The proposal to widen Interstate 5 at the Rose Quarter had hit a speed bump.
At two public hearings last month, a string of Portland transportation and environmental advocates lined up to argue the project was a waste of nearly half a billion dollars.
Then, on Sept. 14, an Oregon Department of Transportation official provided a rejoinder. Policy and development manager Kelly Brooks testified that adding two new lanes and wider shoulders to I-5 at the Rose Quarter would address safety. And she told the City Council the highway interchange was deadly.
"It's unfair to say we don't have any severe crashes," said Brooks. "Between 2010 and 2014, we had two fatalities." (She also mentioned seven serious injuries.)
In exchanges with the press, ODOT officials have repeated Brooks' line of argument—that the Rose Quarter project is about safety. That's a particularly compelling argument because Portland City Hall has committed itself to eliminating traffic deaths.
"The primary purpose of this project is to address a critical safety need," emails ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton.
But adding lanes to the highway would not have prevented the two deaths cited by ODOT.
Both deaths were of homeless men who walked onto the highway in the middle of the night, according to police reports obtained by WW.
In the 2010 case, the mental health of the man who walked onto the road may have been a factor, according to a relative.
"He had a lot of mental health stuff that was going on," says the man's sister-in-law. "We're not sure if he was taking a shortcut home or something else was going on."
In the other case, in 2013, the man who died crossing the highway registered a blood alcohol level of 0.294 percent, according to a police report, more than three times the legal limit for drivers.
In neither case were drivers faulted. Highway conditions were dry, according to police reports, although in 2013, a street light was out.
"They've been trying to do the equivalent of greenwashing, but for safety," says economist Joe Cortright, a longtime ODOT critic lobbying against the project. "They've said crash, crash, crash all the time. This is actually one of the safest parts of the transportation system. On average, [the interstate] is about five times safer than the average arterial streets in the city."
In selling the $450 million highway project—and encountering predictable opposition in a car-unfriendly town—ODOT and city officials haven't been able to present a justification that resonates with Portlanders.
State officials initially pitched the project as a way to help move freight through Portland more efficiently, but now their official talking points highlight safety. The City Council, which approved the plan back in 2012, still hasn't decided whether it will move forward.
State funding for the I-5 project was approved this spring as part of Gov. Kate Brown's transportation package. It's up for debate again as part of the city's planning process, specifically the Central City 2035 Plan. Four of the five city commissioners have said they support the project, with Commissioner Chloe Eudaly as a possible lone dissenter.
The project represents a massive public investment—larger than the $64 million the Portland gas tax is projected to bring in over four years, and larger than the $258 million housing bond.
Yet ODOT has not settled on a coherent argument for the project.
In a phone interview with WW, ODOT project manager Megan Channell said the project could save commuters 2.5 million driving hours a year. Yet Channell also says there are no firm answers whether it would simply move a bottleneck up the road.
"We can't give you a definitive yes or no," she tells WW, adding that an environmental review of the project is underway to project traffic impacts during and after completion of the project.
ODOT also hasn't been able to show that I-5 at the Rose Quarter is more lethal than other stretches of highway in the city.
ODOT says I-5 southbound through the Rose Quarter scores in the top 5 percent of its highways for number of crashes, but most of these are minor accidents—690 fender benders in five years. The agency believes the project could cut crashes by up to 50 percent, but there's no evidence it would work to limit fatalities.
ODOT did not provide detailed information on the causes of the serious crashes by deadline, and Channell says she had no details on whether they could be prevented by the project.
"There are no engineering elements that can prevent people who want to get out on the highway from getting out on the highway," says Hamilton. "But there are things that we can do to help reduce the number of problems. Fender benders hurt people; they cost them a lot of money. It sounds cute, but it's actually a very serious issue to reduce fender benders."
There are other, state highways in the city where pedestrians, cyclists and motorists have died in greater numbers, including Southeast Powell Boulevard.
Nine people died in crashes on Powell from Southeast 7th Avenue to Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard in the decade from 2005 to 2014. That stretch of state-run highway hasn't been fully funded for upgrades—work that would cost a fraction of the I-5 Rose Quarter project.
In the same decade, the Rose Quarter stretch of I-5 saw three fatalities—the two documented by police reports and a third death, in 2009, that was also of a pedestrian on the highway, according to ODOT data.
The rate of crashes on the Rose Quarter stretch of I-5, according to ODOT data published in June, is lower than on nearly every stretch of Southeast Powell Boulevard, and of 82nd Avenue. Yesterday, the Portland Police Bureau announced another traffic fatality—a person crossing Northeast 82nd Avenue on foot—bringing the total of such fatalities to 33, one more than at this time last year.
"If this location justifies $450 million for safety, then streets like 82nd and Barbur are owed billions," says Chris Smith, a member of the city planning commission who opposes the project. "When residents of East Portland have twice the chance of dying just walking in their neighborhoods than folks living west of I-205, how can we justify this expenditure at the Rose Quarter?"
The two deaths cited by ODOT might also have been prevented by different public investments. Life expectancy for people living on the streets is low.
"For $450 million," says Israel Bayer, executive director of Street Roots, "we could be talking about getting hundreds of people off the streets and into housing—period."