Portland is weighing whether to spend half a billion dollars widening a mile-long stretch of the I-5 freeway at the Rose Quarter near downtown. We’ve dug deeply into this idea at City Observatory, and we’ve published 25 commentaries addressing various aspects of the project.  Here’s a synopsis:

Traffic congestion

Wider freeways don’t reduce congestion.  March 4, 2019. The best argument that highway planners can muster for the Rose Quarter freeway widening is that it might somehow relieve congestion by reducing the number of crashes, but when they widened a stretch of I-5 just north of the Rose Quarter a decade ago, crashes not only didn’t decrease, crash rates actually went up.

Rose Quarter freeway widening won’t reduce congestion, March 2, 2019. Wider urban freeways have never reduced congestion, due to “induced demand” a problem so predictable, that experts call it “the fundamental law of road congestion.” Even the experts from ODOT and the Portland Bureau of Transportation concede that the freeway widening will do nothing to reduce daily “recurring” traffic congestion.

Backfire: How widening freeways can make traffic congestion worse, February 26, 2019.  It’s an article of faith among highway builders and boosters that adding more capacity will make freeways flow more smoothly. But in reality, widening a road or intersection at one point simply funnels more vehicles into the next bottleneck more quickly–which can lead a road to become congested even faster. That’s what’s happened on I-5 Northbound in Portland, where the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River carry fewer vehicles in the peak hour now because improvements to the freeway and intersections have overwhelmed the bridge bottleneck.

Congestion pricing is a better solution for the Rose Quarter, March 26, 2019. Congestion pricing on I-5 would dramatically reduce congestion, improve freight and transit travel times, and do so at far lower cost than freeway widening, according to . . . the Oregon Department of Transportation. Pricing has been approved by the state Legislature, but ODOT has violated NEPA by failing to include any mention of it in the Rose Quarter Environmental Assessment.

How tax evasion fuels traffic congestion in Portland, March 15, 2019. A big part of traffic congestion on I-5 and I-205 as they cross the Columbia River is due to Washington residents shopping in Oregon to evade Washington’s high retail sales tax (Oregon has none). Vancouver residents evade $120 million in sales tax per year by shopping in Oregon, but account for between 10 and 20 percent of all traffic across the river. 

Reducing congestion: Katy didn’t, December 27, 2016.  Add as many lanes as you like in an urban setting and you’ll only increase the level of traffic and congestion.  That’s the lesson of Houston’s Katy Freeway, successively widened to a total of 23 lanes, at a cost of billions, but with the latest widening, travel times on the freeway are now slower than before it was expanded.


Safety: Using the big lie to sell wider freeways, March 19, 2019. ODOT claims that the I-5 Rose Quarter is the state’s “#1 crash location.” But that’s not true.  Other Portland area ODOT roads, including Barbur Boulevard, Powell Boulevard and 82nd Avenue have crash rates that are as much as 3 times higher, and worse, these streets cause fatalities, which the freeway doesn’t. Crying “safety” is a calculated, “Big Lie” marketing gimmick, that would spend half a billion dollars on a roadway that contributes nothing to the state’s growing traffic death toll.

Safety last: What we’ve learned from “improving” the I-5 freeway, March 21, 2019. ODOT has also “improved” freeway interchanges south of Portland as well.  It improved the Woodburn interchange in 2015, hoping to reduce crashes–but they increased instead.  The interchange had two serious crashes, producing extensive delays in February 2019.

Carbon and pollution

Climate concerns crush Oregon highway funding bill, March 6, 2015. In 2015, a pending highway finance bill was killed when the Oregon Department of Transportation admitted it had provided estimates of carbon reductions that were wildly exaggerated and could not be verified. With a track record of producing carbon emission estimates that falsely flatter its preferred projects, should anyone trust the estimates contained in the Rose Quarter Environmental Assessment?

Widening the I-5 Freeway will add millions of miles of vehicle travel, March 4, 2019.  The University of California Davis has a calculator for estimating the effects of added freeway capacity on travel; it suggests that Rose Quarter freeway widening will produce xx to yy million additional miles of travel per year in Portland, as well as xx to yy thousand additional tons of carbon emissions.

Urban Myth Busting: Congestion, Idling and Carbon Emissions, July 6, 2017. The Rose Quarter project makes unsubstantiated claims that it will reduce carbon emissions, by reducing the number of cars idling in traffic; but the published scientific literature on the subject shows that gains from reduced idling due to capacity increases are more than offset by the increase in emissions due to induced travel demand.

Bike and pedestrian infrastructure and freeway covers


Distorted Images: Freeway widening is bad for pedestrians, March 14, 2019. ODOT has produced a handful of computer-generated renderings to show how its massive freeway widening project would affect surface streets in Northeast Portland. They’re carefully composed to exaggerate some features and conceal others. If you look closely, you can see how the plan is to round off corners at key intersections–speeding car traffic and increasing danger to pedestrians. In addition, ODOT illustrations show dozens of pedestrians and just a handful of cars on this busy city street: proportions that are off by a factor of 200 in showing the real world relationship of cars to people in this space.

The great freeway cover-up, December 13, 2017. ODOT’s freeway widening plans call for two over-sized freeway overpasses to be built (primarily to deal with construction staging in a dense urban environment). While it claims that the overpasses can be developed as public space, they’re too fragmented, noisy and hostile (thanks to thousands of fast moving cars on every side) to be useable public space.

The death of Flint Street, May 12, 2017. The proposed Rose Quarter freeway widening would demolish the existing Flint Avenue overpass, a low speed neighborhood street that runs parallel to a busy North-South couplet, and provides an important bike route with a gentle grade, and limited auto-traffic. 

Diverging Diamond Blues, December 19, 2017. A key element of the local street plan for the proposed Rose Quarter freeway widening project is turning a portion of North Williams Avenue into a miniature “diverging diamond” interchange–with traffic traveling on the wrong (left-hand) side of a two-ways street. This disorienting design is inherently pedestrian hostile.

Equity and neighborhood effects

How a freeway destroyed a neighborhood, and may again, March 18, 2019. In 1962, construction of I-5 devastated Portland’s historically African-American Albina neighborhood.  Population declined by nearly two-thirds in the three decades after the freeway was built, as the area shifted from a residential area with local-serving businesses, to an auto-dominated landscape. The neighborhood has only started to rebound in recent years, and more auto traffic will likely undermine the area’s attractiveness.

Why do poor school kids have to clean up rich commuter’s pollution?, March 6, 2019. Portland’s Tubman Middle School, built more than a decade before the I-5 freeway sliced through the neighborhood would get an even larger dose of air pollution when the widened freeway is moved closer to classrooms. The school’s students–disproportionately low income and children of color, have had to see public school monies–more than $12 million–spent to clean up the school’s air; commuters on I-5, disproportionately white and higher income, paid nothing toward’s these costs.

Housing reparations for Northeast Portland, April 16, 2018. When it built the I-5 freeway in the 1960s, through the heart of Portland’s African-American neighborhood, it demolished–and never replaced–more than 300 homes. It outlandishly claims that a wider freeway will somehow redress that damage, but it could make a much better start by spending about $140 million to rebuild the housing it demolished.

Freeway widening for whomst? March 6, 2019. There’s a profound demographic disparity between those who benefit from I-5 freeway widening and those who bill bear its costs.  Beneficiaries are disproportionately, out-of-state commuters; single occupancy peak hour commuters from Vancouver WAshington earn an average of more than $82,000, 50 percent more than those who live in North and Northeast Portland and who commute by bike, transit or walking, and more than double the income of those households in the area who don’t own cars.

Concealing facts and lying to sell freeway widening

The Black Box: Hiding the facts about freeway widening, March 12, 2019. The most basic metric for understanding a road project is something called “Average Daily Traffic” or ADT, a count of the total number of vehicles that use a stretch of roadway on a typical day. That’s an essential input for estimating congestion, air pollution, carbon emissions and assessing safety. But it’s also one statistic that you won’t find anywhere in the Rose Quarter freeway widening project’s Environmental Assessment or its Traffic Technical Report:  all the ADT numbers have been suppressed. It’s like a financial report that has no dollar amounts. Leaving out basic traffic data keeps the public in the dark about key elements of the project.

Orwellian Freeway Widening, March 5, 2019. Don’t call it widening the freeway, it’s an “improvement” project. And those aren’t freeway lanes that are being added they’re harmless “auxiliary lanes.” The Oregon Department of Transportation is torturing logic, common sense and the English language as it relentlessly markets its plans to widen I-5 and the Rose Quarter.  

More Orwell from the Oregon Department of Transportation, April 2, 2019.  We have always been at war with EastAsia.  Within 24 hours ODOT took two entirely different positions regarding the Columbia River Crossing, first denying it had any connection to the proposed $500 million Rose Quarter Freeway widening project, and then saying it was integral to the plans for the freeway widening. Similarly, ODOT first denied the existence of any engineering plans or drawings for the freeway-widening, and then, when pressed conceded that they existed, then ultimately under legal threat, producing 33 gigabytes of such plans. Willfully lying about and concealing key facts about the project is a violation of NEPA and of the public trust.

National transportation experts to Portland: You’re doing it wrong, March 25, 2019.  The nation’s leading experts on urban transportation–Janette Sadik-Khan, Robin Chase, Jennifer Keesmaat and others–have some choice words about freeway widening for Portland:  Don’t!

ODOT’s real agenda:  Massive freeways at the Rose Quarter and Columbia River

The Hidden Rose Quarter MegaFreeway, March 13, 2019. Though its promoted as just adding a couple of “auxiliary lanes” the Rose Quarter project calls for building a massive 126 foot right of way through Northeast Portland, enough to fit a full eight-lane freeway. Once the $500 million is spent at the Rose Quarter, it will only take a few hours with a paint truck to create a much wider freeway.

There’s a $3 billion bridge hidden in the Rose Quarter Project EA, March 27, 2019. Hidden in the plans for the Rose Quarter project is the assumption that Portland will also build an $3 billion, 12-lane wide freeway across the Columbia River–in fact, the Rose Quarter project is needed chiefly to deal with induced demand from this project.