An important voice today weighed in on the contentious issue of whether the Oregon Department of Transportation should proceed with the proposed $450 million expansion of Interstate 5 at the Rose Quarter or prepare a formal environmental impact statement.
House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), the city's most powerful state lawmaker, says she favors the latter approach—a blow to ODOT's apparent desire to move forward immediately with its existing blueprint for addressing the Rose Quarter bottleneck.
Critics of ODOT's plan, who include Portland Public Schools, Albina Vision, the city of Portland and Metro, have urged ODOT officials to conduct an EIS, which is a far more expansive version of the environmental assessment the agency already conducted.
That process would give critics leverage to push for the project to be greener and more compatible with a variety of community interests, rather than just being a highway project.
Critics have met with ODOT officials repeatedly over the course of this year. In Dec. 3 resolution, PPS officials, who are concerned about the impact on the newly reopened Harriet Tubman Middle School, expressed frustration with the lack of movement from those meetings.
"In June 2019, ODOT convened a group of elected leaders and staff as well as community stakeholders," the PPS resolution says. "To date, this group has met five times and made no substantial progress to substantially address issues raised by Portland Public Schools and the Albina Vision or offer alternatives to the current project plan."
"At this time, the OTC has privately stated that it plans to unilaterally take action at its December 17 public meeting without addressing any of the troubling and significant impacts that the widening will have on students and community health," the resolution, which goes in front of the board tonight, continued.
But today, in response to a question from WW, Kotek, who not had previously made a public statement whether the Rose Quarter project needs further study, came down on the side of PPS and others who want an EIS.
"The speaker is supportive of conducting a full environmental impact statement," Kotek's spokesperson, Danny Moran, told WW in a text message.
Kotek's position is important because as speaker she holds enormous clout over the budgets of state agencies, including ODOT, which is tasked with deploying $5.3 billion in transportation funding the Legislature's Joint Transportation Committee appropriated in 2017.
The Rose Quarter project was specifically earmarked in that funding package, although groups in Portland have pushed back against the highway department's plan for the work.
An ODOT spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.