Every great civilization has an origin story. For modern Portland, it is an exodus from Moses.

That's Robert Moses, the master builder of New York City's grid of expressways and bridges who brought the Big Apple its car commuters, smog and sprawl.

In 1943, the city of Portland hired Moses to design its urban future. Moses charted a highway loop around the city's core with a web of spur freeways running through neighborhoods. The city and state embraced much of the plan. The loop Moses envisioned became Interstate 405 as it links with I-5 south of downtown and runs north across the Fremont Bridge.

Local planners during the 1960s modified Moses' idea by adding freeways that would run through neighborhoods—slicing up the city like a tray of brownies. One freeway would run through Sellwood and up Southeast Johnson Creek Boulevard. Another would travel along Northeast Prescott Street. Two more would cut north and south along 20th and 52nd avenues.

The biggest of all was called the Mount Hood Freeway, an eight-lane ribbon that would have peeled off the Marquam Bridge, and run east in a 40-foot-deep trench where Southeast Clinton Street is now, cutting down to Powell Boulevard and running beyond I-205.

Planners thought all these freeways would allow commuters easy access to downtown. What they really would have done is isolate the city's neighborhoods that weren't razed during the freeways' construction.

Grassroots opposition to the Mount Hood Freeway had been growing in Southeast neighborhoods since 1969, as the state began buying properties in the highway's right-of-way. More than 1,700 homes sat in the path. The federal government had approved the money, the state was on board, and no one knew how to stop it.

"At the time, the odds seemed impossible," recalls architect George Crandall, who worked at Skidmore Owings & Merrill on the freeway's environmental impact study.

A legal aid lawyer named Neil Goldschmidt saw the threat posed by the Mount Hood Freeway and other highway projects. He also saw a campaign issue. In 1970, he won a seat on the City Council and, two years later, won election as mayor while making opposition to the freeway a centerpiece of his platform. 

The Mount Hood Freeway plan took a hit in 1973, when the environmental impact study showed that it would dump more traffic into downtown than existing roads could handle and would be obsolete by the time it was finished.

Goldschmidt knew that simply turning down the project and losing the $500 million in federal funds was unacceptable. His alternative: If the goal was to bring people into downtown, the feds' money could be spent on something else—public transit. Goldschmidt favored dedicated bus roads until his staff convinced him of a better idea: light rail.

The Portland power structure howled at the idea of building a commuter train line between downtown and Gresham. "Americans would sooner abandon their spouses than their cars," the editorial page of The Oregonian, one of the freeway's biggest boosters, said in 1974.

The turning point came on Feb. 4, 1974, when U.S. District Judge James M. Burns ruled the state highway division had failed to follow its own rules when deciding where to locate the freeway. The ruling left state officials and freeway boosters scrambling for their next move.

The Portland City Council voted in July to kill the freeway. The victory did more than stop one road from tearing up quiet residential streets. Light rail became the region's primary answer for transportation. Neighborhood associations emerged as the power blocs of Portland politics.

Most of all, the victory over the Mount Hood Freeway created the story of Portland exceptionalism, and the fight helped define us as an urban model for the nation.

The heady days following the freeway's death gave many at City Hall the conviction there was more that could be done, that a progressive movement was about to overtake a stodgy Portland. With the morning newspaper hostile to innovative ideas, they needed someone to tell the story. A former Wall Street Journal reporter and Goldschmidt aide named Ron Buel decided to launch a newspaper to chronicle the Portland experiment.

Willamette Week

From the Archives:

March 9, 2005: "Highway to Hell."