The Oregon Transportation Commission voted Thursday to give conditional approval to an updated design for the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project’s freeway cover component.
The added conditions reflected skepticism expressed by multiple commissioners about whether the project would be able to obtain the estimated $400 million of additional funding that the new plan would require.
The updated plan, referred to as “Hybrid 3,” was one of several options that the project office developed in conjunction with community groups and an outside consultant after the commission directed staff last year to take another look at the freeway cover plan and come up with new designs to provide greater restorative justice for the surrounding Albina neighborhood.
The Rose Quarter project would add “auxiliary lanes” to a stretch of Interstate 5 between the Interstate 84 and Interstate 405 interchanges in Portland, a section where the freeway currently narrows to two lanes in each direction. The Oregon Legislature passed a bill in 2017 directing the Oregon Department of Transportation to address the bottleneck and allocating $500 million to $700 million for the project.
The historically Black Albina neighborhood was split in two by the original construction of I-5, and the Rose Quarter project’s freeway caps were envisioned as a way to provide restitution for that damage and reconnect the community.
But community leaders objected to ODOT’s first proposed design, which included two freeway cap sections but did not cover the entire length of I-5 through Albina and would not have made the caps strong enough to allow for multistory buildings to be developed on the land above.
Following a series of meetings convened earlier this summer by Gov. Kate Brown, the Historic Albina Advisory Board endorsed the Hybrid 3 option, which would create a single contiguous freeway cap from Northeast Weidler Street to North Flint Avenue. Brown also endorsed the Hybrid 3 plan, as did the Rose Quarter project’s Executive Steering Committee and Community Oversight Advisory Committee.
The larger cover would raise the amount of developable space from about 2.4 acres to about 4.1 acres, Rose Quarter Project Director Megan Channell told the commission, and it would be capable of supporting light-framed buildings up to three stories. The plan could be further modified to make the cover capable of supporting buildings up to six stories at an added cost, she said.
Project planners also supported Hybrid 3 because it would still allow the project to start construction in 2023 as planned, Channell said, although it would lengthen the overall construction timeline, with the project estimated to reach its midpoint in 2027 rather than 2025.
The original plan would have cost $715 million to $795 million, according to a 2020 estimate. Hybrid 3 would raise the price tag to a preliminary estimate of $1.18 billion to $1.25 billion, Channell said, or $1.35 billion to $1.45 billion if the cover were built strong enough for five- or six-story buildings on top.
The commissioners all expressed concern about the higher price tag, and several of them called for Portland, Metro, Multnomah County and the federal government to contribute additional funding rather than having ODOT try to shoulder the entire increase. Commissioner Julie Brown in particular expressed doubts about whether the project could obtain additional federal funds.
“I don’t know if we can find the funding, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time and a lot of work and a lot of planning and then find out a year and a half from now that we were totally unrealistic,” she said. “I want to find out now.”
The commission ultimately voted unanimously to grant approval for the project office to continue developing Hybrid 3 on the condition that project staff ask local governments and organizations for additional funding and return to the commission by Dec. 1 with a project funding plan.
A second condition in the motion set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2022, for ODOT and the project contractors to accomplish a list of project planning tasks for Hybrid 3, such as seeking updated federal environmental approval and preserving the project’s existing construction and design contracts where possible.
Several construction labor officials expressed support for Hybrid 3 during the meeting’s public comment period and urged the commission to avoid delaying construction. Representatives from the activist groups No More Freeways and Sunrise Movement PDX testified in opposition, arguing that freeway expansion projects run counter to Oregon’s climate goals and undermine efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
“We could cap this freeway without widening it,” said Chris Smith of No More Freeways.