matt wong

IT HAPPENS any time the subject of widening Interstate 5 comes up at Portland City Council—a resolute hardening of the will.

Council members have heard it all before: The arguments that two new auxiliary lanes won’t solve the city’s congestion problems, or the exhortations that widening the freeway—as officials hope to do using $450 million in state funds—runs counter to Portland’s climate goals.

These points are always made passionately, and often include some novel tweak that freeway- expansion opponents have dreamed up. But while council members sometimes compliment inventive testimony, they more often set their jaws, listen patiently, and move on.

Which is why Paul Anthony’s recent testimony was so striking. Anthony, an elected member of the Portland Public Schools Board of Education, showed up to a hearing on long-term city growth on Thursday, January 18, and gave the council an entirely new reason to second-guess the freeway proposal: middle-school students.

“In my view, ODOT and the city are putting Portland Public Schools and its board in a nearly impossible situation,” Anthony told the council. The dais began to perk up.

In August, PPS plans to reopen its Harriett Tubman campus, which is perched over the stretch of I-5 that the Oregon Department of Transportation hopes to widen. But the building is in disrepair, needing a new roof and HVAC system. The school district is faced with $12 million in fixes this summer to get it into shape for students in the fall.

Anthony—and other board members, he says—are worried. They don’t know whether the highway expansion will jeopardize the building’s structural integrity, or if noise from the megaproject will impinge on school hours. What they do know is that the highway project is likely incompatible with a wall PPS wants to build in order to minimize noise and shield Tubman from vehicle fumes.

“The whole board is very concerned about this,” Anthony tells me. “We aren’t quite sure what to make of it, because we are not sure that ODOT understands the circumstances.”

ODOT, unsurprisingly, says everything is fine. Spokesperson Don Hamilton says there’s no way the I-5 project would affect the structural integrity of Tubman.

“Is it possible the wall will have to come down?” Hamilton says. “Yeah, it is possible. But we will make sure the school district’s needs are met.”

Anthony wants more assurance than that. He mentions the possibility of ODOT purchasing the Tubman facility from PPS or—better yet—finding an acceptable plot of land on the inner eastside to swap with the school district.

“That would be a nice resolution,” Anthony says. “Short of that level of fantasy, I don’t know that there is an answer they can give us now.”

It’s a sentiment that could reshape the debate around the I-5 project. Until Thursday, Portland’s elected leaders had been virtually lockstep in their support of the expansion. Now an entire public body appears to be casting serious doubts.

At any rate, Anthony’s testimony had some impact: Wheeler did more than just move on.

“You’ve raised legitimate questions that deserve an answer,” the mayor said. “I’ll make sure that happens.”