Over a hundred people gathered Tuesday evening to weigh the possible benefits and drawbacks of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) proposal to add two lanes to a portion of Interstate 5 in the Rose Quarter. Of the nearly 70 people who shared their thoughts on the project with ODOT and city officials, the majority opposed the plan, citing moral, environmental, health, and social justice concerns. Yet, ODOT says the project will ease the region's growing congestion concerns and greenhouse gas emissions in Portland’s city center.
The $500 million plan, part of the 2017 major transportation spending package passed by Governor Kate Brown, would add new lanes on either side on 1.7 mile stretch of I-5 that’s notorious for being a bottleneck during rush hour. ODOT’s environmental assessment found that the project will cut down on pollution in the long-term, since it will move carbon-spewing cars more quickly though neighborhoods. Not everyone agrees.
That opposition had a big presence at Tuesday’s three-hour meeting—the only hearing that will be held during ODOT's public comment period, which ends April 1. People largely framed their opposition through a moral lens, insisting that investing in freeway expansion could contribute to global warming and negatively impact the surrounding neighborhood.
Metro Councilor Sam Chase, who represents Northeast Portland, kicked off the comment period by acknowledging the history of racial displacement in the Albina Neighborhood, where the freeway expansion would occur—and questioning whether adding more lanes is the wisest long-term investment ODOT could make in the area.
“We are faced with a project in an area that is a critical part of our economy in our region, a critical part of the livability of our region,” Chase said. “We really should be evaluating our congestion pricing strategies.”
ODOT is considering implementing congestion pricing—tolling during times of high traffic as a way to disincentives congestion—on another stretch of I-5. A talking point among those who oppose the I-5 Rose Quarter project, like advocacy group No More Freeways, is that the agency should implement congestion pricing before resorting to a massive construction project.
Others argued that the project falls out of line with Portland's commitment to green energy, climate change mitigation, and public transportation.
“In what way does more cars make sense?” asked one member of the public. “Highway widening is going to invite more cars, more congestion, more parking problems. … My kids don’t want more cars in general. I think that’s a generational thing.”
Several students and parents from Harriet Tubman Middle School—a historically Black school located along I-5—also spoke at the meeting. The school campus already has poor air quality, and a recent study from Portland State University found that widening I-5 would only worsen the problem.
“I respect your choice,” one young student told ODOT, “but know that this will affect students today and students in the future.”
A few people spoke in favor of the project, including representatives from Oregon’s trade unions. They argued that the new lanes on I-5 would decrease congestion, and make it easier for first responders to act quickly after an accident.
“We have a dedicated interest in this project,” said one member of Local 701. “Not just because of jobs, but because of the impact it could have on our communities. … This could mean more time spent at home with your kids.”
But even those in favor of the plan expressed worry over what will happen to students at Harriet Tubman, and acknowledged that widening I-5 might not be a permanent transportation solution.
“I would like ODOT to work with [the opposition] more closely to find ways that will make more sense for the cyclists,” said one trade union representative. “Cars are not going away, [but] they are changing.”
Aaron Brown, a spokesperson for No More Freeways, testified near the end of the evening. He spoke passionately about climate change and the need to invest in transportation projects more forward-thinking than a freeway expansion. The choice, from Brown’s view, is clear—on both a logistical and moral level.
“We’re out of time,” he said. “I understand there are political realities; there are also physical realities. There is only so much carbon we can put into our atmosphere.”
Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and ODOT officials stayed silent through most of the public comment period, though Eudaly did ask attendees to keep in mind that because the project is funded by ODOT, redirecting the funds toward other PBOT projects would be out of her control.
After the public comment period wrapped up, Eudaly did voice support for adding new lanes to I-5—though she also urged ODOT to consider the opposition’s feedback moving forward.
“I’m convinced we can come up with something better,” she said, “that will better serve our whole community.”