Photo by Sarah Mirk

THE MILE of Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter is the most dangerous stretch of the freeway in the state, with 120,000 cars passing through every day and nearly 100 crashes a year. A plan to add shoulders to that mile, and another lane in both directions, is supposed to cut crashes there by as much as half—but some neighborhood leaders say the project's $400 million pricetag and years of disruptive construction is too steep a price to pay for a wider freeway in Portland's core.

A community stakeholder committee signed off on the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and city I-5 Broadway/Weidler Interchange Improvements plan at a key meeting last Thursday, June 7. But eight of the 18 representatives expressed some or serious concern about the project.

"This is maybe the most important thing to happen to Eliot since I-5 went through," Eliot neighborhood chair Allan Rudwick told the group. "Pushing this forward will delay development in the area for maybe 10 years. Why would we do that to add one auxiliary lane and shoulders to one mile of freeway?"

Portland's section of I-5 is less than 50 years old, and the wounds from its construction still run deep in an area that was once the heart of the city's African American neighborhood before construction of the Memorial Coliseum and the freeway demolished 1,100 homes.

Freeway building is always expensive. The proposed I-5 revamp (see info box at right) will require tearing down five overpasses and shifting the southbound on-ramp to help traffic flow more smoothly. To put the $400 million project's budget in perspective, the projected annual cost for all of Portland's bike infrastructure projects is about $2.7 million, the total budget of the Eastside Streetcar Loop project is $148.3 million, and the total cost of the Columbia River Crossing project planned north of the Rose Quarter is $3.6 billion.

A major part of the revamp is the city and ODOT's promise to rebuild the torn-down overpasses as better neighborhood streets with a two-way cycle track on North Williams, several crosswalks, and a concrete "lid" over the freeway that could be land for parks or buildings (like the I-5 lid that supports Seattle's downtown Convention Center). The project also includes a new $15-20 million bike-pedestrian bridge to the Lloyd District.

Eliot neighborhood representative Mike Warwick, who voted against the project last week, is frustrated that the surface street improvements promised by the project are coupled with the freeway expansion.

"It's a devil's bargain," says Warwick. "The 800-pound gorilla in the room is that when the time comes to fund this, it would not surprise me if for some reason the freeway components get paid for but the surface street improvements are cut."

The I-5 revamp is still in the planning stages and doesn't have money in hand, though the bulk of the budget would likely come from federal funds. Project planners are adamant that the neighborhood and freeway aspects of the project can't be carved away from one another.

"This is considered an extremely significant step forward for the city and the state," said city planner Paul Smith. "This is one project and it will need to be funded as a single package."