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Mayor and City Council order staff to stop working with Oregon Department of Transportation on July 6.

PMG PHOTO: ALVARO FONTAN - The Oregon Department of Transportion plans to add lanes to Interstate 5 as it weaves past the Moda Center, Oregon Convention Center and other parts of the Rose Quarter's historically-Black Albina District in Portland. Portland City Hall put up a crimson-colored sign for the state planners hoping to reflow Interstate 5 as it slogs past the Moda Center through the Rose Quarter.

The sign's message: STOP.

In a tersely-worded letter dated Monday, July 6, the Council ordered all city bureaus to immediately cease working with the Oregon Department of Transportation's I-5 team, including "attending meetings, providing technical support or responding to project emails."

"ODOT's I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project is not currently aligned with the values of the City as articulated in Central City 2035, the Racial Equity Plan and the Climate Emergency Resolution," the letter says. "Any resumption of City staff services will be at the direction of the Portland City Council."

Read a copy of the letter here.

The letter — signed by Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Chloe Eudaly, Jo Ann Hardesty and Amanda Fritz — is the clearest signal yet that even modest efforts to expand freeways in Portland may be politically unpalatable.

ODOT has long argued that the two-mile stretch of I-5 between interstates 84 and 405 is a nightmare for commuters, with bottlenecks popping up roughly 12 hours each day. Their nearly $800-million estimate for the build includes pot-sweeteners such as street-level protected bike lanes, a new pedestrian bridge and freeway caps that would bridge the rift in the historically-Black Albina District.

The project once had extensive backing. State lawmakers approved $30 million a year for it beginning in 2022 back in 2017. Things changed when the influential Albina Vision nonprofit revoked its support on June 30. Brown now says the project must bring Black communities back to the table to succeed.

After losing their bid to force a more extensive environmental review of the project, activists are hailing the City Hall letter as a victory.

"It's great to see the city and community leadership holding ODOT accountable for its lack of transparency and inability to do community engagement," said Aaron Brown of No More Freeways PDX in a phone interview. "The city is taking its ball and going home."

The activist notes that City Hall could codify its disapproval of the project by removing it from their official transportation system plan.

ODOT has hardly given up the ball game, however. The state agency sent out a news release later on July 6 announcing a meeting for the public to meet potential construction managers and general contractors.

"Hiring the CM/GC is a key step to establishing a path that allows for investment in the historic Albina district and is intentional to fit the needs of the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project," according to the release.

ODOT's Mobility Office Director, Brendan Finn, told the Tribune he had heard the Albina Vision Trust's message loud and clear. "They haven't told us to stop the project. They just want it to be the right project."

Finn highlighted that the Rose Quarter project design is only 15% completed. He admits ODOT wasn't responsive enough in conversations with the city regarding the project's outcomes and values.

"I think the city was a little frustrated that things aren't moving fast enough," Finn said. "We own that. We need to do better."

A spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation said the City Hall letter — earlier reported by the Oregonian — would not have a large impact for PBOT, as it was just "one of a variety of projects staff were working on."


Zane Sparling
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