A plan to widen Interstate 5 has local transportation advocates, school board members, city committees and others concerned about its potential environmental impact. And as the public comment period for the plan draws to a close, they're pushing for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to conduct a more thorough study on the plan.
If ODOT doesn't follow their wishes, activist Aaron Brown told the Mercury, "we’ll likely be issuing a legal challenge” to force it to do so.
The $500 million Rose Quarter Improvement Project is an ODOT plan to add two new lanes to a 1.7 mile stretch of I-5 in Northeast Portland.
ODOT's most recent environmental assessment of the plan, released in February, says the plan will reduce traffic in the long run, and that, in turn, fewer idling engines will lead to lower carbon emissions in the area. Local trade unions favor the plan because it will bring construction jobs to the region.
No More Freeways, the project’s opposition group, has cast doubt on the projections in ODOT’s environmental assessment. They’ve also framed the fight against this project in moral terms, using climate change and the impact of more air pollution at a local minority-majority middle school as talking points.
“We’re out of time,” said Brown, who leads No More Freeways, at an ODOT public hearing earlier this month. “I understand there are political realities; there are also physical realities. There is only so much carbon we can put into our atmosphere.”
No More Freeways also argues that freeway expansions rarely improve congestion and pollution over time, because of a concept called induced demand—as more lanes are added to a freeway, more people drive on that freeway, leading to the same level of traffic as before the widening.
And in fact, an ODOT study from last year confirms highway widening isn't the answer to Portland's traffic problems.
“Baseline, significant congestion will exist in 2027 on the I-5 and I-205 study corridors, even with all the improvements," reads 2018's analysis commissioned by ODOT.
The 45-day public comment period for the project ends Monday, April 1—and many groups are using it to ask ODOT to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is a much more comprehensive, public-facing option than an environmental assessment.
“[The environmental assessment] doesn’t really look at alternatives other than just build the thing,” Brown said. “Getting an EIS is the only way we are going to force ODOT to rigorously study this.”
A recent OPB story revealed that the projections included in ODOT’s environmental assessment contain a crucial flaw. They were based on the assumption that a new I-5 bridge will be built across the Columbia River—even though that project was killed about six years ago.
“In doing so, they’ve created a world where we built [the bridge],” local economist Joe Cortright told OPB, “and it’s funneling thousands and thousands of additional cars at the peak hour into the Rose Quarter.”
This information suggests ODOT’s environmental assessment might not be the best metric to judge the project by—but an EIS would require the department to take a more meticulous approach, those opposed to the project say.
ODOT hasn't yet made a decision as to whether it will conduct an EIS, though spokesperson Lou Torres told the Mercury that an environmental assessment "doesn't necessarily preclude" an EIS. Torres also said ODOT's public review and environmental assessment process has had "the same level of detail" and "the same level of public engagement" as an EIS. He pointed to ODOT's decision to extend the comment period from 30 to 45 days as an example of the department's willingness to engage with the public.
"We're following the federal and state guidelines," Torres said. "We're doing what all these folks want us to do."
As the Oregonian reported last week, Portland Public Schools has its own concerns about the project. School board members raised several questions about it at last week’s meeting, focusing on air quality around Harriet Tubman Middle School and the Blanchard Education Services Center, which serves as the district’s headquarters.
The board also raised questions about how increased noise and traffic during the construction period would impact their facilities. It voted to submit a public comment to ODOT, asking it to conduct an EIS.
“It is PPS’s position that the depth, complexity and severity of potential significant short and long term negative impacts to PPS facilities, staff, students, families, and stakeholders warrants a full environmental impact statement (EIS),” reads a draft statement from PPS. “An EIS will provide a better understanding of the impacts of the proposal and development of potential mitigation options.”
Other local advocacy groups, including Oregon Walks and the Portland Bicycle Advisory Committee, have issued their own statements in favor of conducting an EIS—or scrapping the project altogether.
ODOT will accept public comment until 5 pm on Monday.