MATT WONG

Last week marked a notable transformation: Mayor Ted Wheeler became a leading booster for the controversial I-5 Rose Quarter project.

Both in a Portland City Council hearing and on an appearance on OPB, the mayor went to bat for the $450 million proposal, which would add lanes on I-5’s chaotic path through the Rose Quarter and create improvements for surface streets in the area.

Wheeler’s support has weight. As a growing contingent of activists seek to put an end to the massive project, he’s one of just two City Council members who haven’t voted in the past to approve it.

But the mayor’s advocacy would have more heft if it wasn’t polluted by the fuzzy and inaccurate arguments he’s been using to present the project in a positive light. A couple of these were refuted by Jonathan Maus of the Bike Portland blog last week. One deserves more investigation. Let’s dive in!

“Overwhelming” minority support

The most frustrating and threadbare claim Wheeler made last week came on OPB, when he was talking about the proposal’s massive “caps,” which would cover part of I-5. The city has argued those caps would ease the gaping wound left by the interstate, which displaced members of Portland’s African American community when it was built.

“That’s why people who have testified overwhelmingly in favor of this tend to be people from communities of color who understand that history,” Wheeler said.

Maus and I both asked: Where were these people? The mayor’s office pointed to a September 7 council hearing that touched on the freeway project. At the hearing, just four people testified in favor of the project (and many more testified against). Two of those supporters were people of color, and both were testifying in formal capacities (one for the city’s planning commission, the other for the Oregon Department of Transportation, which loves the project).

It’s doubtful that anyone listening imagined Wheeler was referring to just two people.

The 50-50 Rumor

On OPB and in a hearing last week, Wheeler suggested that the I-5 project wasn’t as highway-centric as its detractors believe. After all, the project also includes that cap, and a new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists.

In fact, he said, about half of the total cost would pay for those surface street projects. That caught my attention, because Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) officials had previously told me that was an unreliable estimate.

When I asked Wheeler’s office for clarification, they pointed me to a document PBOT had sent over. So I followed up with PBOT, which asked me what the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) had to say.

An ODOT spokesman said “we have no such breakdown on costs and [are] not sure of the source of those calculations.”

I pressed PBOT for more. After several days, they offered a generic statement saying roughly 50 percent of “biddable expenses” were part of the surface improvements. Puzzlingly, they cited ODOT.

More puzzlingly, ODOT cited a "rough estimate" when I went back to them again, not offering any more details.

Check the Definition

Wheeler’s last misleading statement is smaller. On OPB, he scoffed at the notion that the I-5 proposal was a “megaproject,” as media had termed it.

In fact, I termed it a “megaproject.” Because ODOT classifies every project that costs more than $360 million as a “megaproject.”

It’s a megaproject. And for Wheeler, who’s not been shy about knocking media reports, last week’s claims weren’t a great look.