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News / Clark County News

$500 million ODOT plan addresses Rose Quarter bottleneck issue

Project would add ‘auxiliary lanes’ to reduce congestion

By Andy Matarrese, Columbian environment and transportation reporter
Published: March 25, 2019, 6:01am
5 Photos
Traffic moves along Interstate 5 near the Rose Quarter in Portland.
Traffic moves along Interstate 5 near the Rose Quarter in Portland. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

For years, Clark County critics of the failed Columbia River Crossing project complained that Oregon should work first to fix the bottleneck on Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter.

Now Oregon Department of Transportation officials have a $500 million plan to do just that. But the project has drawn a lot of hostility from a variety of groups south of the river, ranging from bicyclists to the Portland Public Schools.

That leaves Clark County with at least two things to think about: Will Oregon ever find the consensus to fix a stretch of freeway that vexes Clark County motorists? And what might that conflict mean for nascent attempts at a new Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project?

The Rose Quarter project would add “auxiliary lanes” along the interstate to reduce congestion from merging traffic, along with pedestrian and bicycle routes, new local street crossings and caps over parts of the highway.

On the Web

Learn more or comment on the project at http://openhouse.oregondot.org/i5-rose-quarter-ea.

ODOT says the work will improve safety and traffic through the roughly two-mile stretch, between interstates 405 and 84.

For an example, Rian Windsheimer, a region manager at ODOT, pointed to the a successful auxiliary lane on Interstate 5, from state Highway 217 to Interstate 205, at a meeting of the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council in February.

During repaving, ODOT added an auxiliary lane southbound to make it easier to pull onto exit ramps because six out of 10 vehicles heading south during peak morning and evening hours to state Highway 217 pulled off on the next four exits. About 90 percent of that traffic exiting onto I-205 originates at one of those four ramps.

Congested hours along that stretch dropped from about 5 hours to 1 hour, Windsheimer said.

“What you’re going to see when you look at this is the similarities are striking,” he said.

The project cost $28.3 million.

Not linked to bridge

Although the Rose Quarter project might allay the concerns of some bridge critics, there is no conjectural Interstate 5 Bridge project baked into the Rose Quarter plan, ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton said, because there is no interstate bridge project on the horizon.

“We’re looking right now at the Rose Quarter as trying to open up that bottleneck there,” he said. “We will make sure that whatever connections the Rose Quarter project and a future bridge project, whatever links there are between them, is that they’re properly complementing each other.”

The Rose Quarter project has met ample opposition, however, some that might presage future bridge talk.

Critics reject just about all of ODOT’s claims as to the Rose Quarter project’s benefits, from the agency’s assertions the project will slightly reduce greenhouse gas pollution, to claims the new configuration will reduce traffic.

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“ODOT is spending half a billion dollars on this freeway expansion project that won’t make anybody’s lives better, and it will in fact make peoples’ lives worse,” said Aaron Brown, a spokesman for No More Freeways PDX, a coalition of organizations, small businesses and Portland community members concerned with the project. “I would tell everyone in Vancouver that a freeway expansion at the Rose Quarter, or multiple new lanes at the interstate bridge, are terrible for congestion.”

Brown and other traffic activists say that’s because of the phenomenon economists and traffic planners call induced demand: More roads gets more people driving more, which leads to congestion.

Congestion, then, is in part a problem of geometry, whereby there are too many cars taking up too much space along a finite road surface, Brown said.

“The best analogy for car traffic is that car traffic is a gas. You let it go and it expands to fill the space available,” Brown said.

The group argues that the money for the Rose Quarter would be better spent on infrastructure that supports city policy goals related to climate change, clean air or affordable housing. Or on transit and congestion-pricing tolling.

Broadly, Brown said, the region is attempting to meet 21st century infrastructure challenges with 20th century solutions, and will find they come up short.

“We are getting at a systemic question that if Oregon has a chance of meeting our carbon goals we have to divest from fossil fuel infrastructure like freeways,” Brown said. “There are meaningful, equitable and just ways to do this that don’t give our kids asthma, that don’t screw over working-class folks, that reduce traffic fatalities, that de-carbonize.”

ODOT is still taking public comment on the project’s environmental impact assessment, up to April 1.

Columbian environment and transportation reporter