U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley Push Gov. Kate Brown for a Cover Over I-5 in the Rose Quarter

The senators join Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland) in saying the current plans for the project don’t meet community concerns.

IMG_7334(1) Interstate 5 in the Rose Quarter. (Wesley Lapointe)

Oregon’s two U.S. senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, have joined local elected leaders in demanding Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Department of Transportation build a cap over Interstate 5 in the Rose Quarter.

They joined U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland) in a pointed letter to the governor today, noting that the Democrats in Congress and the White House are “committed to addressing racial equity and economic justice” in infrastructure legislation. They argue that to meet such a threshold, the Rose Quarter project needs to include the covers over the highway that could support redevelopment of a historically Black neighborhood.

“In its current iteration, the plan for the Rose Quarter Improvement Project from the Oregon Department of Transportation does not take advantage of the opportunity to reconnect a community divided by a freeway to help ensure economic opportunities and a more equitable future,” the senators write.

“Based on conversations with members of the community, it has become clear that the Albina neighborhood and the entire Portland region would benefit from buildable caps over I-5 that would reconnect the historic Albina neighborhood and provide opportunities to heal the social, economic and environmental damage done to the community in the 50 years since the highway corridor’s creation,” the congressmen continue, pledging to work to “fight to secure additional funding” for such a project.

WW reported this week that consultants have been advising the agency since April that a more narrow project would make such a plan more economically feasible. But the Oregon Transportation Commission, which guides state transportation policy, voted in May to keep the project at its current width. (It’s unclear if commissioners had been advised of the consultants’ recommendation.)

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

The city withdrew from involvement in the project last year over ODOT’s unwillingness to commit to a plan for caps on which development could be built. Metro Council President Lynn Peterson and Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson have been pushing ODOT to respond to the same community demand.

But now those local leaders have the highest-profile elected officials in the state on board.

“We ask that the Oregon Department of Transportation make the most of the opportunity to reverse the historic damage done to this important community,” the three federal leaders write to Brown.

The governor’s office did not have an immediate response to the letter, but earlier this week issued a statement to WW:

“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,” Brown’s spokeswoman Liz Merah told WW, “while supporting local businesses, creating good-paying jobs and apprenticeship opportunities locally, and addressing public health and greenhouse gas emissions.”

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