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Questions About the Footprint of the I-5 Rose Quarter Project Intensify

"Freeways are a thing of the past," says Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.

Last month, City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty took over leadership of the Portland Bureau of Transportation. On March 1, she'll have her first meeting with the Oregon Department of Transportation on a contentious subject: the proposed widening of Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter.

Hardesty will bring with her some firm views. "Freeway expansions are not going to get us to our climate goals," she says. "In fact, freeways are a thing of the past."

Her skepticism cranks up the heat on ODOT, which already saw the neighborhood restoration nonprofit Albina Vision Trust walk away from the Rose Quarter project last June. That move led the city, Multnomah County and Metro to withdraw support from a project that community members say must address both climate concerns and historical racial injustices.

Meanwhile, ODOT is sitting on funding appropriated for the $795 million project back in 2017 and getting direction from state lawmakers that is contrary to the desires of Portland critics.

But when Hardesty sits down with ODOT, she'll have leverage: fresh information uncovered by the group No More Freeways, which opposes the Rose Quarter expansion.

Through public records requests, the group found two separate documents—one in a consultant's report and another in a design drawing—that show the project's right of way when it passes under the Broadway/Weidler interchange could be as wide as 160 feet but certainly no less than 126 feet.

More Freeways says the crucial point is that ODOT's design calls for a footprint that is significantly wider than the current freeway at the Broadway/Weidler interchange, which the group pegs at 82 feet.

That opens the possibility for more lanes, traffic and emissions.

When WW asked ODOT about the documents, an agency spokeswoman said the project, which is still in the early design phase, would indeed be significantly wider than the current freeway because, in addition to new auxiliary lanes, it would also have four 12-foot shoulders.

Those shoulders are just extra space, ODOT says. "The shoulders are not proposed for use as new or future travel lanes," ODOT spokeswoman April deLeon-Galloway explains.

But Joe Cortright, a Portland economist and member of No More Freeways says the new "shoulders" could easily be striped to create more lanes—which would generate more traffic and more emissions.

Cortright notes that a wider footprint also complicates the other major community interest: placing caps over I-5 to reunite the Albina neighborhood, which was cut in two by construction of the freeway in the 1960s. A bigger footprint makes capping the freeway harder to engineer and more expensive.

"ODOT is claiming this project will have very minor impacts on traffic," Cortright says. "Research shows that when you widen a freeway, it induces more traffic. You are building a structure that can accommodate eight to 10 lanes. And the cost of building caps would increase dramatically."

If the highway footprint is, in fact, wider than previously disclosed, that could give new leverage to the project's critics.

ODOT conducted traffic modeling for the project's environmental assessment based on four lanes of traffic and a new auxiliary lane on each side.

"The traffic analysis in the environmental assessment modeled a six-lane facility," deLeon-Galloway says.

If critics and local officials can demonstrate that the highway is indeed wider than six lanes, they may be able to force ODOT to conduct a more thorough assessment of the project's environmental impacts.

Transportation is by far the largest source of emissions in Multnomah County, so concerns about whether ODOT's project would increase them, contrary to local and state climate goals, are a big deal—as is trying to repair some of the damage done to Portland's Black community when I-5 was built.

Winta Yohannes, managing director of the Albina Vision Trust, declined to comment for this story, saying her organization was waiting to see new renderings of proposed freeway caps that an ODOT contractor will produce next month.

But others are bubbling with questions.

Metro Council President Lynn Peterson, who formerly served as transportation adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber and secretary of transportation for the state of Washington, has been unsatisfied with ODOT's answers about the project's width.

Peterson raised the issue at a January meeting of the Rose Quarter Executive Steering Committee and again at a meeting Feb. 22. Peterson says ODOT's response this week—that there would be four 12-foot shoulders, rather than two—was new information to her.

"That was 24 feet wider than I had envisioned," Peterson says. "That raises several questions. I would like to know more about why the inside shoulder width is necessary. I don't think that's there on other parts of the freeway."

(ODOT says it made the width plain in an environmental assessment for the project released in 2019, although the numbers were simply attached to a cross section of the highway rather than explicitly identified.)

Another member of the executive steering committee, Julia Brim-Edwards, is on the panel because she's a member of the Portland Public Schools board. PPS owns Harriet Tubman Middle School, located adjacent to the project.

Brim-Edwards says the district still hasn't gotten the answers it needs from ODOT about how the project would affect air quality for Tubman's 700 students. A wider footprint isn't likely to mollify the school district.

"Our concerns remain unchanged. The proximity of the project to Harriet Tubman Middle School and the historical and current air quality remain unchanged," Brim-Edwards says.

"We disagreed with the air quality standards they proposed and remain concerned the project hasn't addressed issues PPS has raised since the very beginning," she adds.

But state lawmakers recently signaled they want more driving rather than less. In a pending bill, the co-chairs of the Legislature's Joint Transportation Committee propose to scrap congestion pricing in favor of tolls on Portland-area interstate highways—essentially giving the green light to as much car traffic as possible.

So who's in charge? Hardesty says with Joe Biden in the White House and Democrats fully in control of Congress, ODOT will find that putting climate and social justice first is the order of the day for a project scheduled to begin in mid-2022.

She says the agency must listen to what Portlanders—the people the project would affect most—want. (She first offered her views on the Rose Quarter project to the news website BikePortland last week.)

Hardesty plans to make sure local voices get heard.

"My superpower is, I'm a community organizer," she says. "There's no path forward without congestion pricing, and I'm not excited about adding lanes."

Correction: This story originally said the cost of the Rose Quarter project is $895 million. WW regrets the error.