PORTLAND — A more than $715 million transportation project to widen Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter, a 1.8-mile stretch that state officials call one of the nation’s worst bottlenecks, does not require a more extensive environmental study that would delay construction for three years.
That’s according to the Oregon Transportation Commission, the state’s top decision-making body for highway and freeway projects. The commission, which is comprised of volunteers appointed by the governor, voted unanimously Thursday against pursuing an Environmental Impact Statement, a lengthier federal review process that at one point was a key talking point pushed by Portland area politicians.
“I think we need to move forward with a decision,” Chair Bob Van Brocklin, a Portland attorney said before the vote in a meeting held by conference call and live-streamed through the state’s YouTube channel.
The five commissioners from all around Oregon agreed.
The project would add freeway shoulders and merging lanes on I-5 between Interstate-405 and Interstate-84. The area runs through the Rose Quarter and is frequently a source of significant traffic, particularly during evening commutes where bumper-to-bumper traffic can continue much of the way to Vancouver.
More than a dozen nonprofit environmental, civic and neighborhood groups maintained last week Oregon should take more time and conduct the lengthier study. They argued an expansion would increase the number of vehicles miles traveled on freeway, which is associated with increased air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and toxic runoff into local waterways.
For months, it appeared that Portland area politicians — including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson and Metro Council President Lynn Peterson — were preparing to stand in the way and delay the project in favor of more extensive environmental reviews.
In January, many of those politicians testified before the commission and demanded a reckoning on the historical impact of the freeway’s construction on the lower Albina neighborhood and a more robust environmental review and an analysis of the feasibility of building more robust covers over the freeway.
Then, March 27, those politicians and Albina Vision Trust Chair Rukaiyah Adams and the Portland Public Schools board, signaled their demands for an Environmental Impact Statement would be retracted if the state pursued an “alternative outcomes-based process” that meets their demands.
On Thursday, the state commission and transportation agency seemed to endorse those measures.
Brendan Finn, a long-time political aide who was the top aide to former City Commissioner Dan Saltzman for nearly two decades before jumping to state issues, said the transportation agency was committed to “restorative justice” in the Rose Quarter.
He hinted that when the project is built, the freeway shoulders would be able to accommodate public transit buses during peak hours, something that Clark County officials are already doing with C-Tran buses in some corridors. TriMet does not currently have a bus line that runs through the Rose Quarter on I-5, but the project isn’t expected to be completed until 2027.
Finn announced that Dr. Steven Holt, a pastor who was born and raised in Portland and is a longtime advocate for inner North and Northeast neighborhoods, would be the lead consultant and facilitator overseeing a new committee tasked with overseeing the Rose Quarter project.
Holt told the commission that Oregon now has a chance to reconnect the neighborhood and do something restorative. “We’ve got an incredible opportunity to do something meaningful and do something right,” he said.
The commission’s pledge to review what’s feasible with a freeway cover remains in process. A final report on the key components for the project won’t be ready until October. A state back-of-the-envelope analysis included in a report earlier this year estimated that if caps were built-up to accommodate large buildings, it would add potentially $500 million to the price tag.
An independent analysis of the construction project’s air and noise pollution effects also remains unfinished.
“We know there is more work to do,” said Megan Channell, the project’s director.
But, Channell noted, the project easily dates back more than a decade and has long included support from Portland officials. She also said that the Environmental Assessment, the less time consuming review that state undertook for two years and completed last spring, also included extensive public comment.
CHannell, however, did not summarize the tenor or content of comments for the commission. The No Freeways Coalition, which has been fighting the project for more than a year, has said the vast majority opposed the project and called for further study.
Sharon Smith, a commissioner from Bend, said she read the 460 comments from the public on the plan, many of which she said had “legitimate concerns” that the state is now addressing.
In the past few months, the commission took steps to further review air and sound pollution from the freeway expansion, to pledge to implement congestion pricing on the stretch of freeway in line with the projects planned completion in 2027 and to bring more transit service to the area.
“We’re in very uncertain times right now,” Smith said in reference to the coronavirus pandemic. Future revenue sources for the project could be in jeopardy, or federal money could come through. No one knows,” she said. “We will be taking direction form the legislature and this project will evolve and we need to be willing to react to what ‘s coming down.”
The 2017 state transportation package dedicated $30 million every year for the project starting in 2022. That money, according to the state statute, would be spent until the project is completed or bonds issued to pay for construction have been repaid. The agency said in 2019 that it planned to issue anywhere from $420 million to $450 million in bonds for the project over a 20- or 25-year period.
With more recent projections, cost estimates have ballooned to a range of $715 million to $790 million, and likely would rise above that going forward.
Meanwhile, many questions remain unanswered.
On surface streets, the project calls for adding a bike and pedestrian bridge, removing and replacing an overpass, and installing freeway covers to create public space above the freeway.
A handful of Portland activists who have fought the project for more than a year commented on the video throughout the meeting, calling the meeting set-up “outrageous.” In a live chat, they peppered the transportation department’s meeting operator with questions, concerns and demands for more information.
During a briefing before the formal meeting began, Van Brocklin and transportation department leaders said the agency was prepared to handle meetings remotely and this was not out of the ordinary.
But Van Brocklin said during a later work session that he was not interested in having a significant discussion about the agency’s long-range strategies.
“We do not want to have a long-range planning meeting on the phone,” he said.