PORTLAND — Local freeway commuters know the spot where traffic grinds to a halt almost every day. It’s where Interstate 84 ends its 773-mile long journey from Echo, Utah, to Portland by slamming headlong into Interstate 5. And it’s where northbound and southbound I-5 travelers find three or four lanes of traffic slimmed down to two.
The city calls it The Gateway of Portland’s freeway system. Combined with the chokepoint a few miles north at the Interstate Bridge, it creates regular backups that can send gridlock deep into city streets.
During the past two years, as the region’s public officials, voters and activists have clamored over the fate of the $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing, a plan to address Rose Quarter congestion has slowly inched forward like so much rush hour traffic.
The I-5 Broadway/Weidler Plan may be the biggest transportation project most people have never heard of. In December, the Oregon Transportation Commission approved a plan that aims to both alleviate I-5 traffic and remodel neighborhoods near the Rose Garden with new surface streets, a cap over the freeway with a possible park, and new bike- and pedestrian-friendly improvements.
One part freeway widening and one part Rose Quarter makeover, the plan already has its critics. Like its big brother, the CRC, some say it’s too big, it’s unneeded or it only serves the interests of the freight industry. And funding for the project, which could cost from $350 to $400 million, has not been identified.
With local and federal budget strained and the fate of the CRC still in question, determining whether the I-5/Rose Quarter project is the next big thing or just another pipe dream depends on whom you ask.
“It’s just a nightmare, a true bottleneck” said Tracy Ann Whalen, who manages logistics for the Portland heavy manufacturing company ESCO Corp. “People say, if you fix one bottleneck you’re going to run into the other. You need to fix both.”
Many planners agree that the CRC and Rose Quarter congestion are connected elements in clearing up north/south traffic hassles.
Clogged heart of the region
The freight industry claims this is one of its 35 biggest bottlenecks in the nation. No significant improvement has been made since I-5 opened in 1966. Since then, traffic has climbed from 66,000 vehicles a day to 126,200 in 2011, the last year for which figures are available.
The area has been studied since the 1980s. Previous visions for the corridor ranged from a proposal to bury I-5 to a 2005 traffic study that suggested turning the entire I-405/I-5 central city loop into a giant, one-way roundabout.
The current plan calls for adding a through lane in both directions and widening shoulders to accommodate emergency vehicles.
The state, which documented 472 collisions here during a five-year period, believes that could reduce the crash rate by 30 to 50 percent.
Kathryn Williams is business and rail relations manager for the Port of Portland. She said the port’s customers have a narrower window of time to move freight through the corridor than in the past.
“We’re seeing that window get shorter and shorter every year,” Williams said. “If you can reduce crash rates and provide more regularity, it will be worthwhile.”
Similarly, Rose Quarter area streets represent their own challenge. Two sets of paired one-way streets, or couplets — Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard/Grand Avenue and Broadway/Weidler Street — converge at the entrance to the Rose Garden and I-5, causing a traffic clot known to traffic engineers as the Broadway/Weidler Box.
More than 60,000 vehicles can pass through the box each day. The area also contains four of the city’s 100 most accident-prone intersections. Many are bike and car collisions.
Betsy Reese owns the Paramount Apartments at North Wheeler Avenue and Broadway. The city says 17 bike/auto collisions occurred in front of her building between 2000-2010. “That’s a city statistic,” Reese said. “We see many times that out front. I’ve been advocating for traffic safety since 1999.”
The proposal’s improvements to surface streets include a new pedestrian bridge at North Clackamas Street, a reshuffling of existing overcrosses and a series of “lids” that would cover the freeway and knit the neighborhood back together.
The city hopes this, along with proposed changes to building heights and zoning, will kick-off investment and transform the area from a checkerboard of surface parking lots to a vibrant urban center. The idea is that a denser, less auto-focused neighborhood will also reduce accidents.
Initial cost estimates have ranged from $340 million to more than $400 million. By comparison, the metro area’s last big road project, the widening of about two miles of U.S. 26, from the Washington Park Zoo to Oregon Highway 217, cost $76 million
Polarized views could lead to gridlock
Chris Smith, a Portland Planning commissioner, thinks the project is a waste of money.
“Rather than pump $400 million into this one small segment, we’d be better off investing in 50 small projects around the region,” Smith said. “But the politics push us to big investments.”
Smith doesn’t believe there’s federal money available for highway projects.
“You can’t do earmarks anymore,” Smith said of recent federal funding restrictions. “That’s how the freeway system was built. So, if the CRC gets funded, I don’t see where there’s any more money for this for a long time.”
At the state level, the Oregon Department of Transportation’s gross budget forecast in December 2012 projected a 7 percent drop in revenue for the next two years. During that time, the agency expects to use about 13 percent of its cash to pay down debt for the most recent decade’s projects. And in March, the state committed to contributing $450 million to the CRC, without raising fees or taxes.
Portland has its own financial headwind to face. The city, facing a $21.5 million budget shortfall, has a backlog of deferred road maintenance projects that could cost as much as $750 million.
ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton cautions not to read too much into the current financial picture. He and others familiar with large infrastructure say the plan’s improvements could be funded in segments.
“We’d probably break the project up into a lot of small pieces,” Hamilton said. “So, it’s just too early in the process to think about exactly where all the funding will come from.”
Steve Bozzone, a volunteer with Active Right of Way, sat on the project’s now-retired Stakeholders Advisory Committee. He voted against freeway widening but supports the street projects.
“We have a vision for a thriving and walkable high-density neighborhood,” Bozzone said. “The surface-street proposals are all very welcomed. I just didn’t want them coupled with the freeway widening.”
It’s a telling split in a city that has distinguished itself as a hub for alternative transportation.
Economist Joe Cortright is a prominent critic of both the CRC and the I-5/Rose Quarter plan.
Cortright said such big projects are remnants of an era before telecommuting, urban transportation alternatives, 24-hour global commerce and the creative class.
“Our problems have less to do with trucks and cars and freeways than ever before,” Cortright said. “Traffic in has fallen about a third in the last five years. We have more people working, our economy is bigger, be we have less time lost to congestion.”
A study compiled by Portland State University and Metro shows commuters spent an average of 44 hours each year in traffic delays in 2011, down from a peak of 49 hours in 2005.
Theories vary on why: recession, gas prices and fruits of the region’s transit investments.
Cortright is against widening roads because he believes traffic expands to fit the space available. Travel time, convenience and price all play a role in determining when, how and if someone travels. Road critics like Cortright believe public dollars are better spent on transportation alternatives and building walkable neighborhoods.
That may be a popular view in Portland, but many of its suburbs have recently turned against this model, dubbing it “Portland Creep.”
In January, Lake Oswego tossed out a Portland Streetcar extension and recently repealed plans to develop a dense urban enclave called The Foothills. Since September, Clackamas County voters have hoisted up ballot measures and new commissioners bent on fighting off an incursion by TriMet’s MAX Green line extension.
And in Washington, Clark County Commissioners voted to block the CRC’s light rail component after Vancouver residents rejected a tax to pay for 2012 transit operations. The CRC itself faces a potentially lethal threat because of Clark County’s resistance to light rail.
ESCO’s Whalen sees the region polarizing and says that’s bad for business. He cautions those who would choose the Not In My Back Yard ethos over a regional transportation view.
“If we want other companies to invest in us as a region,” Whalen said, “we have to invest in infrastructure.”
Long road ahead
The Port’s Williams thinks the pieces might come together.
“We can’t build our way out of congestion,” Williams said. “In this region, we have a history of investing in both roads and transit. We have to be smart. I think it’s doable.”
Currently, the state is seeking money to pay for the plan’s initial engineering, design work and a slate of environmental studies.
At the Rose Garden, Portland and the state have committed to spend about $1.5 million on street work over the next few years to prevent bike and car collisions.
“Regardless of what you think of the freeway expansion,” Reese said, “it frees the area up and creates a framework. These improvements will help. But more needs to happen. It’s not done yet.”