Portland activists win as Brown shifts I-5 focus to $1B caps
Cassie Wilson knows first-hand how important access to transportation is. The 22-year-old lives in Boring, an unincorporated community in Clackamas County. Wilson, who relies on a wheelchair, says she's at the mercy of others with cars to get her places. She wishes it didn't have to be that way.
"Thanks to disability coupled with a lack of transit and sidewalks, I've been completely reliant on someone driving me wherever I need to go," Wilson told a crowd gathered outside the Oregon Department of Transportation offices in downtown Portland in June. "Access to an automobile shouldn't be a prerequisite for participating in society."
It's not that Wilson wants easier access to a car. She'd rather not rely on one at all.
"ODOT's priorities are basically saying, 'you're not welcome if you don't own a car or can't drive," Wilson said. Wilson was one of roughly two dozen young activists with youth-based climate activism group Sunrise PDX, who rallied outside ODOT's Portland office to oppose the planned I-5 Rose Quarter expansion project. The project would see the widening of the interstate in Portland's Albina neighborhood.
The protests are part of a groundswell of opposition to the project. While activists want the project scrapped, others, like members of the Portland Public Schools Board, want to see freeway caps included and nearby Harriet Tubman Middle School rebuilt in a new location, with state funds.
Outcry over the project appears to have paid off. In August, Gov. Kate Brown signed on to a "win-win" proposal that would build longer and sturdier highway caps that could support three-story buildings, OPB reported.
The caps would cover 4.11 acres of the interstate, activating a total of nearly eight acres for new development, ODOT planning documents for the so-called hybrid 3 proposal show. The total cost for the caps is roughly $1.1 billion, an overwhelming share of the total $1.25 billion projected price tag.
Activists have reacted to the news with cautious optimism, calling Gov. Brown's decision a significant improvement over the original 2019 proposal.
"Of course, it is not necessary to widen I-5 through the heart of the historic Black neighborhood in order to cover the freeway," said Chris Smith, co-founder of No More Freeways. "We will continue to push for a full Environmental Impact Statement in the courts and other venues to ensure ODOT is held accountable for the impacts this proposed expansion will have on our community's lungs and our warming planet."
Rallies have added pressure for months
The youth-led rally in June was one of several, recurring demonstrations, called climate strikes organized by Sunrise PDX. The group has gotten support from Neighbors for Clean Air--an anti-pollution-focused advocacy group. The climate activists want the state transit agency to do a deeper environmental assessment of the freeway project, or better yet, do away with it altogether.
The youth-focused rally in June came just three days prior to a record-breaking deadly heat wave that blanketed much of Oregon.
"This is not the time to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure, said Micah Barton, a 22-year-old Portlander and organizer with Neighbors for Clean Air. Barton said Portland residents have access to mass transit and one of the country's most bike-friendly cities.
"I live without a car. I experience life without a car and it s not that hard, Barton said. "Our transit system is pretty good."
Both Wilson and Barton want to see access to public transit lines, not freeways, expanded.
ODOT says the I-5 Rose Quarter project will reduce congestion and crashes, allow more space for emergency vehicles on the freeway and reduce what the agency calls "the biggest traffic bottleneck in Oregon," between I-84 and I-405. The agency claims the project will also improve the Broadway and Weidler interchanges. Critics, like No More Freeways PDX, say the claims of easing congestion are false, and the expansion will only further contribute to Portland's pollution.
"Not a single urban freeway expansion in North America has ever solved the problem of congestion, due to a concept that urban planners call 'induced demand,'" the coalition's website states.
The group points out that Oregon Department of Energy and Department of Environmental Quality data shows that transporation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state.
The new hybrid proposal would narrow the shoulders of I-5 from 12 feet to four feet under the new proposal, mollifying some concerns that the expansion would allow for eight to ten lanes of traffic simply by repainting the road.
Brown hopes to relocate middle school
Opposition to the project isn't just coming from climate activists. The project has seen outcry from a cross-section of environmentalists, those concerned about the freeway's negative historical impact on Portland's Albina neighborhood, and those who represent the state's largest school district. Portland School Board members are also at odds with the state transit agency over its plans to take over a portion of the Harriet Tubman Middle School site, which sits immediately adjacent to the I-5 freeway. The middle school is already heavily impacted by pollution from the freeway.
Portland Public Schools paid about $10 million in recent years to monitor and install air filtration systems at the school. The school district said the freeway project wouldn't improve air quality much, if at all. ODOT refutes that, saying the air quality would likely be improved.
"It would go from really bad, to just bad," Julia Brim-Edwards, a school board member who's sat on a PPS committee for the Rose Quarter freeway project, said by phone.
With plans to further encroach on the school grounds, the school district wants the state to pay for a new school in a safer location within the Albina neighborhood. That will cost at least $84 million just for the building, according to school district estimates.
Gov. Brown agrees that the middle school must be moved.
"The governor finds the air quality and health impacts to students at Harriet Tubman Middle School to be very concerning, and she supports moving the school, regardless of the Rose Quarter project," a spokeswoman for Brown told Willamette Week.
"The governor is committed to partnering to explore options and what resources might be available at all levels of government. "
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