The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has spent the better part of the last decade trying to change the public narrative about its plan to expand I-5 through Portland’s Rose Quarter. A new lawsuit, filed last Friday by five local environmental and transportation safety advocacy organizations, is just the latest indication ODOT's efforts haven’t worked. 

The lawsuit, filed by No More Freeways, Neighbors for Clean Air, Oregon and Southwest Washington Families for Safe Streets, BikeLoud PDX, and the Eliot Neighborhood Association, demands a moratorium on the $1.9 billion Rose Quarter freeway expansion program. The plaintiffs allege the I-5 expansion plan doesn’t comply with the city of Portland’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan and Metro’s Regional Transportation Plan, and will have many negative environmental, health, and safety impacts. 

“It’s absurd for ODOT to claim that their proposed $1.9 billion 10-lane highway is in compliance with the city’s existing plans for climate action, sustainable transportation investment or neighborhood development,” said Chris Smith, a spokesperson for No More Freeways, in a press release about the lawsuit. “We filed this lawsuit because state law requires ODOT to follow the city’s clean air and climate goals. ODOT shouldn’t be allowed to advance a project that brazenly violates the city’s adopted plans.”

ODOT has promoted news of the $450 million federal grant awarded to the agency in March, intended to pay for a cap (also known as a freeway lid) over I-5 in the Rose Quarter to connect the Albina neighborhood, bisected by I-5 construction in the 1960s. But the federal grant, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program, is meant to be dedicated solely to the plan to restore the Albina neighborhood—leaving ODOT on the hook for well over a billion dollars. The agency doesn’t have the money for that. Lawsuit plaintiffs want to encourage ODOT to be responsible stewards of the money they do have—which means, they say, providing more low-carbon transportation options and fewer freeway expansions. 

The lawsuit against ODOT

This isn’t the first time ODOT has faced legal challenges for its I-5 Rose Quarter project—including from some of these same plaintiffs. In April 2021, No More Freeways, Neighbors for Clean Air, and the Eliot Neighborhood Association filed a complaint demanding ODOT complete a full environmental impact statement for the Rose Quarter project, which would require the agency to consider alternatives to expansion. That same month, No More Freeways also filed a second lawsuit against ODOT disputing the transportation department’s assertion that the expansion project was in line with Portland’s comprehensive plan. 

The organizations withdrew these lawsuits the following year, after the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) retracted their support for the project. But in March, the FHWA officially gave ODOT the go-ahead once more—and the plaintiffs responded by filing another lawsuit. 

This latest lawsuit focuses specifically on ODOT’s alleged failure to align the Rose Quarter project with city and Metro policies. 

One example of noncompliance outlined in the lawsuit relates to Portland’s Central City Plan, adopted in 2018. The plan “specifically calls for congestion pricing to be implemented with any Rose Quarter I-5 project…[but] no such plans or analyses of congestion pricing or transportation demand management (TDM) options were included in ODOT’s final Rose Quarter I-5 project as adopted.” 

Despite the discrepancies between adopted city plans and the Rose Quarter project, Portland City Council voted to give ODOT its approval for the plan in June 2022

The lawsuit states the project is also out of step with the Oregon Metro Regional Transportation Plan’s (RTP) policies to manage the “regional motor vehicle network.” The RTP requires transportation agencies to demonstrate there are no reasonable alternatives for managing traffic congestion before adding auxiliary or additional lanes to a street or highway project. Because ODOT’s Rose Quarter project includes adding auxiliary lanes to I-5, and the agency didn’t conduct a full environmental impact statement looking into alternatives to the project, the plaintiffs allege ODOT is going against Metro policies. 

No More Freeways also filed a lawsuit against Metro in January, claiming the agency’s recently-updated RTP—which includes the Rose Quarter project—isn’t in line with the regional government’sstated climate goals. 

Advocates argue that ODOT’s multi-billion dollar megaprojects are bad on their merits alone, saying freeway lane expansions induce demand for car traffic, causing adverse climate and health impacts. 

In a press release about the lawsuit, Nakisha Nathan, co-executive director with Neighbors for Clean Air, wrote that “ODOT’s plans to dramatically widen I-5 would significantly pollute the air in the Albina neighborhood and actively harm the health and well being of North Portland residents.” 

“We are joining this litigation as local advocates for clean air and healthy communities who know that ODOT needs to prioritize transportation improvements that support investments in the Albina neighborhood, which has already suffered enough from reckless, polluting expansions like this one,” Nathan wrote.

But climate and safety advocates also say ODOT’s commitment to these expensive highway projects means neglecting other, more urgent, transportation needs. 

Those fears are not unfounded. ODOT, left reeling after Governor Tina Kotek’s March decision to officially put the kibosh on the agency’s freeway tolling plans, is currently scrambling for funds. At an Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) meeting last week, commissioners considered how to cover funding gaps for the I-205 expansion at the Abernethy Bridge without tolling revenue. One possible scenario involves cutting $300-550 million from the 2024-2027 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program , which could drastically reduce statewide funding for seismic safety projects, as well as public transit, biking, and walking infrastructure. 

Michelle DuBarry is a member of Oregon and SW Washington Families for Safe Streets. In 2010, her 22-month-old son was killed by a reckless driver at a crosswalk at an ODOT-owned street in North Portland. In the press release, DuBarry said ODOT has “continued to prioritize investment in endless freeway expansion instead of targeting improvements to streets like North Lombard,” where her son was killed. 

“As an advocacy organization comprised of Oregonians who have been injured or lost loved ones to traffic violence, we’re proud to stand with community partners in demanding ODOT be held accountable and forced to reconsider this mindless expansion,” DuBarry said. 

David Binnig, a member of BikeLoud PDX, also asked ODOT to consider other ways to spend their budget. 

“We’ve asked for years for basic investments in safety on the state roads that kill Portlanders every year,” Binnig said. “Instead of honoring its responsibility to keep all road users safe, ODOT is intent on pouring billions of dollars into freeway widening projects. We hope this lawsuit will force the agency to consider investments that better meet our city’s most urgent needs.”

In a statement to the Mercury, ODOT Communications Director Kevin Glenn said the agency can’t comment on ongoing litigation. But he wanted to acknowledge the “support of partnerships with statewide leaders, Metro, the city of Portland, Albina Vision Trust, the Portland Trail Blazers, the Historic Albina Advisory Board and others.” 

“[They] see this project as an opportunity to not only improve our state's worst bottleneck and highest crash site but to also reconnect the Albina neighborhood and support a greater vision for the historic heart of Portland's Black community,” Glenn wrote. 

Despite the plaintiffs’ opposition to the I-5 expansion plan, they, too, support the freeway capping project led by Albina Vision Trust. They just want the caps to be built without adding more capacity to the freeway. 

“The opportunity to heal the injustice inflicted into this neighborhood must not be paired with ODOT’s attempt to further harm this community with greater air pollution, freeway traffic and carbon emissions,” the press release states. “The organization continues to demand that ODOT conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement that considers alternatives to build these caps and remediate the neighborhood without the additional freeway lanes and attendant negative consequences.” 

Correction: A previous version of this story said the $450 million federal grant was awarded to Albina Vision Trust. The grant was, in fact, awarded to ODOT, but Albina Vision Trust is a key stakeholder in determining its allocation. We regret the error.