Here’s what’s wrong with Oregon DOT’s Rose Quarter pollution claims

10 reasons not to believe phony DOT claims that widening highways reduces pollution

We know that transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and that our car dependent transportation system is the reason Americans drive so much more and consequently produce far more greenhouse gases per capita than residents of other wealthy countries.  Scientists have shown that building more and wider roads stimulates more driving, longer trips, and more decentralized land use patterns, reinforcing car dependence.

With this entire vicious cycle well-documented, it’s hard to imagine anyone arguing that a widened urban freeway would  be good for the environment, but for state DOTs and their paid apologists, it’s a frequent claim.  They’ve created trumped up projections that claim traffic and pollution will be greater if we don’t build freeways.  These are false claims, and today we take a close look at how this plays out in one egregious, if typical, project.

For years, we’ve been following the Oregon Department of Transportation’s proposed I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project.  The project would widen a mile-and-half long stretch of Interstate 5 in downtown Portland at that has recently ballooned to $1.2 billion.

A key part of the agency’s argument is that this freeway widening project—exactly unlike every other one that has ever been undertaken—will have essentially no impact on air pollution or greenhouse gases.  They make the fanciful claim in their Environmental Assessment that the not widening the freeway (the “no-build” option) will somehow produce more pollution than the eight- or ten-lane freeway their plans shown they’re really intending to build.  In this commentary we sketch ODOT’s claims, and present a 10-point rebuttal.

A long list of false environmental claims from Oregon DOT

Recently, a Portlander interested in the project contacted us, asking us to comment on ODOT’s Environmental Assessment, which makes these claims:

  • Traffic operations would improve on I-5 in both the AM and PM time periods, . . .
  •  Conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists would improve from increased travel route options, improved ramp terminal intersections, physical separation from motorized users, and reduced complexity of intersections.
  • Overall, the Regional Travel Demand Model results did not indicate trip increases on I-5 much beyond the Project limits (i.e., no induced demand). The 5 to 14 percent trip increase on I-5 within the Project Area is expected for an auxiliary lane project intended to improve flow between entrance ramps and exit ramps and is indicative of primarily local through-traffic.
  • While consideration of greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change has not been a NEPA requirement for EAs and EISs since the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) withdrew its previous guidance on April 5, 2017, ODOT included an analysis of climate change in the Project EA due to the high level of agency and stakeholder interest in these issues. As reported in Section 3.5 of the EA, the 2045 operational greenhouse gas emission total for the Build Alternative is projected to decrease by approximately 22 percent compared to the 2017 emission total due to federal, state, and local efforts to develop more stringent fuel economy standards and vehicle inspection and maintenance programs and the transition to cleaner low carbon fuels for motor vehicles. These trends are expected to continue over the life of the Build Alternative. The Build Alternative would contribute to this reduction due to higher speeds, less stop-and-go traffic, and less idling on I-5. Therefore, no mitigation is proposed.

Ten reasons not to believe Oregon DOT’s false claims

There is so much that is false and misleading about these claims about traffic, air pollution and greenhouse gases that it’s difficult to know where to begin.  We’ve written about all these phony claims at City Observatory.  Here are ten reasons why everyone should ignore ODOT’s environmental analysis of this project.

1. Traffic projections assume that a five-mile long, 12-lane wide freeway was built just north of this project in 2015.  Hidden in the Rose Quarter’s traffic forecasting is an assumption that a massive, multi-billion dollar Columbia River Crossing was built as part of the “no-build”–and finished five years ago. The project is still in limbo in 2021.  This inflates traffic and increases congestion in the Rose Quarter in the “no-build,” and makes the “build” look better than it is.

2. ODOT concealed plans that show it is widening the I-5 roadway enough to accomodate 8 or 10 lanes of traffic.  Two years after ODOT published the environmental assessment we uncovered true plans for a 160-foot roadway. But its traffic modeling assumes that the freeway is expanded only from four to six lanes.   Modeling an 8-  or 10-lane road would show much more traffic and pollution.

Secret ODOT documents showed plans for 160 foot roadway, enough for a 10-lane freeway.

3. ODOT’s Rose Quarter Forecasts forecasts are completely inconsistent with the forecasts they prepared for the CRC and as part of ODOT’s own road pricing work.  Those forecasts show much lower traffic on I-5 in the RQ in the “no build” scenario.  By inflating the base case, and ignoring induced demand, the Rose Quarter forecasts cook the GHG and pollution estimates and hide the negative impacts of the project.  (For details, see the section labeled “Two sets of books”, at the end of this commentary).

4. ODOT frequently claims that “pollution will be lower in the future”—but this is entirely due to assumptions about a cleaner vehicle fleet (more electric vehicles, tougher mileage standards for remaining internal combustion cars).

“. . . operational greenhouse gas emission total for the Build Alternative is projected to decrease by approximately 22 percent compared to the 2017 emission total .  . .”

This is a classic red herring:  You get these emission reductions whether you build this project or not. It’s simply irrelevant to deciding which options to choose. And, for what it’s worth, neither electric vehicle adoption or higher fuel economy standards accomplishing as much as ODOT hoped; in fact greenhouse gas emissions from driving are up in Portland by 1,000 pounds per person

5. In response to these criticisms, ODOT routinely claims that its air quality analysis was validated by a  “peer review panel”.  The panel was a whitewash:  it wasn’t provided with any of the critiques of traffic models and air quality analysis, held no public meetings, and explicitly chose to ignore road pricing, which they admitted could greatly affect project outcomes.  Former ODOT Director Grace Crunican, who ran the review, testified that the group didn’t look at the traffic projections to see if they were reasonable or accurate, they just took them at face value. The phony traffic numbers generate phony air quality estimates.

6. There is a strong scientific consensus on induced demand, with multiple studies in the US, Europe and Japan.  Wider roads means more travel.  ODOT and other highway agencies simply ignore the science.

When pressed, professional staff ODOT and PBOT admitthis project will do nothing to reduce daily “recurring” congestion at the Rose Quarter—invalidating claims that it will produce less idling.

7. At City Observatory, we’ve developed a version of the induced travel calculator created by the University of California Davis to estimate greenhouse gas emissions from the Rose Quarter project.  Its verdict:  Widening the roadway will increase emissions by adding 17.4 to 34.8 million miles of vehicle travel and 7.8 to 15.5 thousand tons of greenhouse gases per year.

8. Highway engineers love to pretend that greenhouse gases are caused primarily by cars having to idle in traffic, and they we can fight global warming by getting cars moving faster. That’s a myth:  Improving traffic flow generates more total miles of travel which overwhelms any savings from less idling.  Also:  Cars generate more GHG per mile at speeds over 50 MPH than below (something ODOT never mentions).  Wider, faster freeways mean both more vehicle miles traveled and more greenhouse gases generated per mile traveled.  This is validated scientifically by a paper published by two scholars at Portland State University.

9. Like most state DOT’s Oregon DOT uses an outdated and flawed traffic modeling approach that fails to accurately incorporate the effects of induced demand.  These static, four-step models consistently over-estimate traffic levels and congestion for no-build scenarios, and under-estimate or completely ignored the added travel induced by creating more capacity.

10. Globally, the only strategy that’s convincingly been shown to lower congestion is road pricing, which the Oregon Legislature approved for this stretch of I-5 in 2017.  Oregon DOT failed to examine road pricing as an alternative in its 2019 Environmental Assessment.  ODOT’s own consultants say pricing I-5 would obviate any need to add lanes at the Rose Quarter.

Governor Brown ordered ODOT to look at road pricing as part of its environmental review of the project in late 2019; but the agency has simply ignored her instruction.

ODOT is keeping two separate sets of books for its I-5 traffic estimates.

There’s no question that the traffic estimates created to sell the Rose Quarter project were rigged to make the “No Build” look worse.  At the same time it generated the Rose Quarter forecasts, ODOT hired another firm to estimate future traffic on this same stretch of roadway in 2027.  It came up with dramatically lower levels of I-5 traffic in the “no-build” world.

In May 2018, at the same time it was preparing I-5 forecasts for the Rose Quarter project, ODOT also contracted for modeling of I-5 traffic for the legislatively adopted congestion pricing plan. These are contained in a report from ODOT: n.pdf

These data include baseline estimates of traffic on Interstate 5 in the Portland metropolitan area for the year 2027. The study has baseline estimates, that project future traffic conditions in the absence of congestion pricing. This study uses an I-5 cordon line North of the project area corresponds to N. Skidmore Street, which is just two blocks from the I-5 cordon line used for the Rose Quarter projections. The following table compares the projected 2027 volumes in the congestion pricing study at this cordon line with the VISUM Rose Quarter 2015 volumes. This shows that the volumes used in the VISUM model for 2015 are 21 to 37 percent higher than the expected volumes in 2027, according to the congestion pricing baseline model.

I-5 North Volumes from two ODOT models
Northbound Southbound Total Difference
Time Period RQ VISUM Model (2015)
AM Peak 8AM-9AM 4,370 4,631 9,001 37%
PM Peak 5PM-6PM 4,424 4,855 9,279 21%
Conges on Pricing Study (2027)
AM Peak 8AM-9AM 3,255 3,337 6,592
PM Peak 5PM-6PM 3,803 3,860 7,663
RQ VISUM Model, “Mainline North of Going, 2015 No Build”
Conges on Pricing Study, “Interstate Br.-Skidmore” Baseline Traffic Performance

This analysis suggests that the traffic numbers, particularly north of the Rose Quarter project area are much higher than would be expected in another arguably reasonable forecast of traffic conditions. Given the expectation of growing traffic levels in the ODOT Rose Quarter modelling, one would expect that 2027 I-5 traffic levels would be considerably higher, not lower than 2015 levels. The fact that two models, prepared for the same agency, in the same month, produce two such different pictures of traffic levels suggests that the model results are highly sensitive to the assumptions and input values used by the modelers. These key values and assumptions have generally not been provided to the public for review, making it impossible for independent, third parties to understand, replicate, and analyze the summary results presented in the Environmental Assessment.

America’s least (and most) segregated metro areas: 2020

The latest Census data show that Black/White segregation is decreasing in large metro areas.

Racial segregation still prevails in most American cities, but varies widely across the nation.

Portland is one of America’s least segregated metros

One pervasive and lingering hallmark American geography is racial residential segregation:  our metropolitan areas have literally been divided by race, and as numerous studies have shown, this has undercut opportunity, perpetuated poverty, limited economic mobility and eroded Black wealth. The data from Census 2020 give us the latest readout on the patterns and trends of segregation in large US metro areas.

Measuring Black-White Segregation

One of the most common measures of racial segregation is the dissimilarity index, which measures the extent to which different groups of people live in different neighborhoods in a city or metro area.  The index ranges from zero (perfectly integrated, where the composition of each neighborhood matches the composition of the larger region) to one (completely segregated) where each neighborhood consists entirely of persons of a single racial or ethnic group).  The dissimilarity index expresses the percentage of the population that would need to move to a different neighborhood in order for each neighborhood’s racial/ethnic composition to match that of the larger area.

Brown University’s Diversity and Disparities project has used data from Census 2020 to compute the Black-White Dissimilarity Index for all of the nation’s larger metropolitan areas.  (It’s website also has data making the same computation for earlier decades, going back to 1980).  The Black-White dissimilarity index measures the spatial separation of Black and white residents within metropolitan areas, and as described above, represents the fraction of the Black or white population that would have to move to a different neighborhood (in this case, a different Census tract) in order for each tract to have the same racial composition as the overall metro area.

As usual at City Observatory, we’re focused on the 53 US metro areas with populations of 1 million or more population.  Overall, the Brown University tabulations show that Black-white segregation in the US is continuing to decline.  The median Black-White dissimilarity index for these large metro areas was 52.8 in 2020, down from 58.2 in 2010, and from 71.2 in 1980.

The median level of segregation, according to this measure has been declining now for the past half century or more.  Still, a dissimilarity index of 50 or more is quite high, and many metro areas continue to have even higher levels of segregation.

America’s Least (and Most) Segregated Metro Areas

This chart ranks cities from least segregated to most segregated using the Black/white dissimilarity index for each metropolitan area.  As noted, in 2020, the median large metro area had a dissimilarity index of 52.8, meaning that about 53 percent of a city’s population would have to move to balance the composition of individual neighborhoods to the region’s overall demographic composition.  About half of all large metros have dissimilarity indices between about 46 and 60.

The metros with the highest levels of segregation according to this measure are MIlwaukee, Detroit, New York and Chicago.  Each of these metros has a Black-white dissimilarity index exceeding 70.

The cities with the lowest levels of segregation are Tucson, Salt Lake, Portland, San Jose.  Each of these metros has a dissimilarity index of 45 or less.

Portland’s big decline in segregation

Portland has not always been a highly integrated place.  If we look at the historical data on the black-white segregation index for Portland for the period 1970 through 2020, we see that Portland went from being one of the most racially segregated metro areas to one of the least.  Data compiled by Sophie Litschwartz at the Urban Institute shows that in 1970, Portland was actually  more segregated than the typical large metro area, with a Black-White dissimilarity score of 79.7, compared to a national metro median of about 76.5.  Portland’s segregation has declined sharply since then. Portland’s black-white segregation measure fell by more than half, (by almost 45 points) in 50 years; while the median rate for large metro areas fell by about 23 points.  Our earlier analysis showed that Multnomah County (at the center of the region, and encompassing the City of Portland) has the lowest white/non-white dissimilarity index of any large, central urban county in the nation’s largest metro areas.





The Week Observed, October 22, 2021

What City Observatory did this week

America’s least and most segregated metro areas:  Evidence from Census 2020.  Racial segregation remains a chronic problem in US metropolitan areas.  Data from Census 2020 provides a hyper-detailed, decadal check-in on the state of segregation.  The good news is that Black-white segregation continues, slowly, to decline in virtually all US metro areas.  The bad news is that it is still at relatively high levels.

We use data from the Brown University Diversity and Disparity project to rank the 53 most populous US metro areas by their Black-White dissimilarity index.  The most segregated large metros tend to be in the Northeast and Midwest (Milwaukee, Detroit, New York and Chicago) Among the nation’s least segregated metro areas:  Tucson, Salt Lake and Portland.  Some cities have made more progress than others:  Portland has gone from more segregated than the typical metro area in 1970, to one of the three least segregated today.

Must read

1. An induced demand calculator for every state and metropolitan area.  Over the past decade, a series of research studies have firmly established the science behind “the fundamental law of road congestion.”  Widening un-priced roads in urban areas does nothing to relieve congestion because added capacity or increased throughput generates additional peak hour trips in exact proportion to increased capacity.  Following on pioneering work byJamey Volker, Amy Lee and Susan Handy at UC Davis, the Rocky Mountain Institute, working with a series of other organizations, has adapted the California induced demand calculator to metro areas and counties across the nation.  Here’s a sample output for a 12 lane-mile freeway widening in Portland:

The calculator allows users to estimate the increase in vehicle miles traveled and added greenhouse gas emissions from highway expansion projects in any state.  (Full disclosure:  City Observatory participating in reviewing this calculator tool).

2. DOT traffic forecasts are a deceptive, unscientific black box.  State DOT’s routinely use traffic forecasts to build a case for highway expansions, and to portray their negative environmental consequences as minor.  But traffic models are complex, opaque, and regularly manipulated.  This is readily apparent in Maryland, where that state’s DOT just a few months ago maintained that one highway alternative would produce gridlock, but now that its preferred alternative hasn’t been selected, it got a new set of model runs to say just the opposite.  Freeway-widening opponents in Maryland have called on the US Department of Transportation to withdraw the project’s Supplemental Environmental IMpact Statement, which relies on these baldly manipulated forecasts.  The estimable Ben Ross of Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition explains:
The state’s computer model claims that widening the Beltway in Bethesda will get rid of traffic jams on US 50 to Annapolis. And it says that feeding three more lanes of cars into the awful Beltway-270 merge at Wisconsin Avenue will reduce traffic there. This model lacks all credibility and is not a legitimate basis for public decision-making,  When federal and county planners initially suggested widening the American Legion Bridge and I-270 without adding lanes at the Wisconsin Avenue merge, the Maryland Dept. of Transportation rejected the idea and insisted it would create a new bottleneck at the merge point, But then the political winds reversed, and the new bottleneck somehow vanished. How can anyone who drives on the Beltway believe this model?” 
This kind of opaque, black-box modeling that invariably produces results that confirm state DOT biases is the opposite of the open, science-based process called for by the National Environmental Policy Act.  Reliance on these back-room models undercuts the ability of the public to understand, question, and when necessary challenge these projects.  The USDOT needs to crack down on this abuse and manipulation.
3. Are historic districts the new exclusionary zoning?  The mechanisms by which communities and neighborhoods achieve and enforce racial segregation have steadily morphed over time.  A century ago, segregation was explicit policy or widely acknowledged fact, with different racial groups limited to specific neighborhoods by zoning, covenants and steering by real estate agents.  As courts and civil rights laws struck down more explicit measures, racial discrimination has been achieved by more indirect methods, like single family zoning.  As the NIMBY movement pushes to eliminate apartment bans and legalize missing middle housing more broadly, there remains the risk that racial and economic segregation will be perpetuated by other, still more subtle means.  In Portland, Sightline’s Michael Andersen takes a close look at how federal historic designations for neighborhoods could end up perpetuating segregation, unless the city constructs its policies carefully.  Andersen warns that in Portland:
. . . a series of interlocking national, state and local rules will give a group of landowners in an area the ability to essentially override zoning without sign-off from a single elected official.
This article helpfully outlines some relatively minor tweaks that could avoid this outcome.  As cities around the nation wrestle with expanding housing supplies and easing restrictive local rules, they need to be wary that exclusionary practices will just adopt new forms.

New Knowledge

Crime rates went down 20 percent during the pandemic.  The sensational news of the past year or so has been a spike in homicide rates during the pandemic.  The FBI reports that the total number of murders in the US grew an unprecedented 30 percent between 2019 and 2020, to 22,000.  That’s led many observers to conclude we’re in a new era of rising crime.

But it appears that the rise in homicides—though tragic and alarming—is not indicative of crime, or even violent crime in general.  Data from the national survey of crime victimization, which has been collected on a consistent basis for for than three decades show that virtually every category of violent crime declined in 2020 compared to 2019.

  • The violent victimization rate declined from 21.0 per 1,000 persons age 12 or older in 2019 to 16.4 per 1,000 in 2020.
  • The number of violent crimes, excluding simple assault, fell from 2.0 million in 2019 to 1.6 million in 2020.
  • The number of burglary and trespassing victimizations declined from 2019 (2.2 million) to 2020 (1.7 million).
  • About 40% of violent victimizations and 33% of property victimizations were reported to police in 2020.

The victimization survey data are a particularly important measure of crime, because not all crimes are reported to police, and variations in reporting over time and across different jurisdictions makes crime report data somewhat noisy.  It’s hard to know how to interpret this decline.  With the pandemic, 2020 was an unusual year.  Stay-at-home orders and caution prompted many of us to refrain from leaving our homes and participating in a wide variety of social activities.  It may well be there was less crime because fewer people were out and about.  There are good reasons to be concerned about the increase in homicides, but clearly we need a much more nuanced look at crime to understand what’s going on than headline alarms about a general surge in crime.

Rachel E. Morgan, Ph.D. and Alexandra Thompson, Criminal Victimization, 2020, National Center for Justice Statistics, NCJ Number 301775, October 2021


The Week Observed, October 15, 2021

What City Observatory did this week

Ten reasons you can’t trust DOT claims that widening highways reduces pollution.  Highway departments are fond of ginning up traffic projections and air quality analyses claiming that wider highways will reduce pollution.  It’s an elaborate con.  We take a close look at Portland’s proposed $1.2 billion I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project and itemize the ten reasons why no one should believe claims made about its environmental effects made by the Oregon Department of Transportation.

I-5 is now 83 feet wide; ODOT plans to widen it to 160 feet, enough for a ten lane freeway.

Must read

How (not) to lessen the nation’s housing affordability challenges.  Politico examines the debate in Congress over proposed measures to give assistance to first-time home buyers to help them better compete for increasingly expensive homes. Several measures aim to lessen the racial wealth gap by providing down payment assistance to first-time, first-generation home buyers.  This approach acknowledges that the cumulative effect of historic discrimination in the housing market disproportionately affects buyers of color today:  If your parents couldn’t manage to buy a home or if they ended up in a neighborhood with depressed home values, they couldn’t do much to help their children with a down payment.  While there’s a great need to redress these historic inequities, one of the challenges with a sizable aid program for first time buyers is that it simply adds to the demand for housing, while doing little to increase supply.  More capital available for housing in this market is likely to drive up home prices even faster; we may improve affordability for a few, but may worsen it for the many.

Peter Norton on the perils of the self-driving car.  Historian Peter Norton has chronicled the industry-led re-writing of the literal and figurative “rules of the road” by automobile manufacturers a century ago.  This re-write elevated autos and reduced those on foot to second-class citizens. The process was fed by a combination of technological optimism and a sense of manifest destiny which Norton says, the purveyors of self-driving cars are looking to repeat to advance and enshrine autonomous vehicles on the nation’s streets.  In an interview with Bloomberg’s David Zipper, Norton warns that the next new thing is always, a distraction from really addressing transportation needs.

High-tech “solutions,” always just over the horizon, are supposed to offer the anticipated deliverance. The lack, however, lies not in technology but in the aspiration itself. Meanwhile the supposed solutions, in promising an eventual end to all our afflictions, divert us from transport sufficiency: an unspectacular state in which everyone can meet their practical needs.

A “must-watch”:  Why building more housing is critical to addressing climate change.  CalYIMBY has a new video making the case that building more housing, especially in the right locations, is essential to tackling the climate crisis.  As the video’s author’s explain, sprawling single family development and apartment bans lead to long commutes and more driving, making our climate crisis worse:
For decades, planners and climate experts have known that sprawl-style, single-unit housing development leads to more pollution from cars. The reason is simple: Single-unit houses require more land than multi-family homes, and end up forcing their residents into ever-longer car commutes. The more people have to drive, the more climate pollution they cause.

New Knowledge

David Card wins the Economics Nobel.  Berkeley economist David Card was one of three labor economists who received the Nobel award for economics this week.  Along with Card, Joshua Angrist and Guido Imbens were recognized for their pioneering empirical analyses of labor markets.

Card and his late-co-author, Alan Krueger, were joint authors of a series of studies of the effect of minimum wages on employment, famously published in the book “Myth and Measurement” published in 1995.  It’s an appropriate title.  The notion that a minimum wage necessarily had to lower employment levels was taken as an article of faith by many, if not most economists.

Card and Krueger put that theory to the test with a series of careful analyses of quasi-experimental situations, for example, looking at the variation in employment rates in adjoining states, one of which raised its minimum wage and one which didn’t.  Their work was the initial challenge to the received wisdom about the negative effects of minimum wages on employment; its subsequently been buttressed by a wide range of studies that have applied and extended Card and Krueger’s empirical techniques.  As Bloomberg’s Noah Smith writes:

Card and Krueger (who sadly died before he could receive the prize) examined a 1992 minimum wage hike in New Jersey, and found that it didn’t result in a loss of jobs. They compared New Jersey to neighboring Pennsylvania, and found no job loss. They compared high-wage restaurants in New Jersey to low-wage restaurants — still, no job loss. Maybe even a little bit of job gain, actually.

Nowadays, that’s hardly an unusual finding — indeed, it’s the norm, and economists have changed their outlook on the issue as a result. But back then, it was almost heresy. The basic theory of competitive supply and demand says that when you raise the minimum wage, people get thrown out of work!

The empirical observation has triggered a shift in the theoretical analysis of labor markets:  rather than being perfectly competitive, they are quasi-oligopolistic, with firms having market power over wages, which the minimum wage counterbalances.  That’s not to say that there’s not minimum wage that wouldn’t cost jobs, but within some range—now easily exceeding $15 most everywhere—the minimum wage isn’t a job killer.

There is an urbanist side note here as well:  The University of California, Berkeley awards its Nobel Laureates free lifetime parking spots on campus.  Card, however bikes to work.  Perhaps this is an opportunity for another economist, UCLA’s emeritus professor Don Shoup to come to the rescue and suggest a suitable solution; and Shoup is another scholar that the Nobel committee ought to have its eye on for his painstaking application of economic principles to the mundane field of parking.

In the news

Blogger Sam Sklar responded to our commentary “Where we embrace socialism in the US.” While he agrees with the thrust of the commentary, he’s skeptical most Americans will recognize that our attitudes about “free parking” are fundamentally socialist.