Courtesy of Lynn Peterson for Metro President

The head of Portland’s regional government on Tuesday pushed the state to make major changes to the planned $500 million freeway project in Portland’s Rose Quarter area.

Metro Chairwoman Lynn Peterson said the current design fails to re-knit the fabric of a neighborhood torn apart by the construction of Interstate 5 more than five decades ago. In particular, she said the project should have a much more robust set of caps over the freeway than the Oregon Department of Transportation currently envisions.

“It would be a win-win if we could actually get that lid to start to work to reconnect the two sides of Portland at the Rose Quarter,” Peterson said in an interview with OPB. Her agency coordinates transportation planning in the Portland region.

The state transportation department has been pressing forward on the freeway improvement project. It would add new lanes along a mile-long stretch of road where three interstates converge. It’s one of three major freeway projects aimed at reducing congestion — the others are on Highway 217 and Interstate 205 — that were included in a huge transportation bill approved by the Legislature in 2017.

Since then, opponents have raised a flurry of objections, saying the Rose Quarter project will do little to ease congestion and that the money could be better spent elsewhere. They unsuccessfully urged ODOT to extend its Monday deadline for comments on an environmental assessment on the project.

Peterson was one of several influential figures who came forward in recent days to instead talk about improving the freeway plan so that it provides a jump-start for an ambitious proposal to revamp the neighborhood around the Rose Quarter.

Leaders of the Albina Vision Trust are seeking to build a diverse, affordable neighborhood in an area that once housed much of the city’s African American population before it was decimated by construction of the freeway and urban renewal.

“It is our collective responsibility,” Peterson wrote in a letter commenting on ODOT’s environmental report, “to address these wrongs through a community-centered approach to project development to help limit further harm and provide new opportunities for healing and growth.”

The staff of Metro also wrote a longer letter to ODOT questioning several conclusions in the environmental report. Among other things, the Metro staff said it’s “not objectively true and is potentially misleading,” when ODOT claims it is not a freeway expansion project.

Peterson, who previously headed the Washington State Department of Transportation, shied away from talking about transportation aspects of the project. But she said the Metro Council wanted to weigh in on the freeway project’s failure to do much for the surrounding community.

“If you can imagine walking through the Rose Quarter now and nothing being different,” she said, “that’s how it would be. You’re recreating the same kind of dead space.”

Rukaiyah Adams, the board president of the Albina Vision Trust, also told ODOT in a letter that the two freeway covers proposed by the agency are inadequate. On Tuesday, Adams deferred comment to another board member, Gregg Kantor.

Kantor, the retired CEO of NW Natural, said the freeway caps need to be oriented to help restore the street grid – and to carry buildings as high as six stories.

“This is a generational opportunity to put land back into that community,” he said, adding: “If you can’t address the social and community issues that a half-a-billion project creates, then, yes, that project shouldn’t go forward.”

The Albina Vision Trust has called for ODOT to perform a much more extensive study of the project’s impact — and Kantor said legal action “would be on the table” if one wasn’t conducted.

On Tuesday evening, Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly also called for a full environmental impact statement.  She also said ODOT should do more to help bring about Albina Vision’s concept for the neighborhood.        

She also expressed concern about the overall freeway project but said money for local street improvements would likely be lost to the city if the project died.

ODOT spokesman Lou Torres said the Federal Highway Administration permitted the agency to conduct an environmental assessment, and he said the agency would look into all of the issues raised by commenters.

The environmental report did discuss the need to help bolster a “diverse mix of commercial, cultural, entertainment, industrial, recreational, and residential uses, including affordable housing.”

Torres said the agency could still do a full environmental impact statement but insisted the assessment the agency did conduct is “not a lot different.” He said the agency will announce in the next few months what steps it will next take.