Freeway caps trigger new assessment of ODOT project that will displace Harriet Tubman Middle School

PMG FILE PHOTO - This stretch of I-5 through the Rose Quarter is the most congested in the state during normal times. The I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project will get a new environmental assessment, after the design for the freeway project changed.The Federal Highway Administration is asking for a new environmental assessment of the Interstate 5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project.

The Oregon Department of Transportation confirmed the federal request was made after the project's design changed to allow for a freeway cover, referred to as the "Hybrid 3" design option, on recommendation from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Transportation Commission.

The freeway cap is intended to create a bridge over the road that can support new buildings. ODOT heard multiple requests from the public to include the cover in its freeway project design, as a means of reconnecting the Albina neighborhood — a historically Black community that was once its own city outside of Portland — that was bisected by the I-5 freeway construction in the 1960s.

According to ODOT, the freeway cover design would make room for one-to-three-story buildings, with an option for up to six stories over the I-5 freeway and would "reunite long-separated portions of the Lower Albina neighborhood and provide opportunities for development and improved local street connections." To accommodate that, the I-5 southbound on-ramp would be relocated south of the freeway cover.

The project is now estimated to cost between $500 and $750 million, including the freeway cover.

ODOT doesn't expect the new environmental assessment to heavily impact the project's overall timeline.

The Federal Highway Administration approved an environmental assessment for the Rose Quarter project in 2020, but rescinded its finding of no significant impact when the freeway design change was presented.

"Updating the Environmental Assessment is an important step to advance the community's preferred Hybrid 3 highway cover design and is a step we anticipated and are excited to take," Megan Channell, Rose Quarter Project director, stated. "With guidance from and in partnership with the FHWA, we can still begin construction on time in 2023, creating jobs we know are important to the community and providing congestion relief that is critical to commuters and our economy."

With the new assessment comes a review of the scope of the project and its impacts.

The I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project will add auxiliary lanes and shoulders in an effort to improve traffic flow and safety.

Project heavily scrutinized

The project has faced heavy scrutiny, most notably from environmental advocates and Portland Public Schools.

The current freeway has polluted nearby Harriet Tubman Middle School.

PHOTO COURTESY: PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS - A team conducts air quality tests at Harriet Tubman Middle School in February 2018. The school, which is right next to the I-5 freeway in Portland, underwent an air quality remodel in 2018, but now the school is slated to move as the freeway expands.The school underwent a remodel to remedy air pollution problems within the school. It reopened in 2018 with air filtration systems and air quality sensors in the building, to monitor pollution levels in the school from the nearby freeway.

Plans for the I-5 project would further encroach on the school property. Last July, the PPS school board demanded ODOT find the funds to help PPS relocate Tubman Middle School, saying the I-5 project would add to existing air quality problems the school worked hard to fix. That request was supported by Gov. Kate Brown, who agrees the school needs to be moved.

The school district is now in the process of exploring alternative sites for a new Tubman school, but the process won't come without heartache.

PPS school board member Herman Greene said many families in the neighborhood view the move as repeating Portland's history of displacing Black families for development projects.

Greene cited the initial I-5 freeway construction, the construction of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Legacy Emanuel Hospital.

"You have to understand the years and years and decades of trauma that community has faced and now we're coming back as a school district and saying, 'our hands are tied, we gotta do something about this,' and we do," Greene said during a Jan. 11 school board meeting. "I just want us to be crystal clear that the reason we're seeing this pushback is once again, white America is coming in and telling Black families, 'we're gonna make things better for the community, but you gotta go.'"

Environmental advocates praise new assessment

The freeway project's initial environmental assessment was the subject of a lawsuit filed in April 2021.

No More Freeways, Neighbors for Clean Air and the Eliot Neighborhood Association filed suit against the United States Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration DOT last April, saying the project violates the National Environmental Protection Act and its impacts weren't fully considered.

The I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project has also been the subject of several youth-organized demonstrations outside of ODOT's Portland headquarters. Youth activists say widening I-5 will only increase pollution and further threaten the climate for future generations.

"Young people have protested since April 2021 demanding a rapid decarbonization of our region's transportation systems, a full EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) for the proposed Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion, and a paradigm shift towards alternatives to freeway expansions," said Adah Crandall, an organizer with Sunrise PDX.

The Eliot Neighborhood Association is hoping the feds' call for a new environmental review will stop the freeway project.

"This decision gives ODOT, the Oregon Transportation Commission, the City of Portland and the Metro Council yet another chance to abandon the project and take a different approach to transportation for a better future," Allan Rudwick, co-chair of the Eliot Neighborhood Association, said in a media advisory Thursday, Jan. 20. "We remain concerned about this project disrupting our streets and discouraging development for years of construction before increasing traffic, congestion and pollution for future generations."

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