A new Oregon Department of Transportation report says state leaders need to make a quick decision on placing covers over Interstate 5 near Portland’s Rose Quarter to keep a massive freeway project on track.

The call for decisiveness comes as city and regional officials – as well as activists working to restore the lower Albina community torn apart by the construction of I-5 and other post-World War II urban renewal projects – have been pushing for stronger highway caps that would support new building across the freeway.

Interstate 5 runs through the Rose Quarter in Portland, Oregon, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017.

Interstate 5 runs through the Rose Quarter in Portland, Oregon, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

They say this would help spur plans to develop a vibrant neighborhood in the area near the Moda Center and Memorial Coliseum. At the same time, however, covering portions of I-5 could also significantly increase the cost of a congestion-relief project that already has a skyrocketing price-tag.

A state report on the cost of the I-5 Rose Quarter project says that its estimated price tag has risen from $450 million in 2017 to between $715 million and $795 million. The report also says the cost of more robust covers over the freeway, necessary if new construction will top them, could cost between $200 million and $500 million.  Those numbers were first reported by Willamette Week last month. 

The final version of the report released this week also included language warning that “a final decision regarding the expanded highway covers must be made no later than June” of this year to allow for construction to begin as scheduled in 2023. The Oregon Transportation Commission, and likely state legislators, will have to figure out how to come up with additional money for the project.

Michael Alexander, a board member for the Albina Vision Trust, said he doesn’t know if the push for a quick resolution of the overall shape of the project is a good thing or not.

“The outcome of the decision to me is much more important than the timing of the decision,” said Alexander, former president of the National Urban League’s Portland chapter, whose group has developed ambitious plans for developing the area between the Broadway Bridge and I-5.

Metro President Lynn Peterson has insisted that the I-5 Rose Quarter project shouldn’t move forward without ODOT taking major steps to help knit together the former Albina neighborhood.

In an interview last week, she said she understands the desire by state transportation officials to keep the project moving quickly forward.

“But what they don’t consider as a risk is the risk of not having community ownership” of the project, said Peterson, adding that the failure of widespread support played a big role in sinking the last freeway mega-project in Portland – the $2.8 billion Columbia River Crossing project that died in 2013.

Peterson’s spokesman, Nick Christensen, said Wednesday that Peterson remains focused on “ensuring that there is justice for the community after the injustice of the initial construction of Interstate 5 through the heart of North Portland.”

Dylan Rivera, a spokesperson for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, echoed those sentiments.

“If we needlessly rush into this mega-project, we run the risk of exacerbating those past harms,” said Rivera, adding that taking the extra time if needed makes sense “especially for a once-in-a-lifetime project that will have impacts for generations to come.”

April DeLeon-Galloway, an ODOT spokeswoman for the Rose Quarter project, said the Oregon Transportation Commission will take up the issue at its meeting on Thursday, Jan. 23. At the urging of Gov. Kate Brown, the commission is already looking at various facets of the project, including the plans generated by the Albina Vision Trust.

She said that ODOT officials have also talked with several legislators about the higher costs of the project.

DeLeon-Galloway said the agency plans to hire a consultant to look at the “constructability and feasibility of developing covers that will accommodate multi-story buildings.”

The current ODOT plan for the project shows two highway covers over I-5 that would be designed as open space for “wide sidewalks, separated bicycle lanes, roads, and new community spaces.”

The overall Rose Quarter project includes the addition of new lanes running along a stretch of I-5 between the Marquam Bridge and the junction with Interstate 405 with the aim of making it easier to merge and change lanes. Supporters say this will improve traffic flow. Critics say it will encourage more driving – resulting in more congestion and additional greenhouse gas emissions.