A Contractor’s Report Fuels Demands That State Officials Shrink and Cover a Highway Through Northeast Portland

ODOT has resisted any attempt to scale back the highway lanes planned for the $795 million project.

4350_News1_Traffic_I-5_Moda-Center_Daniel-Stindt_7 Interstate 5 in the Rose Quarter could fit under a neighborhood. (Daniel Stindt)

A fight that is stalling the future of highway traffic through the Rose Quarter might be settled for a mere 20-foot span of pavement.

WW has learned that an Oregon Department of Transportation contractor, San Francisco-based Arup, has recommended since at least April 28 that ODOT select a narrower highway design for Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter. In a document obtained by WW, Arup says removing roughly 20 feet of width would reduce the cost of placing a cap over the highway.

That’s significant because, for more than a year, a unified front of Portland-area leaders at the city, county and regional levels has lined up behind building a cover over the highway—in order to support redevelopment of the historically Black Albina neighborhood. (Original construction of I-5 in the 1960s partly destroyed the neighborhood.) For that same year, ODOT has resisted any attempt to scale back the highway lanes planned for the $795 million project.

One of the local officials lobbying ODOT is Metro Council President Lynn Peterson. She tells WW that the Rose Quarter project must balance “the community’s needs for investment and the state’s needs for transportation”—a gentle but unmistakable signal she won’t accept a project that doesn’t restore the neighborhood above the freeway.

“This project is so important and needs clear direction from all levels of state government,” says Peterson. “We want to keep this process moving with some efficiency but also have a meaningful opportunity to push the boundaries of what is possible both in design and restorative justice.”

The state’s transportation leaders have not embraced that approach. Instead, the Oregon Transportation Commission, which directs state transportation policy, voted in May to commit to 12-foot shoulders on the inside and outside of the project, in addition to a new 12-foot auxiliary lane in the center of the highway. The commission took that vote even as the formal evaluation of how to proceed with building highway covers was still underway.

For most of the Rose Quarter project’s tenure, the highest-profile opponents have pushed ODOT not to widen the highway at all. Now what’s notable is how many local leaders are pushing for the project to work, with some changes.

“We need visionary leadership and commitment to bring this all together, but it is clear to me that the pieces are there,” says Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson.

Now the project has entered a critical phase, with pressure mounting on state highway officials to concede a little ground.

Some of that pressure comes from Oregon’s congressional delegation. U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Eugene) recently expressed exasperation with the uncertainty of project as the Oregon delegation stands ready to look for federal funding for it.

Now, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland) is also pushing for ODOT to change course.

“If we’re able to have the Department of Transportation catch up to where the community is, I think there’s a real opportunity to be able to tie into some of the initiatives of the Biden administration that [have] some resources to heal some of these wounds,” Blumenauer tells WW. “This happened all over the country. I indicated to the governor that the feedback I’ve been getting from the community, I find it encouraging. And this is a priority for me.”

As of April, the Biden administration infrastructure plan included $20 billion to help “reconnect” communities of color, The New York Times reported.

The new assessment, obtained by WW, shows even ODOT’s own contractor has offered the agency a way to deliver the highway caps Portlanders have demanded.

The draft Constructability and Cost Analysis Report for the Rose Quarter Independent Cover Assessment, dated June 2, estimates covering the highway would cost more than $500 million. Covers that could support five-story buildings would cost roughly $200 million more, depending on which design ODOT proceeds with.

The draft report does not include an estimate of how much money could be saved by making the highway more narrow. As of press deadlines, ODOT did not provide any estimates the agency may have.

The report does say no comparable highway project in any other city includes the 12-foot inner shoulder lanes that ODOT has included in this project. (According the report, Presidio Parkway in San Francisco has 4 feet, the I-93 Central Artery in Boston has zero feet, and the Alaskan Way tunnel in Seattle has 2 feet.)

“Arup recommends a revised approach in line with current precedents for urban highway projects that...reduces impacts on the community (including Harriet Tubman Middle school) and enhances restorative justice by increasing and improving the quality of development potential on and adjacent to the covers,” the April presentation states.

And it says adding width essentially adds expense.

“The most significant driver of project cost (initial construction cost as well as ongoing maintenance and life-cycle costs), right-of-way impacts, and development potential on and adjacent to the covers is the cross-section width,” the draft report states, laying out various technical approaches used in other states.”We believe these options can be considered to reduce the tunnel width so as to minimize construction cost and impact to the adjacent properties.”

Instead, the report recommends considering interior shoulders of 3 to 8 feet (instead of 12); exterior shoulders of 10 feet (instead of 12), and lanes of 11 or 12 feet (instead of only 12).

Such a design could accommodate the demands of the nonprofit championing the effort to redevelop the Albina neighborhood.

In a June 9 letter, Albina Vision Trust’s executive director Winta Yohannes and board chair Rukaiyah Adams called on ODOT director Kris Strickler to get back to working with the community.

Their request: “Reconnect Portland’s neighborhoods, modernize an important urban transportation corridor and realize a commonly held vision for a community where Black folks and their history are treasured and reflected in the urban form.” (Yohannes declined to comment further when contacted by WW.)

ODOT says it’s still working through the process. “We know that there is a ton of work ahead,” says department spokeswoman Tia Williams.

But the leaders pressuring ODOT may soon include the agency’s boss, Gov. Kate Brown.

In a statement to WW, Brown’s office signaled her strongest support to date for a highway cover that would support neighborhood development.

“With the Biden-Harris administration in place, we have a historic opportunity for local, regional and state governments to partner with our federal delegation to ensure the Rose Quarter project reconnects and repairs the historic Albina community,” says Brown’s spokeswoman Liz Merah, “while supporting local businesses, creating good-paying jobs and apprenticeship opportunities locally, and addressing public health and greenhouse gas emissions.”

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