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A Document Raises Another Red Flag About the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Commitment to Racial Justice

A contractor alleges ODOT is pre-baking the independent review to avoid having to build a neighborhood over the freeway.

The $795 million project to widen Interstate 5 at the Rose Quarter has hinged for more than a year on whether the project would help build back a Black neighborhood that the original construction of the highway helped destroy.

Specifically, the fight has centered on a plan to redevelop the Albina neighborhood by constructing caps over the highway that would make it possible to build on top of it.

The Portland City Council lined up behind that effort, championed by the nonprofit Albina Vision Trust. Both parties withdrew from the project, however, after the Oregon Department of Transportation failed to adequately commit to investing in highway covers that could support a neighborhood.

But ODOT did enlist a contractor to independently assess what kind of caps were possible.

The April Facilitation Needs Assessment Report, a document dated May 11 and obtained by WW this week, now casts doubt once again on whether ODOT is actually committed to highway caps. In fact, the team brought in to evaluate the caps’ feasibility says the state highway department isn’t giving it enough information or time to reach an independent conclusion.

“There has been a considerable amount of pressure and influence exerted by ODOT consultants and facilitators to manage which preliminary cover concepts get studied more deeply, despite the Black community workshop participants’ expression of their preferences,” the report says.

ODOT consultants and individual steering committee members should stop suggesting changes to the report, it adds. “Otherwise, the process cannot be represented to the public as an independent study of alternative cover designs.”

In other words, the contractor alleges ODOT is pre-baking the independent review to avoid having to build a neighborhood over the freeway.

State highway officials strongly dispute that claim.

The report makes three key assertions:

1. ODOT asked the independent cover assessment contractor to include an option that would fit with plans already approved by the federal government, also known as the environmental assessment. The contractor could also recommend another plan “outside EA parameters” and possibly suggest a third choice, the report says. “There has been testimony from other project stakeholders at both the April [executive steering committee] and [Historic Albina Advisory Board] meetings that has implied that consideration of any alternatives that do not fall within the current EA parameters should not be considered if they will further delay the project schedule,” the report states.

Significance: Any plan that requires changes to the environmental assessment could carry additional costs; it might delay the project, among other reasons. Requiring the independent assessment to include an option that didn’t mean starting over would almost certainly make that the choice ODOT would rubber-stamp.

ODOT’s response: “For scenarios outside of the EA, they are required to provide the analysis that considers structural, cost, economic implications and implementation strategies for that scenario. They are still working to complete that analysis,” says ODOT spokeswoman Tia Williams.

2. The independent cover assessment team “requested project schedule and cost information in early April,” among other things, but as of May 11 was still waiting.

Significance: If the contractor isn’t receiving information it requested from ODOT, the agency may not be living up to its promise to make an independent assessment of highway caps.

ODOT’s response: It disputes the contractor’s contention. “The ICA team has the most up-to-date information,” says Williams. “Our contract with the ICA team outlines the information needed for them to complete their work. We have provided that and have responded to additional requests throughout the process of their work as we collaborate on a near daily basis.”

3. The report alleges the independent assessment team has “not been provided sufficient time on ODOT’s Historic Albina Advisory Board or [executive steering committee] meeting agendas to present and receive feedback from stakeholders about the various preliminary cover concepts.”

Significance: The contractor alleges another way ODOT has not provided support—by not letting its team hear outside ideas. “If the ICA team had received adequate time to discuss these concepts in the committee meetings, we would have been able to hear the feedback directly from individual committee members without any filtering by ODOT,” the document states.

ODOT’s response: “When reviewing agendas since September 2020, the ICA team has been provided with about 60% of the meeting time,” Williams says.