The Oregon Transportation Commission on Tuesday gave a bright green light toward completing the controversial Interstate 5 widening project in Portland’s Rose Quarter.
The influential commission unanimously agreed that Oregon Department of Transportation won’t conduct a more rigorous level of review – a full environmental impact statement –that could have delayed construction by another two years past the scheduled 2023 start date.
Commissioners said an environmental assessment that’s already been conducted, plus a further review of air pollution issues, is sufficient.
“There’s been plenty of public input and public participation,” said Commissioner Martin Callery, a retired Coos Bay port official. “We need to move this project forward.”
Aaron Brown, a leader of No More Freeways PDX, charged that the Oregon Department of Transportation has “continued to deceive the public” about the project’s impact on air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and traffic safety benefits. And he said that transportation officials are wary of a more far-reaching study of the project.
“They do not want to spend two years letting us dig around in those numbers,” Brown said.
The project was designed to relieve what officials describe as the state’s worst freeway bottleneck. It’s a stretch on the inner east side of Portland where I-5 merges with two other interstates, 405 and 84.. It includes new lanes aimed at reducing crashes while making it easier for motorists to merge on and off the highways.
At the direction of Gov. Kate Brown, commission members have worked over the last several months to tamp down rising concerns and outright opposition to the project.
In particular, commissioners have tried to reach accommodation with officials from Metro, the Portland area’s regional government, and the City of Portland, as well as with the leaders of the Albina Vision Trust. That’s the group seeking to rebuild the largely African-American lower Albina neighborhood that was decimated in the early 1960s by the original construction of I-5 and other urban renewal projects.
Among other things, ODOT says it will hire independent experts to look at how to build more robust caps over portions of the freeway that could accommodate multi-story buildings.
That’s been a major concern of the Albina Trust, which wants to develop the area and better connect it to the neighborhoods on the east side of I-5. The agency has also brought in Steven Holt, a consultant and pastor, who has been involved in a number of community projects in the area. He will help work with the Albina trust and others on the project.
“We’ve got an incredible opportunity to do something meaningful and something right,” Holt told the commission.
Metro Council President Lynn Peterson, who has long called for a full environmental impact statement, said after the commission vote that she was disappointed by the decision. But she added in a statement that she was “appreciative of ODOT’s willingness to expand the scope of their environmental assessment to address the issues Metro has been flagging up to this point.”
Peterson last week joined several other local officials in sending a letter to the transportation commission laying out several steps it can take to ensure the freeway expansion better fits into the area.
Winta Johannes, the managing director of the Albina Vision Trust, also said she was disappointed there would not be a full environmental impact report. But she said she is pleased at several ODOT actions, including the formation of a steering committee for the project that includes officials from the trust and several local governments.
“At the end of this, we have to keep our eye on, what is it that we actually want to see,” she said.
Bob Van Brocklin, a Portland lawyer who chairs the commission, said he wants to “send a strong message to our partners that we are fully engaged and involved in the entire discussion, not just a narrow discussion” of the freeway itself.
In addition to creating better road and pedestrian links across the freeway, Van Brocklin said ODOT is also committed to establishing tolling in the Rose Quarter area to help manage rush-hour traffic. As part of that, the commission on Thursday approved $10 million on designing the framework of the system.
The estimated cost of the project has steadily escalated, from an initial price-tag of $450 million in 2017 to a current estimate of $715 million to $795 million. Building more robust caps over the freeway could easily drive the cost to more than $1 billion.
Brown, of No More Freeways PDX, predicted that ODOT will continue to struggle with costs, and he questioned whether it would be able to keep its promises to local partners.