Portlanders living near the Rose Quarter sued two federal transportation agencies Monday morning, demanding they force Oregon officials to look closer at the environmental effects of a contentious plan to expand Interstate 5.
Three Portland advocacy groups, including a neighborhood association, filed the lawsuit in federal court this morning against the U.S Department of Transportation and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration. In the lawsuit, they accused the feds of failing to hold the Oregon Department of Transportation responsible for conducting a thorough environmental impact analysis of a highway project that would widen I-5 to at least 120 feet as it passes Moda Center and Harriet Tubman Middle School.
The lawsuit alleges ODOT cut corners and failed to conduct a thorough and transparent analysis of how the project would impact air quality, congestion, carbon emissions and people living nearby. It says the feds rubber-stamped an incomplete and porous assessment last October, in effect giving the $715 million project the green light.
The lawsuit was filed by the advocacy groups No More Freeways, Neighbors for Clean Air, and the Eliot Neighborhood Association.
"No More Freeways' independent analysis of ODOT's traffic projections found multiple egregious errors and outdated assumptions that were used to try to prop up ODOT's dubious claims that this freeway expansion would be the first in North American history to reduce congestion, air pollution or carbon emissions," a statement from the plaintiffs read.
The lawsuit elevates a fractious fight over Portland's traffic jams and neighborhood planning to federal court and is the latest tactic by environmental advocates who—like many across the country—view car-centered infrastructure as a blight contributing to a warming planet. The issue is especially fraught in Portland because the highway cuts through the Albina neighborhood, a historically Black neighborhood that was ravaged by the original construction of the I-5 corridor in the 1950s and '60s.
"This project underwent a robust environmental assessment that showed future air quality would improve in part due to the congestion relief provided by this project. Those findings were reviewed and confirmed by a panel of national air quality and transportation experts. We are confident in the findings," a statement from ODOT provided by spokesperson Tia Williams said. "ODOT remains committed to centering the voices of the Black community through our engagement process and ensuring that this project reconnects the Albina community, including through highway covers that align with the community's vision, support restorative justice goals, and generate opportunities for economic development that benefit the historically impacted community."
Nearly every local official has denounced the current design, and many have called for caps over the highway that can support new construction to restore Albina.
Williams added, "Let me be clear, highway covers are included in the design. What goes on top of them will be determined by the OTC, based on recommendations from the advisory committees and a lengthy community process".
The lawsuit seeks to compel a reworking of the project from the top: It would force the feds to require the state to more closely examine the effects of the project on air quality and carbon emissions. By not doing so, the plaintiffs argue, the federal government is violating the National Environmental Policy Act.
"Transportation infrastructure projects like the original I-5 freeway have created an environmental justice catastrophe for the surrounding Albina neighborhood," Mary Peveto, executive director of Neighbors for Clean Air, said in a statement. "Now, instead learning from the past and putting community voices at the center of decision-making, ODOT is not only planning an expansion based on flawed analysis, but looks to build it right at the backyard of Harriet Tubman Middle School, an historic and majority nonwhite institution that already has some of the worst air pollution in the state."