Regional Government Metro Stops Just Short of Saying the Oregon Department of Transportation Is Lying About Highway Project

"This statement is not objectively true and is potentially misleading; auxiliary lanes clearly add capacity."

Traffic in Portland's Rose Quarter (Daniel Stindt)

In what may be most significant critique yet of an Interstate 5 project planned for Portland's Rose Quarter, staff from the regional planning government Metro submitted official comments today. first reported the existence of letters, from staff and from Metro President Lynn Peterson.

Elissa Gertler, Metro's Director of Planning, stops just short of accusing the Oregon Department of Transportation of lying in its official Environmental Assessment, the document that is required to outline the effects of the project, which will add a lane in each direction between the I-405 Fremont Bridge and I-84.

ODOT has repeatedly insisted the project will not widen the highway but just add an auxiliary lane, which the agency argues shouldn't be construed as actually adding to the capacity of the highway.

The letter from Gertler objects to that.

"This statement is not objectively true and is potentially misleading; auxiliary lanes clearly add capacity, which can be calculated using Highway Capacity Manual procedures and other traffic analysis tools," wrote Gertler.

Aaron Brown, an organizer for No More Freeways PDX, a group that opposes the project, tweeted: "shoutout to metro staff for saying in polite bureaucraticese that ODOT is lying."

Today is the deadline for comments on the official Environment Assessment.

Critics and opponents have been pushing for a ODOT to embark on a lengthier evaluation of the project, called an Environment Impact Statement. That has the potential to delay the project by years, which in turn might derail the project altogether.

Neither the staff nor Peterson letter weighs in on that issue, but the staff letter appears to call for at least for a revision, calling the Environmental Assessment "inadequate" in one place.

This isn't the first time questions have been raised about ODOT's approach to arguing for the merits of this project.

WW reported that ODOT attempted to sell the project to the city of Portland citing the project's ability to make the road safer, but documents showed that the deaths on that stretch of highway were pedestrians who wandered onto the highway.

Related: State Officials Say I-5 in the Rose Quarter Poses a Deadly Danger. Police Reports Undercut That Claim.

Gertler's analysis of ODOT's claims around the safety improvement are also unsparing.

"The EA analysis does not adequately address serious crashes, which is inconsistent with federal, state and regional policies to eliminate serious crashes," she writes.

"In particular, Metro staff believes the EA is inadequate in its evaluation of serious crashes, including documentation of existing conditions and an analysis of how the alternatives compare on reducing serious crashes. This inadequacy means that project designs that can reduce deaths and life changing injuries are not being evaluated, despite direction from federal, state and regional policies."

Other key issues that Gertler's letter mentions:

— "The EA indicates that bus and streetcar performance will be slowed due to signal phasing changes. Metro staff requests FHWA and ODOT consider additional ways to mitigate this impact, including the consideration of BAT lanes, transit only lanes, and signal modifications (including TSP) on Broadway and Weidler."

— The project, which has been sold to skeptical Portlanders on the basis of its improvements on local streets, also appears to create some problems for people who bike or walk. For example, the width of Northeast Broadway is expanded, according to ODOT's current design, to five car lanes between Williams and 1st, which "may increase in poor driver behavior," Gertler says.

Peterson wrote a more careful letter that does not call for new analysis but rather asks ODOT to "to explicitly acknowledge and consider the significant historical context surrounding the Rose Quarter area during project evaluation, planning and implementation."

Peterson was unavailable for comment to answer questions on whether she supports revising the EA or even the call for a more lengthy EIS, says Metro spokesman Nick Christensen.

"We feel the letters stand for themselves," says Christensen.

In a Tweet, Metro Councilor Juan Carlos González said he supports a full EIS.

ODOT says they will review comments in conjunction with the Federal Highway Administration.

"The FHWA will inform us of the next steps in the process probably sometime later this spring," says ODOT spokesman Lou Torres.

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