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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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Jayne: I-5 tunnel could right the wrongs

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

For those of us on the north side of the Columbia River, the Interstate 5 Bridge is just that – a bridge.

It’s an important bridge; no doubt about that. It is an essential conduit for commerce and recreation throughout the region. When roughly 70,000 Clark County residents work in Oregon and there are only two bridges between the two, well, those bridges are significant.

But as officials from Washington and Oregon wade into the details of eventually replacing the bridge and improving Interstate 5, we take note that the project is even more significant to the other side of the river. And that what happens in our backyard might depend on what happens 5 miles to the south.

Because as many a pundit has pointed out, improving the Interstate 5 Bridge also depends on improving the bottleneck through the Rose Quarter. We could build a 50-lane bridge across the Columbia if we wanted, and it wouldn’t do any good if the Rose Quarter remains a pinch point.

What happens in the middle of Portland doesn’t stay in the middle of Portland; it backs up toward Vancouver, sometimes for miles.

All of which means negotiations about the Rose Quarter are of interest in Clark County. All of which means that a decision from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is reverberating across the Columbia River.

Brown this month came out in support of a $1 billion renovation to I-5 through the Rose Quarter that would cap a portion of the freeway. Essentially, it would turn that portion of I-5 into a tunnel – like one that can be found through central Seattle.

The project would add one auxiliary lane in each direction and improve access ramps between Interstate 405 and Interstate 84. For us, that is the most important part; for Portland residents there is something else.

The impetus to all this is racial justice, which likely has many Clark County residents rolling their eyes. We just want roads to drive on, after all. But for many people in Portland, discussions about the project are influenced by decades of history.

For much of the 20th century, you see, Portland housing was redlined. Black residents were allowed to purchase homes only in the Albina neighborhood, told that was where they could create businesses and a community. So they did.

And then city officials displaced hundreds of them to build Memorial Coliseum. And then government officials displaced hundreds more and paved I-5 down the middle of that community. And then federal officials displaced hundreds more and the economic center of the district for a huge VA expansion at Emanuel Hospital. Dozens of blocks were cleared, businesses were removed, and residents were paid less than market value for their homes and told to leave. The expansion never took place.

You might or might not think this is an example of systemic racism, which is a popular talking point these days. But whether or not it was systemic, a mostly minority community has suffered for decades because of policies portrayed as “urban renewal.” And the thought of being forced to sell your home for less than market value can teach us a lot about the creation of generational wealth.

So, the idea of capping a portion of Interstate 5 is pretty important in Portland. It would reconnect neighborhoods physically divided for six decades by the freeway, and it would allow for development – buildings up to three stories tall, parks, walking and biking paths – atop the freeway.

As Gov. Brown told Oregon Public Broadcasting: “I am committed as the CEO of the state that this project has to be a part of not repeating the historic wrongs caused by the displacement of Black families and the resulting generational damage.”

For those of us who simply want a new bridge and a functioning freeway, that might seem overly ambitious. It’s just a road, after all, and the political wrangling helps explain why it is so difficult to get things done these days.

Sometimes, however, it is difficult to do the right thing. But it’s still right.