A sign for I-5 south
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The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) must update its environmental assessment for the proposed changes to the Interstate-5 corridor through the Rose Quarter, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) decided this week. ODOT anticipated the federal ruling and is still confident it can still start project construction by late 2023, while environmental advocates see the decision as a step towards a more rigorous environmental evaluation of the project.

Because the I-5 Rose Quarter project—a plan to widen a 1.7-mile stretch of I-5 in Northeast Portland in an effort to reduce congestion and fender benders—is a major freeway project, it must receive federal approval to move forward. Part of the approval process includes ODOT evaluating how the project will impact the surrounding environment and the FHWA determining whether that impact is significant enough to warrant further study or a redesign.

ODOT already completed an environmental assessment for the I-5 project in early 2019. Based on that assessment, the FHWA concluded that the project would have no significant impact on the environment in November 2020 and the project rumbled forward, much to the disappointment of local environmental advocates.

Yet three Portland organizations—No More Freeways, Neighbors for Clean Air, and the Eliot Neighborhood Association—filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Transportation and FHWA in April 2021, claiming ODOT used inaccurate and misleading data in its environmental assessment, which obfuscated harmful environmental impacts of the freeway project. That lawsuit is still ongoing.

However, the I-5 project has changed significantly since the FHWA’s initial approval of the environmental review. The design now features a large dome-like cover over the freeway that reconnects the surrounding street grid. The cover, which will be stable enough to build at least three-story buildings on, is an attempt to return land to the Albina community—Portland’s historically Black neighborhood that was partially razed and bisected by the original construction of the I-5 corridor in the late 1950s and early 60s.

According to the FHWA, the changes are significant enough to warrant a new environmental assessment.

“In light of the findings of the re-evaluation, … I hereby rescind my approval of the [assessment] effective immediately,” Phillip Ditzler, the FHWA’s Oregon representative, wrote in a January 18 letter to ODOT. “I request that the additional analysis indicated in the re-evaluation be completed and provided so that the Federal Highway Administration can render an appropriate decision on the significance of the impacts based upon the new information.”

According to ODOT, updating the project’s environmental assessment won’t delay the project timeline.

“Updating the Environmental Assessment is an important step to advance the community’s preferred… highway cover design and is a step we anticipated and are excited to take,” said Rose Quarter project director Megan Channell in a media statement. “We can still begin construction on time in 2023, creating jobs we know are important to the community and providing congestion relief that is critical to commuters and our economy.”

ODOT spokesperson Tia Williams said ODOT aims to complete the updated environmental assessment by the end of December 2022. According to Williams, if the environmental assessment identifies a significant impact that can’t be avoided or mitigated, the FHWA would require the project complete an Environmental Impact Statement—a more rigorous environmental study of the project, which would delay the project timeline.

Environmental groups like No More Freeways, Neighbors for Clean Air, and Sunrise PDX want the project to undergo an Environmental Impact Statement and have repeatedly asked Governor Kate Brown to step in and mandate the more rigorous study.

"No More Freeways has said for a long time that ODOT has not meaningfully studied the disastrous impacts this proposed freeway expansion would have to our community,” said Aaron Brown, an organizer with No More Freeways. “We look forward to continuing to encourage Governor Kate Brown to demand that ODOT complete an Environmental Impact Statement that will study alternatives to freeway expansion.”

No More Freeways has long advocated for ODOT to introduce congestion pricing—tolling at peak traffic hours to encourage carpooling or alternate travel times—to the I-5 corridor instead of adding additional travel lanes. Environmental advocates argue that building more lanes will cause induced demand—the observed phenomenon that when you build space for more cars, more cars will start using that space. ODOT has plans to toll the I-5 corridor starting in 2025, after construction to widen the freeway has already started.

"This decision gives ODOT, the Oregon Transportation Commission, the City of Portland and the Metro Council yet another chance to abandon the project and take a different approach to transportation for a better future," said Allan Rudwick, co-chair of the Eliot Neighborhood Association. "We remain concerned about this project disrupting our streets and discouraging development for years of construction before increasing traffic, congestion and pollution for future generations."