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School district says air quality near middle school will get worse, but project was well known before school reopened

Portland school officials are asking the state to take a closer look at an estimated $450 million Interstate-5 Rose Quarter improvement project that could threaten a nearby middle school.PMG FILE PHOTO - Increased traffic on Interstate 5 could contribute to unhealthy air around Harriet Tubman Middle School, leading to a feud between Portland Public Schools and the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Portland Public Schools board of directors said last week that the Oregon Department of Transportation didn't give adequate time for PPS to weigh in on the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project, despite the project's proximity to Harriet Tubman Middle School and the nearby PPS district offices.

But transportation officials say the project has been in the works for years, long before Tubman was reopened last year.

ODOT's public comment period for the published environmental assessment of the project closes Monday, April 1.

The board echoed concerns voiced previously about the major transportation project, which opponents say will worsen air quality at the middle school and do nothing to solve traffic congestion.

A March 22 memo to ODOT from PPS notes "a number of potential significant short and long term impacts" that PPS staff identified in a rough overview of the project, including air quality, traffic impacts, soil stability, noise and other factors.

The I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project aims to increase connectivity between communities and to allow more time and space for entering and exiting the freeway.

The project would add auxiliary lanes, shoulders and highway covers to the freeway near the Lloyd District. Plans also include added bicycle and pedestrian access points over the freeway and on existing side streets.

Whether the board's input will yield any changes to the proposed construction is unclear. Portland City Council and the Oregon Transportation Commission approved plans for the freeway project in 2012, years before Harriet Tubman Middle School was reopened by PPS last year. With the help of Portland State University researchers, the school district implemented an air-quality monitoring system to address unhealthy pollutants in the air due to the school's proximity to I-5.

"They decided to open up the school last year, and they did it right next to our freeway and they did it understanding this project was in the works," Don Hamilton, a public information officer with ODOT, said Friday, March 22.

ODOT project reps were met with frustration and doubt from the PPS board, after delivering a Rose Quarter project overview Tuesday, March 19.

"You're gonna be pile driving into (the hillside) to hold up the retaining wall," Director Paul Anthony noted, voicing concern over soil stability. Anthony said construction crews likely will be feeding piles in between vertical piles that hold up the school. "We have no idea what the consequences are going to be to the structural integrity of the building if you hit one of them."

The board eventually voted to forward PPS staff comments to ODOT regarding the environmental assessment.

A school district memo says ODOT plans to construct new travel lanes less than 30 feet from the middle school on North Flint Avenue.

"Many assumptions have gone into estimating the impact of this project on future automobile emissions," the memo states. "In addition, great weight appears to have been given to projections of future automobile emissions, including the basic assumption that expanding I-5 will result in a long-term decrease in congestion that is not universally accepted by knowledgeable critics. Since Tubman is occupied by almost 500 young students, this complex issue demands a more thorough analysis, understanding, and description of all variables and unknowns."

ODOT representatives say the project has been mischaracterized as a freeway expansion project.

"This is a multifaceted project," ODOT's Hamilton said Friday. "It's removing those seismically dangerous overpasses over the freeways; it's putting in new bicycle lanes and better access to mass transit."

Hamilton said more than 50 years ago, construction of I-5 was a major factor in disconnecting a historically African-American community from the rest of central Portland.

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