What can Portland's last freeway expansion plan teach us?
As city, state and federal leaders negotiate a planned expansion of Interstate 5 at the Rose Quarter interchange, perhaps it's worth remembering that Portland faced a similar juncture just over a half-century ago.
In 1968, the Oregon Department of Transportation proposed extending Harbor Drive (also known as Highway 99W) along the waterfront, which already had severed public access to the Willamette River from downtown since 1950. Never mind that Governor Tom McCall had already pledged support for beautifying the riverfront with greenspace. The proposed Harbor Drive expansion, spearheaded by ODOT and the Portland Development Commission, was moving full speed ahead.
Then things changed. All over America, people were beginning to fight back against automobile-oriented projects and urban renewal that leveled so many square miles of waterfronts and neighborhoods. The United States didn't cease to be a car culture, and never has. But from here on, people in Portland and beyond began campaigning to protect cities from the onslaught of asphalt.
By the summer of '69, the first grassroots protests against Harbor Drive began, as a group called Riverfront For People staged a series of so-called family picnics in the median strip between Harbor Drive's six lanes of traffic. More than 300 people showed up for the first one.
Then in 1970, perhaps riding that same rising tide of Baby Boomer activism, a new generation of City Council members was elected, including future Portland mayor and Oregon governor Neil Goldschmidt. The activists' ideas took root in City Hall. The landmark 1972 Downtown Plan that followed created a blueprint for a more pedestrian and transit-friendly city to come.
As a result, in 1974, Harbor Drive was closed for good, and by 1978 Waterfront Park (re-named after McCall six years later) was complete. Any of us who have ever jogged through that wonderful riverside green space or attended a concert or festival there can be thankful. With apologies to highway builders and heavy industry, those picnickers were right: the riverfront of a city center is for people.
It wasn't just switching out Harbor Drive for Tom McCall Waterfront Park that earned Portland international accolades for its urban transformation. Activism in this same period also led to the Mt. Hood Freeway in Southeast Portland being canceled, and the funds diverted towards MAX, the nation's first modern light rail system. The Transit Mall and Pioneer Courthouse Square are part of that story too.
Yet the Harbor Drive showdown is especially noteworthy because today, Portland and Oregon are considering another highway expansion. In fact, the widening of I-5 at the Rose Quarter is all but a fait accompli. Like some impatient motorist weaving through traffic, ODOT isn't even conducting a full environmental impact statement.
The Rose Quarter bottleneck has indeed been called the worst on the West Coast. In each direction, what had been three lanes suddenly shrinks down to two. That's the most obvious reason for the clog, but the proximity of the Interstate 84 junction plays a role too. Yet to focus solely on these physical constraints misses the most important point.
The COVID-19 quarantine period has shown how things can change. Statistics show there are still many motorists passing through the Rose Quarter on I-5 — surprisingly, as many as before — but not all at rush hour, and at speeds twice the usual congested crawl. There is a very important lesson here: that it's not about capacity, which highway widening addresses. It's about changing demand, which at this point many cities around the world have done through congestion pricing.
To suggest widening I-5 at the Rose Quarter will solve traffic problems is not just a wildly expensive boondoggle. It also goes against the spirit of that Harbor Drive protest and the transformation of Portland that ensued. We can't simultaneously pat ourselves on the back for building a smarter city and then wave through a 1950s approach to infrastructure.
Maybe you're reading this and still thinking, "I don't care. I'm tired of that bottleneck at the Rose Quarter every time I drive there." It's certainly reasonable to feel fed up with traffic. We all are.
But the current crisis reminds us that the world is changing in ways that even an eventual COVID-19 vaccine might not stop.
Of course, society will soon open back up, and millions of people will get back in their cars. But in many ways, it's going to be a long road to recovery: both economically and socially. As a result, we don't just need a full environmental impact statement for this I-5 widening project. Just like those first Harbor Drive opponents did, we need to recognize the landscape has already changed.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com
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