figuring out the cost of putting stronger covers over some below-ground-level portions of the freeway. That could potentially allow buildings on top of the highway and help connect the neighborhoods on either side of I-5 at the Rose Quarter.
Still, it was clear that there is strong sentiment on the five-member commission for moving forward with the project – which proponents see as a key to reducing some of the area’s worst congestion, and that critics see as encouraging more driving that will only increase climate-changing emissions.
"We are required to design and build the project," said commission Chairman Robert Van Brocklin, noting that legislators mandated it as part of the $5.3 billion transportation package they adopted in 2017.
Commissioner Alando Simpson added that working with a wide variety of groups, “we can achieve something that is transformational, that’ll be a model for the 21st Century."
While commissioners met in Lebanon, Brown told reporters in a telephone press availability Tuesday morning that she wanted to make sure that transportation officials were weighing the concerns of Portland officials and community groups.
Brown’s call to consider the impact of congestion pricing on the project raised questions about whether she was buying into the argument made by opponents that putting tolls on part of the freeway could solve the congestion problems.
“I don’t know at this point” whether tolls by themselves would greatly ease congestion, the governor said. And in her letter to the commission, she called the project a “vital infrastructure improvement." She told reporters that “it’s critically important that we work with all of our partners collaboratively to get this done.”
In particular, that may involve calling on ODOT to do more work around the freeway to provide better connections between the Rose Quarter area and the neighborhood on the other side of I-5.
A group called the Albina Vision Alliance has been working to revitalize the area around the Rose Quarter with the idea of restoring a historically African-American neighborhood that was decimated by the construction of I-5 and urban renewal.
Commissioners said they also want to work with Portland Public Schools to address concerns involving Harriett Tubman School, which sits next to I-5 and could face such problems as additional air pollution if the freeway is widened.
Although the commission met in Lebanon, a Willamette Valley city 80 miles from Portland, the meeting room was filled with Portland-area activists there to protest on both sides of the widening proposal.
Youthful activists from Sunrise Movement PDX pleaded with commissioners to kill the project as a way to help curb climate change.
“Sunrise PDX supports investing in green jobs for all workers,” said Eaton Cook, an arts teacher. “If we commit to building a livable future there will be an abundance of jobs in retiring fossil-fuels infrastructure.”
Larry Anderson, a retired Portland police officer, was among many black residents who told the commission that the freeway widening project could provide an economic boost to the community because ODOT has set strong goals for hiring people of color and female contractors.
“If we have living wage jobs, if we’re able to participate in developing capital through these kinds of projects,” Anderson said, “we can clean up our own neighborhood.”
Van Brocklin said he wants the additional study items to be wrapped up by the end of March.
In the meantime, the commission will hold up making any decisions on how to move forward on the environmental review of the project. ODOT has finished an environmental assessment, but critics want the agency to conduct a more extensive environmental impact statement.
The commissioners also agreed to create an equity and mobility advisory committee that will study the impact of tolling on freeways in the Portland area.
Among other things, the panel will look at transportation alternatives, the impact of tolling on low-income residents and communities of color, and how neighborhoods will be affected if traffic is diverted from freeways.