A controversial plan to add two lanes to a 1.7-mile stretch of Interstate 5 in the Rose Quarter just passed a major hurdle.
Members of the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC)—the governor-appointed body that oversees the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT)—voted unanimously Thursday to allow the $800 million Rose Quarter Improvement Project to move forward. That means ODOT will not be required to conduct an Environmental Impact Study (EIS), which is a detailed look at how a project would affect the environment that surrounds it. ODOT used a less-rigorous environmental assessment in place of an EIS.
“We need to move forward with a decision now,” said OTC Chair Bob Van Brocklin before voting. “I just don’t find the basis in the record to change to an EIS.”
The project is meant to ease car traffic on one of the most congested freeway stretches in the state, and make it easier for freight trucks to pass through the city. But a vocal group of Portlanders, under the name No More Freeways, oppose the project. They argue that adding more freeway lanes typically only invites more car traffic because of a concept called induced demand, and that increased greenhouse gas emissions would contribute to climate change and harm the surrounding historically Black neighborhood, as well as a middle school along the freeway.
"It's a disappointing day for anyone who hoped Oregon's politicians would rise to the challenge and demand an ounce of transparency and climate action from ODOT," Aaron Brown, a spokesperson for No More Freeways, told the Mercury in an email. "If the OTC won't fulfill their moral responsibility to hold ODOT accountable for the reckless ecological mess they intend to leave behind, we'll simply have to pick up the slack through other methods."
Brown added that his coalition is "exploring" taking legal action against the state after Thursday's vote. They would likely argue that moving forward with violates a recent executive order from Gov. Kate Brown that calls for all state agencies to evaluate their projects through a climate lens before proceeding with them.
The vote to move the project forward comes after a political fight that spanned over a year. The project has at times faced scrutiny or flat-out opposition from a wide range of figures and intuitions, including Portland City Council and Mayor Ted Wheeler, Multnomah County commissioners, Metro, Portland Public Schools, and Albina Vision Trust, an organization that aims to restore a neighborhood that was once a thriving Black cultural center, before the original I-5 cut through it in the 1960s.
The frustration from influential Portlanders led the OTC to delay the vote to move forward without an EIS three times in 2019. OTC also voted to require ODOT to take measures to build a trusting relationship with Portland, such as establishing two local community oversight committees, and consider building coverings on the freeway that could support multi-story buildings, a plan favored by the Albina Vision Project.
As the Oregonian reported earlier this week, Portland elected officials and ODOT recently reached a deal: Wheeler and Metro Council President Lynn Peterson won’t oppose the project if the agency studies the possibility of tolling freeway drivers during peak traffic hours, and make sure the project reduces overall carbon emissions. ODOT will also give minority-owned business priority for project contracts.
It’s not clear what measures ODOT will take to make sure the freeway widening reduces carbon emissions. While the environmental assessment states that the project will accomplish that, local experts have cast doubt on ODOT’s methodology.
Thursday’s OCT meeting was held via remote conference call because of the coronavirus. While the meeting was live-streamed, advocates from No More Freeways criticized OCT for only allowing written public comment for the agenda item, rather than having a public comment period at the meeting.
Construction on the project will begin in 2023, at the earliest.