kathleen marie

The Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) has delivered a small victory to Portland environmental advocates and politicians hoping to slow down a plan to widen Interstate 5 in the Rose Quarter.

At its Tuesday meeting, the OTC commissioners had a decision in front of them regarding the Rose Quarter Improvement Project, a $500 million Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) plan to add two auxiliary lanes to a 1.7-mile stretch of I-5. (OTC is ODOT’s governing body.) The question: Would the plan be allowed to move forward as-is, or would it first be subject to a more rigorous study of potential environmental impacts? ODOT has already conducted an environmental assessment for the project, but city leaders and environmental activists had requested the state conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS)—a more in-depth study that requires more community input than an assessment.

But rather than making a decision one way or the other, OTC decided to kick the question down the road to its January meeting. This decision comes after several public figures have expressed concerns about the project in the past week, include Mayor Ted Wheeler and Governor Kate Brown. Robert Van Brocklin, OTC’s chair, said Tuesday that the delay will allow ODOT time to make sure the project plan is “as close to right as we can get it, whether that takes a little more time or not.”

“In light of all of the input we’ve received just in the last several days,” Van Brocklin added, “and given particularly a letter we received from the governor yesterday, my own view on this is that we need time to absorb those comments.”

The project has been the focus of intense scrutiny and opposition in Portland for much of 2019. During an open ODOT public comment period on the project this spring, activists organizing under the name No More Freeways mounted an opposition campaign and encouraged people to submit public comments urging for a full EIS. While ODOT has maintained that the project will improve safety and reduce carbon emissions by fixing the state’s worst traffic bottleneck, several different transportation and environmental experts have cast doubt on that assessment. That includes Brian Davis, a Portland urban planner and transportation engineer who spoke at a rally outside ODOT’s Portland building last week.

“At the end of the day, the [environmental assessment] was a half-assed effort that was quite obviously prepared to reach a pre-ordained conclusion,” Davis said. “Our region has not taken a serious and sober look at this project. We are firing blind here. We have no idea what this freeway expansion will do to traffic volumes on the freeway, to the air quality near it, to the lungs of the schoolchildren alongside it.”

Since April, a long list of local movers and shakers have joined the call for an EIS, including: Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT); Portland Public Schools (PPS) board; Albina Vision Trust; Oregon Speaker of the House Tina Kotek; and Milwaukie state Rep. Karin Power.

Last week, a joint letter to ODOT and OTC from Wheeler, Metro Council President Lynn Peterson, and Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson also called for a full EIS, putting the weight of the area’s three different governmental jurisdictions behind them. A spokesperson for Wheeler told the Mercury that Wheeler signed the public letter because he felt ODOT hadn’t taken his previously expressed concerns about the project into account.

“The OTC has yet to articulate how our input would be addressed or how our recommendations would be incorporated,” the letter reads. “We continue to have concerns about the stewardship and outcomes of the Project.”

On Monday, Brown entered the conversation by sending a letter to OTC members—in the middle of day one of their two-day meeting—asking them to delay their decision on whether to conduct an EIS for a few months. According to Van Brocklin, the letter stressed “the importance of working with our regional partners”—i.e., local government in Portland, which is largely against moving forward without an EIS. The letter also asked OTC to consider ways to make the project less environmentally harmful, such as highway tolling and freeway covers that would allow for new buildings and less disruption from traffic in the neighborhood.

The board decided to keep the item on their meeting agenda and hear from public commenters about the project.

About a dozen public commenters turned out for Tuesday’s meeting, split equally between those in favor of and critical of the I-5 plan. Many commenters were part of Sunrise Movement PDX, a youth-led climate activist group that is staunchly against the project on the grounds that it will accelerate the effects of climate change. But commenters representing labor unions and contractors said the project presented an opportunity for more well-paying jobs, and investment in the neighborhood.

Nate McCoy, director of the Oregon chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors, said the plan would “ensure economic development” in the Rose Quarter, a “historic African American community.”

Robert Hamilton, a member of the Portland Coalition of Black Men, also voiced his support for the project moving forward without an EIS.

"This project represents a significant investment in the Rose Quarter area," Hamilton said. "The much-needed infrastructure improvements will ease some of the vehicular congestion. Equally as important, the project will provide jobs and will be built in the historic Albina community that displaced African Americans."

After hearing public comment, OTC commissioners briefly deliberated before delaying a decision over an EIS until January—or possibly as late as March 31. They plan to make a list of things they want ODOT to accomplish in the next few months, including working more closely with Portland regional governments, PPS, and Albina Vision Trust to address their worries about the project.

Commissioner Alando Simpson said at the meeting that he thought ODOT was operating within a broader “broken system” that pits contractors of color against environmental advocates, and that “ODOT has become that punching bag for society.”

“I believe [ODOT] can actually become a global leader,” Simpson added. “Right now, I think we’re at a place where we have to decide what’s most important to the whole ecosystem, as we have to share that all together.”