Liz Fouther-Branch was a young child in the late 1950s, when her family got displaced from their home in Albina, a historically Black neighborhood in Northeast Portland. The house was razed to make way for an expansion of Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. The family relocated eight blocks north, moving into another house in the Albina neighborhood.

Fouther-Branch’s family’s situation was far from unique. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, thousands of Black families’ Albina homes were routinely mowed down to make way for construction projects meant to benefit white Portlanders—including the medical center, Memorial Coliseum, and a new stretch of the Interstate-5 freeway. This habitual displacement had the full support of the City of Portland, which designated the area as “blighted” so it could receive federal funding for new construction.

“Our parents learned that the houses were going to be torn down—that was something that went on for years and years,” Fouther-Branch remembered in an interview with the Mercury. “They tried to call it a ghetto, but it really wasn’t a ghetto.”

So when Fouther-Branch had the chance this year to influence a state plan to add new lanes to the I-5 in Albina, she was grateful for the opportunity—but also skeptical.

“When I see people or organizations talk about restorative justice and giving back to the Albina community, I usually go,” she said, “because I’m curious if they’re telling the truth or not.”

Fouther-Branch sat on the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) for an Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) project that will add two new lanes to a 1.7 mile stretch of I-5. The plan, called the Rose Quarter Improvement Project, has faced fierce scrutiny from environmental experts worried about increased carbon emissions, racial justice advocates who fear the new lanes will further disrupt the neighborhood, and local institutions including Portland Public Schools and the City of Portland, which withdrew its support for the plan in June.

The creation of the CAC in 2020 was part of an ODOT gambit to win over local critics—and avoid conducting a rigorous Environmental Impact Statement before starting the project. Fouther-Branch was one of 24 members of CAC, a committee whose stated purpose was to “bring community interests and values into the project’s decision-making process,” according to ODOT’s website for the project.

But after holding just three official meetings, ODOT announced this week that it would be disbanding the CAC and replacing it with a new group, called the Historic Albina Advisory Board. While ODOT officials say the move will ensure more input from Albina’s historic Black community, many former CAC members, including Fouther-Branch, believe the switch-up is an attempt by ODOT to silence criticism of the project.

“I don’t trust where they’re going to go with it,” Fouther-Branch said. “If you keep rolling out new things for people to join, eventually you’re going to get what you want, which is just a rubber stamp.”

"As the kids would say, it was shady.”

Before ODOT announced it would be replacing the CAC on Wednesday, several committee members were planning to announce their resignation at the next meeting. Their plan to resign stemmed from months of frustration that the CAC did not have a specifically stated purpose or authority, and that ODOT officials were dragging their heels to further define its purview.

Fouther-Branch, and other CAC members and people familiar with the project the Mercury spoke with on background, say this was most clearly illustrated in the fact that the committee never got a chance to discuss or approve its charter. A charter lays out a committee’s purpose, rules, and responsibilities, and CAC members were eager to dive into it.

Emails shared with the Mercury show that ODOT had prepared a charter draft as early as May 21, before CAC’ first official meeting. But month after month, ODOT delayed the discussion of the charter, instead filling the meetings with presentations about contractor selection and agenda items that CAC members lamented could have been covered in a written report. In the CAC’s July meeting, one member compared the committee to a “long listening session,” rather than a decision-making body.

For Fouther-Branch, it was clear that ODOT didn’t want the CAC members—which included neighborhood association representatives, climate and transportation advocates, and people with historical ties to Albina—to be critical of the project. ODOT also did not provide members with a contact list for each other so they could talk outside of meetings. Fouther-Branch, who’s served on several committees at the state and county level, said that’s unusual.

“It was, ‘Oh, I’ll get back to you, we’ll get to that in the next meeting,’” she said. “And then you get to the next meeting, and there’s still no charter. As the kids would say, it was shady.”

Albina Vision Trust, an organization that advocates for a restorative justice approach to restoring the neighborhood, withdrew its support for the I-5 project in June, citing ODOT’s unwillingness to let their organization contribute “meaningful changes to the project or its anticipated outcomes.” For Fouther-Branch, that was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” She resigned from the CAC that same day.

“I don’t like being a token, when you’ve already made a decision about what’s going to happen,” she said. She added that if ODOT couldn’t work well with Albina Vision Trust, she knew that, “They’re not going to listen to me.”

After Fouther-Branch’s resignation, tensions continued to rise between ODOT officials and the CAC. These culminated in the committee’s July meeting, during which members peppered Brendan Finn, manager of ODOT’s Office of Urban Mobility and Mega Project Delivery, with questions about the project and the CAC’s purpose. The members’ questions were critical of the potential environmental impact of the project, and questioned why they should continue to participate in it when both the city of Portland and Albina Vision Trust had withdrawn support.

"What are we doing here if the two more important partners in this project have backed away and absolutely cannot support it in its current iteration?” asked CAC member Clint Culpepper.

“Let me be clear: ODOT does not have the answers,” Finn told members. “We need you to assist us in crafting what those look like. That’s our hope. This is our opportunity.”

CAC members asked at the end of the July meeting when they would have the opportunity to weigh in on their charter. Meeting facilitator Christine Moses, who runs a private consulting firm, told members that they would “have that conversation at our next meeting.”

“I’ve been around a few of these rodeos in my lifetime. It’s important that the community hold these leaders accountable.”

In a follow-up email sent four days later, Moses warned CAC members that if they did not move on from the discussion about the group’s purview and start discussing other aspects of the project, then “we will lose this opportunity forever” to influence the project.

“I am charged with guiding you through the process to ensure the objectives are met,” Moses continued. “I will call audibles when I deem necessary. I will also interrupt people when they are out of line with their comments… So, I am asking you to join me on this journey.”

In the email, Moses also attached a rendering from Albina Vision Trust—which had pulled out of the project planning a month prior—to illustrate what CAC members could be a part of.

There was never a next meeting. ODOT canceled the scheduled August meeting, then announced it would replace the CAC with the Historic Albina Advisory Board before its September meeting could take place.

CAC members believe ODOT disbanded their committee because several CAC members planned to publicly resign at the September meeting. However, ODOT spokesperson April de Leon-Galloway told the Mercury in an email that ODOT was not aware of the planned resignations.

“This decision is based on the need to intentionally elevate Black voices in the community,” de Leon-Galloway wrote. “After community input, comments from the CAC and our partners, it was apparent we needed to do a better job of centering voices of those who were historically harmed by the construction of I-5 in order to meaningfully address past harms.”

The new board is intended to represent more people with ties to Albina. Unlike the CAC, for which all 24 members applied and were selected by the project’s Executive Steering Committee, the Historic Albina Advisory Board will comprise 17 members. Eleven of those will be hand-picked and appointed by ODOT, while the other six will be chosen through an application process. Some former CAC members believe this is a move by ODOT to more tightly limit potentially critical voices from being on the board.

Asked about the new board’s structure, de Leon-Galloway answered that ODOT has “heard from members of the Black community that this is a good approach.”

CAC members are welcome to apply for the new board—and at least one member, John Washington, said he likely will. Washington chairs the Albina-based Soul District Business Association, and took a practical approach to joining the CAC. He said that while projects like this are often “precursors to gentrification,” he wanted to “bring something healthy to the table.”

“If something like this is going to move through anyway,” Washington told the Mercury, “I think it’s important that we look at how to best arrive to a place that can bring about some restorative justice.”

Washington said he respects Albina Vision Trust’s decision to withdraw from project participation—but that some Albina interests, like his businesses association, still need to be involved in planning. He views the creation of the Historic Albina Advisory Board as a chance to accomplish just that. Washington hopes to be a part of the new board, to ensure ODOT lives up to its promise to listen to more Black voices in Albina.

“It got clearer to ODOT that they had to do something a little different,” Washington said. “The voice was consistent that people who are the main players in the Albina District should be sitting at this table, and making some of these contributions. I think they heard us.”

“I’ve been around a few of these rodeos in my lifetime,” he added. “It’s important that the community hold these leaders accountable.”

Fouther-Branch sees the situation differently.

“For me, I wouldn’t get back on [the new board] because I don’t like the way they disbanded the CAC,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether we’re all Black or not—if we’re asking too many questions, or are a little too nosy, or want more power than you want to give, then it doesn’t matter who’s on the committee. They just have handled it poorly.”