The Oregon Department of Transportation still has the key in the ignition for its plans to decongest Interstate 5 at Portland's Rose Quarter.
But whether the car will start hinges on the input and support of Black community members — especially after the influential Albina Vision Trust yanked its support in late June, prompting Mayor Ted Wheeler and others to jump ship from the executive steering committee.
ODOT abruptly shuttered the project's community advisory committee on Wednesday, Sept. 2, informing the 20-plus members by phone just hours before publishing a news release announcing the closure, several members told the Tribune.
The group's August meeting had previously been canceled.
In its place, the state transportation agency says it will create a 17-person Historic Albina Advisory Board that will "intentionally center voices of the Black community to shape the project," which would add car lanes to a 1.8-mile stretch of I-5 and build city-block-sized caps to the freeway at a cost of at least $800 million.
Now-former advisory member John Washington, Flossin Media's CEO and executive director of the Soul District Business Association, said he approves of the committee adjustment and believes ODOT's leaders are genuinely trying to effect change and social justice.
But he said that ODOT's designs — including exit-to-exit auxiliary lanes — wouldn't address major traffic chokepoints and said the proposed highway covers must be sturdier enough to support affordable housing.
"We don't want a barren oasis," he said. "Highways, byways and thoroughfares are always the tip of the spear for negative impacts for our community, and a lot of times we don't see it coming."
Liz Fouther-Branch joined the committee believing it was a real attempt to right the wrongs that displaced her mother three times as the Albina District was riven by construction of I-5, the Memorial Coliseum and the expansion of Legacy Emanuel Medical Center.
But she ended up resigning about a month ago — describing a floundering effort, still lacking a charter after three meetings, that was "beyond performative."
"I didn't want to feel like I was being tokenized … I didn't see what it had to do with restorative justice," Fouther-Branch said.
Support still lacking
ODOT's own focus group data also shows a tough road ahead.
The agency gathered some 40 African-American residents for discussion groups in October, but found they "generally disagreed with the proposed design concepts."
"The significant investment in additional bike lanes was a strong indicator that the current project will primarily benefit white people in Portland," according to a summary report released in February. "Many individuals voiced the continued sadness, hurt and anger of being forced out of the Albina and Rose Quarter area."
ODOT spokeswoman April deLeon-Galloway said she learned of the decision to close the advisory committee late the previous week but wasn't sure when agency heads made the nod. She said the committee swap-out had not led to talk of delaying the construction timeline.
"Our priority value is restorative justice," she said. "This is in response to exactly what we have heard from the discussion with the African-American communities in the fall."
Former committee member and 1,000 Friends of Oregon advocacy manager Brett Morgan said the experience left him with a "sense of frustration." Local public defender Chris O'Connor called the group "directionless" and little more than a "rubber stamp," saying it suffered due to the use of teleconferencing required by pandemic protocol.
"I've never sat in a room with any of these folks," O'Connor said. "It was like they decided to build the house, and they wanted us to decide what color to paint the porch."
Spokeswoman deLeon-Galloway says ODOT has not yet decided whether former members of the CAC will be required to re-apply, if they so choose, to the new committee. ODOT expects to select 11 members, with the rest serving at-large.
Metro Council candidate Chris Smith and other activists with No More Freeways PDX continue to oppose the project.
Aaron Brown, one such organizer, said ODOT preempted a planned mass resignation of committee members: "ODOT essentially said, 'You can't break up with us — we'll break up with you.'"
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