The Oregon Transportation Commission will move ahead with the widening of Interstate 5 at the Rose Quarter in Portland, but with caution.
The commission voted Thursday, Sept. 9, for a project option to cover part of the expansion and reconnect the Albina neighborhood, which I-5 split when it was built through North Portland 60 years ago. But that cover, technically the Hybrid 3 option that neighborhood groups favor and Gov. Kate Brown has endorsed, will add $400 million to $600 million to a project that already has grown beyond its 2016 estimate.
The new total would push the project past $1 billion — and the cover does not qualify for state highway funds under Oregon's restrictions on spending fuel taxes and driver and vehicle fees.
But commission chairman Bob Van Brocklin of Portland said it's time for the state to move ahead with a key project to relieve traffic congestion and right a historic injustice to Portland's Black community.
"It will take an area of the state that was decimated by the construction of this freeway and try and do something that reinvests in this area and can be funded. We then have a potential project we can do," he said. "So I think the first step is to look at whether there is a funding plan and whether it is based on reality."
He said the timing is right, not only because the Oregon Legislature approved funding in 2017 for a series of transportation projects but because President Joe Biden and Congress are working on parallel federal legislation. The Senate has passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which includes $1 billion for projects to reconnect communities split by interstates. The House has held it up until both chambers can fill in the details of a $3.5 trillion budget resolution that also is likely to contain money for transportation projects.
"We are having federal infrastructure legislation that we have not seen in a long time," Van Brocklin said. "The window on federal funding is this year."
The commission asked the staff of the Oregon Department of Transportation to report by Dec. 1 how the project might be funded beyond its original scope. In addition to federal funds, the commission specified Portland, Multnomah County, Metro and TriMet.
The original 2016 estimate for the Rose Quarter project, done in advance of the 2017 state legislation, was $450 million to $500 million. The commission received a report in January 2020 that pegged the cost between $715 million and $795 million — and that was without the proposed larger cover, which Albina neighborhood groups said was essential to their support.
That larger cover would add $400 million to $600 million to the cost, depending on whether the cover would support buildings of two or three stories or buildings of five or six stories atop I-5.
According to ODOT, the project as now conceived also would change the location of various freeway entrance and exit ramps, reconnect the street grid above the highway, make new multimodal infrastructure investments, and add one northbound and one southbound 1.7-mile auxiliary lane from the I-5/I-84 interchange to the Fremont Bridge.
Preliminary construction on the north and south ends could start in mid-2023, but the bulk of the work would get underway in mid- to late 2025.
Looking for money
Commission Vice Chair Alando Simpson, who is Black, led the group that worked more than a year to come up with the project.
"Our focus must continue to be on putting a finance plan together to deliver the project, and that will require additional funding from other governmental partners," he said in a statement afterward.
The two commission members from outside Portland supported the motion to proceed, but said they still had questions not only about how the project would be paid for but also whether that spending was a good idea, given other transportation needs.
"I get the whole idea behind the cover and the connectivity that takes place over the top of it," said Julie Brown, who's also general manager of the Rogue Valley Transportation District. "With that said, it is now one of the biggest costs of a transportation project that has ever happened in the history of Oregon. I would be remiss if I didn't put on the brakes and push back a little bit."
Sharon Smith, general counsel for the Bend-La Pine School District, also questioned the potential price tag.
"Is that getting the value we want? We can do a lot of things in mitigation," she said.
"Could we spend that money on other things and do more for the community? I'm not going to answer the question. I'm going to throw it out there."
Van Brocklin said lawmakers have given no indication they want to back off projects that relieve traffic congestion in the Portland metropolitan area, where Oregon ships and receives many of the goods it produces and there is a commission vacancy. Dean Marcilynn Burke of the University of Oregon law school is scheduled for an Oregon Senate vote later this month.
Friends and foes
Among those speaking for the project was John Washington, executive director of the Soul District Business Association and chair of the Historic Albina Advisory Board. He said it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revitalize a neighborhood that has been long neglected.
"It is about enlightening and waking up our community, and coming together in such a way that we believe that we can move the needle and move the agenda for our community."
Ben Nelson, assistant district manager for the Oregon and Southern Idaho District Council of Laborers, said the project — along with the Columbia River Crossing bridge still on the drawing boards — would generate jobs and apprenticeships in communities that need them the most.
"Our biggest fear is that this project gets stalled and the opportunity passes us by," he said.
Other community and labor leaders spoke out for it.
But Joe Cortright, a Portland economist who has spoken on behalf of the No More Freeways group, said the widening project has become wider in scope with the proposed expanded cover over I-5. He called for a full federal environmental impact statement under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act — a process that can take years — instead of the less extensive environmental assessment done by ODOT.
"If you do not comply with federal environmental laws, this project will be delayed even longer," he said. "This project is vastly different."
Cortright accused ODOT and the commission of posing the project as not only a generator of jobs but a nod to environmental justice for a minority community that has borne the impacts of an interstate.
"I hope you will desist from cynically pitting the interests of people who care about the environment against those who care rightfully about jobs and economic justice," he said. "Any time we spend money, we can create opportunity for people. We do not need to spend money on projects that destroy the planet.
"This project will consume resources that could be used for all kinds of transportation projects and all kinds of employment creation in this state. You have not resolved fundamental issues of design and what, if anything, will be done for Tubman Middle School."
Among others who spoke against the project were Adah Crandall, who attended Tubman Middle School — which sits next to I-5, but farther north — and now is at Grant High School, and other youths from the Sunrise Movement, which has conducted protests in front of ODOT's Portland regional headquarters.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.