Portland School Board members say the state should pay to rebuild Harriet Tubman Middle School in a new location if plans to widen the I-5 freeway in the Rose Quarter move forward.
The PPS board voted unanimously Tuesday, July 27 to adopt a resolution demanding the Oregon Department of Transportation find state funds to relocate the school, situated immediately adjacent to the freeway in the Albina neighborhood.
Board members and staff say that will cost at least $84 million.
The Rose Quarter I-5 freeway expansion project would have irreparable health impacts on Harriet Tubman students, who are already impacted by pollution and poor air quality at the campus, the board said.
"I'm glad we're drawing a line in the sand about what we expect and what our students deserve," board member Amy Kohnstamm said during discussion about the resolution.
Harriet Tubman Middle School reopened in 2018 with air filtration systems in place and air quality sensors in the building, to monitor pollution levels in the school from the nearby freeway. Portland Public Schools hired Portland State University to study the air quality at the site. PSU air quality experts found the school had elevated levels of traffic-related air pollution, sometimes exceeding pollution levels measured in nearby neighborhoods. On some days, students have been advised not to go outside due to elevated pollution levels.
School board members say if the freeway is widened, impacts to the school could get worse.
An environmental assessment shows the freeway widening project would require a portion of the school site be taken over by ODOT.
"The portion of the property needed for the project's improvements is currently a landscaped slope between I-5 and the school site and a section of a paved driveway; this area does not include any portion of the school buildings nor the outdoor play area," said Tia Williams, a communications director with ODOT. "The project's improvements planned for this area are a rebuilt retaining wall and sound wall."
ODOT says the I-5 Rose Quarter project will reduce congestion and crashes, while giving more space for emergency vehicles on the freeway and reducing what the agency calls "the biggest traffic bottleneck in Oregon," on the freeway between I-84 and I-405, while also improving the Broadway and Weidler interchanges.
Williams said PPS has been "an active project partner" in the ODOT project, but school board members say the project ignores health and safety impacts to students.
"The historical legacy from ODOT ignoring health and equity concerns voiced decades ago about building a freeway too close to a school has had health and environment consequences for our students and the surrounding community and required PPS to spend millions in limited capital funds to make the air inside Tubman safe for students," the resolution states. The document, titled Resolution 6354, "Protecting PPS Students, Staff, and Communities in Oregon Department of Transportation's I-5 Rose Quarter Project" also claims ODOT never "meaningfully engaged" with the school district about the project.
The resolution notes the district has already spent $10 million to install air filtration systems at Harriet Tubman Middle School and demands state leaders pay to rebuild the middle school in a safe location within the Albina neighborhood, if the project proceeds. The district also wants ODOT to do a more comprehensive environmental review of the project.
"From a school district standpoint, if the state proceeds, it's hard to imagine that this project would result in anything other than Harriet Tubman needing to be rebuilt in a different location in Albina," said school board member Julia Brim-Edwards, who's served on a committee to examine the ODOT project for the past two years.
PPS also said it wants to see the freeway project benefit the Albina neighborhood, which saw residents and businesses displaced by the original I-5 freeway project.
"Having participated in about two years of discussions now, I think it's important to note that there's not a universal point of view in the community about this project," Brim Edwards said. "It's somewhat disheartening because at times, the project seemed to present choices like you were for Black economic empowerment, or you were for rebuilding Albina, or in support of clean air and healthy environments at Harriet Tubman Middle School, but you couldn't be for more than one of those things."
Interstate fractured historically Black neighborhood
The freeway's impact on the Albina neighborhood is all too familiar to Michelle DePass, chair of the school board. DePass grew up in the neighborhood. She now oversees the area as part of the school district's Zone 2.
She can recall the ripple effects of the construction of the I-5 freeway that cut through Portland's historically Black neighborhoods, displacing many residents and businesses. "Personally, I'm very much aligned with the Albina Vision project," DePass said, referring to ongoing efforts to restore and revitalize the Albina district. "I'd like to see the buildable covers, because I feel like there's a promise to this community even before I was born. ODOT has had a very harmful history in this neighborhood, where I was raised."
Those "buildable covers" DePass referred to are freeway covers—structures that span over the road beneath and can help reconnect communities—that ODOT is currently studying.
"This has impacted the real estate values and negatively impacted my family, but there are others who have lost businesses and homes," DePass said of the freeway's construction. "It's wiped out generations of wealth. If we can turn back some of those harmful things that ODOT, the freeway and feds have done, I'm hoping it's a reconciliation."
The state transportation agency is looking at the possibility of paying for a new school.
School Board Director Gary Hollands urged the district to take a heavier hand.
"I think we have to go further than just a statement, because there's a lot of moving parts to get the money to rectify our students that are affected by the pollution," Hollands said. "If this was on the west side, and they had a pollution issue, our kids wouldn't have been there (at the school) that long."
The I-5 Rose Quarter project has seen public criticism and protests from youth climate activism group Sunrise PDX, Neighbors for Clean Air and No More Freeways.
ODOT says it's trying to work with the school district, but claims the project would improve air quality near the current site.
"As an agency, we want to be a good partner, which includes minimizing potential impacts and providing appropriate compensation to affected properties," Williams said. "While the project's Environmental Assessment found that air quality in the project area — which includes (Harriet Tubman Middle School) — will be better with the project's improvements, there is a high level of interest by our agency and state leadership to partner with PPS and come up with a solution for HTMS that meets the community's broader vision."
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