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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Improvements to vital corridor promising

The Columbian
Published: March 14, 2024, 6:03am

Regardless of the traffic, this has been a good week for drivers who frequently venture across the Columbia River from Clark County.

As progress continues on the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, some milestones have been achieved regarding a major Interstate 5 project through Portland’s Rose Quarter. Efforts to build a new bridge have received plenty of attention, but the path through the heart of Portland also is important to the future of transportation in the metro area.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Transportation approved $450 million in federal funds toward building caps over I-5 near the Rose Quarter. And on Tuesday, it was announced that the Rose Quarter Improvement Project’s environmental review has been approved by the Federal Highway Administration.

That approval allows the project to move forward with more detailed plans, including traffic improvements through the oft-congested stretch of Interstate 5.

“This federal environmental decision paired with substantial funding highlights the alignment of supporters who want to see this project built,” Project Director Megan Channell said.

Those supporters include motorists from Clark County. Without improvements to the Rose Quarter area and nearby interchanges with Interstate 405 and Interstate 84, the potential benefits of a new I-5 Bridge will not be fully realized. Southbound motorists would enter a bottleneck that is at a standstill for much of a typical day.

Easing that congestion, however, is not the only reason to be encouraged by the Rose Quarter project. A key part of early proposals is the capping of the freeway (similar to I-5 through downtown Seattle), allowing for cross streets to reconnect Portland’s Lower Albina district.

Albina has a history as the center of African American culture and commerce in Portland, but construction of Interstate 5 during the 1960s physically divided that community. Winta Yohannes, executive director of Albina Vision Trust, called the federal funding a “momentous leap forward” in efforts to heal the neighborhood.

“The construction of Interstate 5 intentionally bisected Portland’s Black community, paving the way for decades of government-led urban renewal policies that decimated the wealth, well-being and place-based stability of our city’s most marginalized,” Yohannes said. “This catalytic federal investment represents the beginning of a new chapter, one where government plays an active role in not only healing the harms of history, but investing in community-driven visions of a better tomorrow.”

For those who mock or question the need for inclusion and equity in freeway planning, the story of Albina is instructive. As U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, said: “This funding is transformative not just for Portland but as a national model to heal communities torn apart by destructive federal projects. We are showing how to do it right with this investment.”

To top off a significant week, Clark County commuters also should be encouraged by another announcement. Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek has recommended that the state halt plans for tolling along Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 up to the state line. That proposal would inequitably affect drivers from Washington who cross into Oregon, using collected tolls to improve swaths of freeway not frequented by drivers from our state.

Kotek’s request would not impact tolls on a new bridge, which would go toward paying construction costs on that bridge. But there are plenty of reasons to be encouraged by progress on the region’s most important corridor.