For now, with most people adhering to stay-at-home orders, a drive along Interstate 5 through Portland is relatively pleasant, calm and swift (reminder: travel only if necessary). But eventually we will be back to inching along through the heart of Portland’s east side, cursing the stress-inducing congestion.
Through years of discussion about replacing the I-5 Bridge, the elephant in the room has been Portland’s Rose Quarter corridor. Even if a sparkling new bridge can facilitate free-flowing traffic across the Columbia River, odds are that drivers will come to a halt a few miles to the south.
For the estimated 70,000 Clark County residents who work in Oregon — at least when the economy is not shuttered because of COVID-19 — and the many who visit Portland to shop or recreate, there was some good news last week. Members of the Oregon Transportation Commission unanimously agreed that a proposed expansion of the freeway through the Rose Quarter area does not require an Environmental Impact Statement, which could have delayed the project for three years.
The project, with a price tag of more than $700 million, would add freeway shoulders and merging lanes on Interstate 5 between I-405 and I-84. It would provide bike lanes and improved transit access on nearby surface streets, and might place a cap over sections of the freeway to reconnect long-separated neighborhoods in Northeast Portland.
Whether all that comes to pass remains to be seen. But the eschewing of an additional environmental study is a pleasant surprise. The project has received criticism from environmental groups and neighborhood activists, and OregonLive.com reported: “For months, it appeared that Portland-area politicians … were preparing to stand in the way and delay the project in favor of more extensive environmental reviews.”
Indeed, the environmental impact of large construction projects should be considered. In the case of a freeway expansion, an increase in carbon emissions, air pollution and noise pollution can have deleterious effects. But such reviews too frequently are used by opponents who are more interested in halting or delaying a project out of principal than they are in public health.
OregonLive reported: “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 project’s planned completion in 2027, and to bring more transit service to the area.”
If members of the Oregon commission tasked with assessing the project give their approval, we will trust their judgment. And we will note the importance of the expansion for Clark County residents.
Without improvements to the Rose Quarter area and the nearby interchange with Interstate 405, any improvements to the I-5 Bridge would be self-defeating, with southbound drivers quickly being slowed by the bottleneck. Such slowing and idling in traffic can exacerbate the environmental impact of a freeway, with vehicles spending more time on the road to get where they are going.
In addition, progress on the Rose Quarter project could mitigate hard feelings from this side of the Columbia regarding Oregon’s proposal to collect tolls along I-5 and I-205. Washington residents would pay a disproportionate percentage of any tolls near the state line; we should share in the benefits from those payments.
Clark County residents have a vested interest in what happens with Portland’s freeways. Eventually, we will be driving on them again.