Gov. Kate Brown says she will seek $120 million for the relocation of Harriet Tubman Middle School in connection with the larger Rose Quarter improvement project on Interstate 5 in Portland.
Brown said the state's commitment, which lawmakers must approve, is linked to the specific I-5 design improvements that the Oregon Transportation Commission voted for on Sept. 9. The improvements call for a partial cover over I-5 that will reconnect the Albina neighborhood — something that neighborhood groups favor and Brown supports — but also will drive up the project's price tag.
Harriet Tubman Middle School, which is farther north on I-5, underwent a remodel to address indoor air pollution from the freeway. Despite the fixes, the freeway will move even closer to the school, leading state and local leaders to push for relocating the campus.
Brown disclosed her pending budget request on Tuesday, Jan. 25, during a virtual legislative preview sponsored by The Associated Press.
"Part of moving of Harriet Tubman Middle School, which primarily serves students of color, is to put it out of the path of the freeway so that kids attending the school can go outside and breathe clean air. So it is part of the overall project," Brown said in response to a question.
"I think it is important that the state make this investment. It begins the conversation about how we repair the harms of the past and begin to right historic wrongs. We have arrived at a really good place on this project."
When I-5 was built in the early 1960s, it split the Albina neighborhood, then and now the heart of Portland's Black community.
Rose Quarter project
As now conceived, the larger Rose Quarter project 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. The cover is an addition.
The school relocation is not officially part of it.
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.
Because of the proposed cover, the Federal Highway Administration has said the environmental assessment that the Oregon Department of Transportation conducted for the project will need to be revised.
The project has drawn criticism from some environmental advocates — who argue that it amounts to an inappropriate highway widening when climate-change measures call for a reduction in greenhouse gases — and fiscal conservatives who point to its escalating costs.
A 2016 estimate put the cost at $450 million to $500 million, but that preceded the 2017 multibillion transportation plan passed by the Legislature. A 2020 estimate put it at between $715 million and $795 million, but noted that a cover would add between $400 million and $600 million.
According to an ODOT report Jan. 20 to the Transportation Commission, which asked for an updated estimate after its Sept. 9 vote for the specific improvements called for in the Hybrid 3 plan, the proposed cover would increase the project's base cost of $800 million by $380 million to $425 million. That range assumes the cover would support construction of buildings of up to three stories. The cost would go up by another $172 million to $200 million if the cover were to support buildings of up to six stories.
Money is short
So far there is no identified source for the cost of the cover. The Oregon Constitution bars use of fuel taxes and vehicle fees for purposes other than road and bridge work. However, ODOT could seek money from the recently approved federal infrastructure legislation, which sets aside $100 billion nationally for competitive grants by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The legislation also has a special $1 billion fund for projects that reconnect communities.
"I know that the public partners and the nonprofit organizations that are working together on this project are absolutely committed to get the resources needed to see this project through in a safer and healthier way," Brown said.
After the Sept. 9 vote by the commission, vice chairman Alando Simpson — who is Black and who led the group that devised the plan that won approval, said: "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."
Brown said that while the state would put up money, siting decisions are the responsibility of the city of Portland, Multnomah County and Portland Public Schools, working with residents about what they want.
"I would expect there would be a school relocation," she said.
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