Portland Public Schools (PPS) is increasing its resistance to a state plan to widen the Interstate 5 freeway in the Rose Quarter. On Tuesday evening, PPS’ board will vote on a resolution signaling its disapproval of how the Oregon Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) is moving forward with its plan for the I-5.
This isn’t the first time the board has taken a public stance against ODOT’s $500 million Rose Quarter Improvement Project, a plan to add two auxiliary lanes to a 1.7-mile stretch of the freeway in Northeast Portland. Back in March, PPS was one of several local stakeholders to issue a public comment expressing concerns about the project, particularly highlighting the environmental impact it could have on Harriet Tubman Middle School, a PPS school located along I-5. PPS and other agencies asked ODOT to slow the project’s planning phase down by conducting a full environmental impact statement (EIS), which would be a more in-depth and rigorous version of the environmental assessment ODOT released in February.
In August, Willamette Week reported that ODOT was planning to go forward with the EIS after meeting with local leaders over the summer—but those communications have since broken down.
"I would call it an about-face," said Scott Bailey, a PPS board member who attended the meetings with ODOT. "One meeting ODOT stated [that the EIS] was their intention. ... The next meeting, they said, not so much."
PPS has been joined by the Metro Council, City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly (who oversees the Portland Bureau of Transportation), and other local agencies in voicing its worries about the project. While ODOT says the project will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve safety conditions by fixing a traffic bottleneck in the area, critics of the plan have cast doubt on that assessment.
ODOT and its governing body, the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC), now plan to push the current plan forward without an EIS as soon as this month.
“At this time,” reads the PPS resolution, “the OTC has privately stated that it plans to unilaterally take action at its December 17 public meeting without addressing any of the troubling and significant impacts that the widening will have on students and community health.”
The agenda for OTC’s December 17 meeting is not yet publicly available, but a spokesperson for OTC confirmed that there is an item titled "Rose Quarter Decisions" on the agency's draft agenda.
Bailey said that during their meetings, ODOT officials said they "felt like the clock was ticking" to start the project, because funding for it comes from a transportation funding package passed by state legislators in 2017.
PPS’s resolution, which is expected to pass, also notes that despite ODOT meeting with PPS five times since June, there has been “no substantial progress to substantially address issues” raised about the project. The resolution cements the board’s opposition to ODOT moving forward with the project without first conducting an EIS, and signals the board’s intent to continue applying pressure to state leaders on this issue.
“The Board will work with the community,” the resolution states, “to share information about the impacts of this freeway and the expansion with the legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation and other legislative leaders so that they understand the potential impacts of this project to Portland Public Schools’ students and the wider Albina community.”
Bailey said that if ODOT does choose to conduct an EIS, he "would not be surprised" if that EIS showed the I-5 widening project would degrade the air quality at Harriet Tubman. The school already suffers from poor air quality thanks to its proximity to the freeway, and the district spent $18 million on an air filtration system for the school last year. Bailey said that money "frankly, should have come out of ODOT's budget," and that he would want the agency to pay for any further environmental work that needs to be done at the school.
"If [the EIS] shows there are impacts on the school," he said, "then we would expect ODOT to cover the costs."