If we were starting from scratch, this is not how we would build a freeway system.
In a perfect world, there would be multiple bridges across the Columbia River to connect Clark County with Portland. Mass transit would be readily accessible on both sides of the river. Interstate 5 would not compress into a bottleneck at the Rose Quarter. And we certainly would not pave over one of Portland’s most scenic spots — the east bank of the Willamette River — with a major freeway.
Alas, we are not starting from scratch. Transportation solutions must deal with existing infrastructure, working around the decisions of the past and the roads and buildings already in place.
So, while it is disappointing that a plan to reconfigure the Rose Quarter corridor in central Portland apparently is doomed, the difficulty of finding agreement on the project is understandable.
The Oregon Department of Transportation project would expand I-5 by adding merging lanes and improving interchanges. The plan received a boost earlier this year when the Oregon Transportation Commission agreed that a time-consuming Environmental Impact Statement was not necessary, but now it has run into a roadblock. After a community nonprofit organization rescinded its support for the idea, numerous elected officials in the Portland area followed suit.
For many Clark County residents, the political machinations across the river might seem like a distant drama. But for the 70,000 or so who make the daily commute to and from Portland — and the countless more who visit Portland for recreation, entertainment or shopping — what happens there has an impact.
Improvements to the Rose Quarter area are inextricably linked to Clark County and efforts to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge. Officials from Washington and Oregon have been mulling a replacement for decades, and efforts have been rekindled over the past year.
Those efforts often have focused on the need for improvements through the heart of Portland, with critics pointing out that a new bridge will be inadequate if southbound drivers suddenly come to a standstill because of backups in the Rose Quarter area some 6 miles to the south.
While the $795 million Rose Quarter project officially is still on the drawing board, it is difficult to envision it moving forward after support has been withdrawn by Portland’s mayor, city council members, at least one Multnomah County commissioner and the president of the Metro regional government.
The impetus for those withdrawals was a decision by Albina Vision Trust, an advocacy group for a Portland neighborhood that traditionally has been home for much of the city’s Black community — a community devastated over the years by projects such as I-5. “We believed that this project presented ODOT and its partners the opportunity to consider how a major public investment could be in service of broader community visions for healing,” the group wrote in announcing its decision.
That decision likely will impact planning for an I-5 Bridge replacement and likely will serve as a harbinger of the difficult discussions ahead. Plans for the bridge must be accompanied by a holistic vision for transportation throughout the region — including changes to the Rose Quarter corridor.
It is not an ideal situation, and certainly not the one that would be created if we could start at the beginning. But it is the one we have, and it will require visionary leadership on both sides of the Columbia River.