Rose Quarter: So expensive because it’s too damn wide

The cost of the $1.9 billion Rose Quarter freeway is driven by its excessive width

ODOT is proposing to more than double the width of the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway through the Albina neighborhood

ODOT could easily stripe the roadway it is building for ten traffic lanes

The high cost of building freeway covers stems from the project’s excessive width

WSDOT plans to cover I-5 in Vancouver for less than $40 million

The fundamental problem with the Rose Quarter project, and the reason why it has blown through its budget is that really a massive freeway widening project.  The agency claims its just adding a couple of “auxiliary” lanes, but in reality, its doubling the width of Interstate 5 in a complex urban environment, and its plans for a much wider roadway are the principal reason the project, and its covers, are so expensive.

A too wide freeway.

What no one seems willing to do is ask basic questions about the Rose Quarter.  Is the project worth $1.9 billion?  Does it even need to be that big and expensive?  Isn’t the skyrocketing cost and ODOT’s growing fiscal crisis a signal that we should consider some other options?

The high cost and prodigious cost overruns of the Rose Quarter are directly related to the excessive width of the project, something that ODOT has gone to great lengths to conceal, characterizing the project as merely adding a single auxiliary lane in each direction. In reality, the project would essentially double the width of I-5 through the Rose Quarter, from its current 82-foot width, to 160 feet (and in some places as much as 200 feet).

A brief chronology shows how ODOT staff have repeatedly concealed or obscured the width of the I-5 Rose Quarter project.  Their initial 2019 Environmental Assessment presented a misleading and cartoonish freeway-cross section that appeared to show that the freeway would be widened to about 126 feet.

City Observatory challenged these claims about the width of the freeway to the Oregon Transportation Commission in December 2020, and the commission directed the staff to meet with us to discuss the issue.  The staff refused to answer any questions during this meeting, and instead later issued a written report obfuscating the actual width of the freeway.

In March 2021, No More Freeways obtained three different internal project documents indicating that the actual width of the roadway would be 160 feet.  These included 2015 engineering drawings, as well as architect’s illustrations and computerized CAD files.

As we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, this cross-section could easily accommodate  10 travel lanes, and regardless of ODOT’s labeling, once built, the road could be re-striped in an afternoon.

Even the project’s Supplemental Environmental Assessment, released in November 2022 conceals the actual width of the project.  Here is the project’s own plan showing the freeway cross-section.  The plan omits measurements, so we’ve added scale markings showing 200 foot widths.

ODOT plans for I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway (200′ scale marking added by City Observatory)

ODOT’s own consultants, the internationally recognized engineering firm ARUP, concluded that the Rose Quarter project was vastly wider than it needed to be.  They pointed out that no comparable urban freeway in any city has the over-wide 12 foot shoulders designed into the Rose Quarter project.  ARUP concluded that the extreme width of the ODOT design was the principal reason freeway covers cost so much, and said the freeway could be 40 feet narrower than ODOT’s design.  ODOT’s own “Cost to Complete” report concedes that a key cost driver is the need to lower the surface of the existing roadway in order to provide the necessary vertical clearance over the much thicker overpass beams that will be needed to span the wider roadway.

Covers alone could be vastly cheaper

If this project consisted simply of building a cover over the existing I-5 freeway, it would be vastly cheaper.  Washington’s Department of Transportation is proposing to build a similar cover over a portion of I-5 in Vancouver as part of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project; The cover, called the “Community Connector” is designed to re-connect historic Fort Vancouver with the city’s downtown.  It will be about 300 feet wide, and about an acre in size and is estimated to cost $37 million.

Vancouver’s proposed Community Connector cover I-5 for just $37 million

ODOT has never explored simply building a lid over the existing freeway to “re-connect” the community.  If this were simply about building a cover to re-connect the community, it could have been done by now for a fraction of the $115 million ODOT has spent so far, just on planning the Rose Quarter.

What to do instead:

ODOT could cap the I-5 freeway at the Rose Quarter without widening it.  And if ODOT is really committed to “restorative justice” reallocate available money for this project as reparations to the Albina community, and allow them to spend it however they see fit to rectify the damage done by the construction of of I-5, Interstate Avenue and the Fremont Bridge ramps.  Oregon routinely spends highway funds mitigating the environmental damage of its freeways, on everything from sound walls to wetlands.  It also has used highway funds to replace displaced structures (the old Rocky Butte Jail), and other states have used federal highway funds to replace housing destroyed by freeway construction.  If we were serious about redressing the harm done to the Albina neighborhood, we’d be looking to reduce the size of I-5, and spend more money improving the neighborhood, and building the housing ODOT destroyed.


Extend and Pretend: ODOT’s Zombie Rose Quarter project

The Oregon Department of Transportation is playing “Extend and Pretend” with the $1.9 billion I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project

The cost of the 1.5 mile freeway widening has quadrupled from $450 million in 2017 to $1.9 billion today.

Meanwhile, the agency has diverted money earmarked for the Rose Quarter to other projects, and now faces a $1.35 to $1.75 billion financial hole.

Its finance plan has no concrete steps for paying for the project, aside from hoping for new sources of federal and state revenue. 

“Extend and pretend” keeps $40 to $60 million flowing to consultants but doesn’t answer any of the hard questions about this fatally flawed project. 

Rose Quarter freeway widening cost quadrupled to $1.9 billion

In May, Governor Tina Kotek called a time-out out highway tolling until 2026, and directed the Oregon Department of Transportation to come up with a comprehensive financial plan for its multi-billion dollar package of Portland area highway expansions. The ODOT plan revealed that the I-5 Rose Quarter project, originally approved by the Legislature in 2017 at an estimated cost of $450 million now has a price tag of $1.9 billion.  Every year or so, ODOT has ratcheted up the cost of the Rose Quarter freeway widening.  It was $450 million in 2017, $795 million in March 2020, $1.45 billion in September 2021, and now, $1.9 billion.

Further cost increases are likely

And it looks like they’re not done yet.  The design for the Rose Quarter project is still very much in a state of flux.  The original design was replaced by a “Hybrid 3” alternative, and last year, as part of a “Supplemental Environmental Assessment” ODOT revealed a new freeway exit design with a dangerous (and substandard) hairpin off-ramp.  That design has produced widespread criticism from the City of Portland, and the Portland Trailblazers, who operate the Moda Center adjacent to the freeway exit.  On June 27, ODOT for the first time revealed yet another re-design of the project, now with the second hairpin, this time on a flyover structure over the widened freeway.

ODOT’s latest financial plan is studiously ambiguous about whether the new cost estimates reflect the new flyover exit ramp.  They divided their explanation of the Rose Quarter cost estimates between two different tables, as follows:

Table 2

The notes to the first table say that the estimate reflects the “current Hybrid 3” design, and directs the reader to the second table to understand the “cost progression detail.”   This term ought to make one nervous, given the half-life of ODOT cost estimates.  The second table plainly signals that we will see yet another set of project cost estimates two years from now, when ODOT will be “updating the total project cost estimate to reflect the advanced design and outcomes of the environmental process.”  Translated into English, this means, ODOT is planning yet another round of cost estimates in 2-3 years, and they will undoubtedly be higher than the current figures.

Available revenue:  Almost nothing.

In reality, there is no finance plan.  ODOT staff presented a 23-page document describing its current financial problems.  Overall, the agency concedes that it is Portland area highway projects would cost $3.7 to $4.3 billion, and that the agency has only about $717 million for these projects—unless in is allowed to start levying tolls.   The shortfall has already bled ODOT to effectively cancel plans for the I-205 Phase 2 freeway widening and the I-5 Boone Bridge at Wilsonville. This estimate also doesn’t include likely additional state funding that will be needed to complete the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project; Oregon’s $1 billion commitment is only a down payment toward the total $7.5 billion cost of that project.

This plan is designed to respond to Governor Kotek’s direction and answer key questions about how to pay for the UMS projects in both the short and long term.

It isn’t so much a plan as it is a description of the size of the hole that ODOT faces for the Rose Quarter.  And the hole is huge:  ODOT needs up to $140million  in additional funds just to keep the project design going, and beyond that, a further $1.25 to $1.6 billion to actually construct something:

An additional $100 million to $140 million is needed to ready the project for construction, while an additional $1.25 to $1.6 billion is needed to complete construction of all work packages.

Where will that money come from?  The document says it “could” come from any of a variety of sources:

  • federal competitive grants (though it would be competing with other Oregon projects, notably the Interstate Bridge Replacement)
  • new (as yet un-enacted) state funding.
  • tolling as part of the regional mobility pricing program (which is still in development and years away).
  • re-allocation of the STIP (i.e., taking money from other projects that ODOT has already committed to fund).

Even a casual glance shows this isn’t a plan at all.  There’s no indication that even added together, all these sources could produce the needed $1.35 to $1.75 billion.  Nor is there any indication of what will happen if they can’t find that total amount.

What the Oregon Transportation Commission approved at its June 28 meeting was spending an additional $40 to $60 million on the Rose Quarter project for consultants and planning, in order to bring the project to “30 percent design.”  Beyond its hypothetical and speculative list of funding sources, ODOT has no actual plan to pay for construction.  Consultants will keep getting paid; ODOT will keep beating the drum for the project, costs will continue to rise, and the decision on what the Rose Quarter will look like, and how it will be paid for, which has already dragged on for six years, will continue to drag on even longer.

ODOT’s strategy:  Extend and pretend

In the banking world, this practice known as “extend and pretend.”  When a bank makes a loan to a project that has gone bad, and for which the borrower can’t make repayment, rather than forcing the loan into default (and having to record a loss on the bank’s books), the bank gives the borrower more time to repay (amortizing the loan over say ten years, rather than five)—the extend part—and then revises its cash flow projections to show getting repaid—the pretend part).  The bank’s current profits (and bonuses) are protected, and the can is kicked down the road, to be dealt with at another time.

That’s exactly what ODOT is doing with the I-5 Rose Quarter project:  It’s extending the project’s timeline by at least two or three years, and its pretending that, during that time, someone will find at least $1.35 or $1.75 billion (and likely a good deal more) to pay for the project.  “Its a very important project” all of the members of the OTC solemnly agree.  Maybe so, but what this really signals is that the OTC is going to put off for several more years the question of whether this project is worth its growing cost.  The Rose Quarter will be a zombie project, utterly un-funded, but technically not dead, because ODOT (and its enablers) pump millions into keeping it on life support.


ODOT’s I-205 Bridge: 1/10th of 1 Percent for Black Contractors

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is falling short of its own goals of contracting with disadvantaged business enterprises

One-tenth of one percent of I-205 contracts went to Black construction firms

ODOT professed a strong interest in helping Black contractors as a selling point for the
I-5 Rose Quarter project, but instead advanced the I-205 Abernethy Bridge project, which has provided very little opportunities for Black-owned firms.

ODOT has been dangling promises of lucrative construction contracts for Black construction firms if its proposed $1.9 billion I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project goes forward.  Not surprisingly, as we reported earlier, these firms and many in the local community were angered to hear that the Rose Quarter project was being delayed, probably indefinitely, because ODOT lacks funds—and shifted the funding it did have to a different project.

ODOT has prominently advertised that it intended to hire Black contractors to undertake a significant portion of the I-5 Rose Quarter project.  Even though the project was, according to the agency, only about 15 percent designed in 2010, the agency signed a contract with a joint venture (Sundt/Raimore).  One of the partner firms, Raimore Construction, is Black-owned.  An article published in The Oregonian quoted ODOT officials as saying that Raimore would be expected to bill more than $100 million in project costs (this when the project’s price tag was estimated at a mere $795 million).

Now it appears that the Rose Quarter project is going nowhere fast.  ODOT’s latest financial plan reports that the agency has almost no money to meet the project’s $1.9 billion construction cost.Par

A lot of this has to do with the project’s exploding cost, but as we noted earlier, ODOT diverted the funding that was originally earmarked for the Rose Quarter (a project in Oregon’s historically Black Albina neighborhood) and instead used it to pay for the I-205 Abernethy Bridge project in the wealthier and much whiter suburb of West Linn.  The members of the Historic Albina Advisory Board, which include Black contractors, have expressed anger that ODOT isn’t moving forward with the Rose Quarter Project—which now as a $1.35 to $1.75 billion funding deficit.

A disparity in Black contracting

The $622 million I-205 Abernethy Bridge project is the biggest source of highway construction contracts in Oregon in nearly half a century, according to ODOT. but so far, African-American construction firms have gotten just one-tenth of one percent of contract payments, according to ODOT reports.  While the I-5 Rose Quarter project was supposed to provide $100 million in contract payments for its lead Black contractor (and likely more for subcontractors), Black contractors have so far gotten just 142,000 of the $126 million disbursed for the Abernethy Bridge.

Apparently, ODOT is only committed to hiring Black contractors when they can provide politically valuable leverage for a project in Northeast Portland.

The one big ODOT highway project that is moving forward has provided only a tiny amount of work for African-American contractors.  ODOT’s I-205 project dashboard shows that the agency is well behind in meeting its diversity goals and that only about one-tenth of one percent of contracted payments have gone to African-American firms.

ODOT set a goal of providing 14 percent of contract revenues with certified disadvantaged business enterprises (which include women-owned and minority-owned businesses).  To date, ODOT has disbursed $126 million to all contractorsand Its current dashboard shows $12 million has gone to certified disadvantaged business subcontractors, only about 9 percent of the total–well below its goal. The bulk of these funds have gone to businesses owned by women, Asian-Americans, and Native-Americans.

Only about $142,000 out of $126 million, a little more than one-tenth of one percent, have gone to African-American businesses.

The $622 million that ODOT plans to spend on the I-205 Abernethy Bridge, makes it the biggest source of contracting opportunities in recent memory.  On its website, ODOT brags:

“The I-205 project is the largest ODOT highway project in 45 years.”

If ODOT were seriously interested in bolstering opportunities for African-American businesses there’s no reason that they should not be able to qualify for contracts.

Who sold out the HAAB?

The members of ODOT’s “Historic Albina Advisory Board” (HAAB) are hopping mad.  As related by Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland, they feel board betrayed by a decision to postpone construction of the $1.6 billion I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project.

For years, the staff of the Oregon Department of Transportation have been promising the HAAB a bonanza of community improvements and lucrative construction contracts as part of its I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project.  A key part of ODOT’s marketing of the freeway widening is a claim that highway covers (really oversized overpasses) will be instrumental in providing restorative justice to the Albina neighborhood that was ripped apart by three different ODOT highway projects over several decades.

At its June 27, 2023 meeting, ODOT staff dropped the bombshell that after more than five years of planning, ODOT simply doesn’t have the money to pay to actually build the Rose Quarter project.  Members of the HAAB feel they’ve been betrayed.


‘This is not okay’: Black committee members respond to Rose Quarter funding shortfall at emotional meeting


ODOT staff tried to claim that the project’s apparent demise was because of a May  decision to suspend tolling for at least two years, to 2026.  At the HAAB meeting on June 27, Brendan Finn squarely put the blame on Governor Tina Kotek’s decision to postpone tolling in Oregon:

Something’s happening down in Salem that I want to share with all of y’all . . . we have been moving forward on two separate tolling programs.  The Rose Quarter project is intertwined with those tolling programs in that they are supposed to help pay for portions of construction  . .  . we’ve known going through the design process together over the years that this project is under-funded— it was way underfunded.  . . . Governor Kotek came into office   . . . and said to us you got to take a little bit more time with tolling . . . so she delayed the implementation of tolling . . . that has reverberations on all of our projects and the timing of implementation . . . we have put together a a financial plan for for these pieces that takes into account the fact that we are not going to be getting the revenue from tolling.

As a result, Finn conceded, the Rose Quarter project would be put on life support, with barely enough money to keep planning moving forward, and construction delayed for at least two years (and likely much longer).  The members of the HAAB could tell they were in deep trouble, but Finn’s explanation—effectively blaming Governor Kotek’s suspension of tolling—isn’t right.  The actual cause of the project’s demise is much different.  Every step of the way, over the past five years. ODOT has taken actions that undercut the progress of the Rose Quarter project and instead elevated and accelerated another project, a $622 million rebuilding of the I-205 Abernethy Bridge in the wealthy and predominantly white suburb of West Linn, rather than the Rose Quarter (in Portland’s historically Black Albina neighborhood).

Along the way, ODOT:

  • “found” money to move the I-205 project forward when the Legislature appropriated nothing for its construction.
  • diverted state gas tax funds originally earmarked by the 2017 Oregon Legislature for the Rose Quarter to pay for the I-205 bridge
  • Used Rose Quarter funding to enable the I-205 bridge to circumvent federal environmental review (which has delayed the Rose Quarter project)
  • Accelerated signing construction contracts for the I-205 bridge, putting it ahead of Rose Quarter in line for state funding
  • Proceeded with the I-205 bridge even though its cost as increased by 150 percent since 2018, from $250 million to $622 million
  • Officially told the federal government that it wasn’t “reasonably foreseeable” that the Rose Quarter project would be financed by tolling revenues.

As a result of all these decisions, the I-205 Bridge is moving forward, and ODOT, by its own admission is committing to paying for the bridge even if that state raises no toll revenue.  Meanwhile, the Rose Quarter project is languishing, and is no closer to construction than it was six years ago.

It’s baffling that Finn would blame ODOT’s financial woes on Governor Kotek’s recent actions.  It’s been apparent for years that ODOT has lacked the money to actually build the Rose Quarter project, and Kotek has been Governor for just six months.  In 2021, as House Speaker, Kotek voted against the bill that allowed the diversion of funds from the Rose Quarter (HB 3055) and urged ODOT to “right-size” its mega-highway projects.  And in May, as Governor, Kotek finally insisted on injecting a note of fiscal realism into ODOT’s work by requiring this new financial plan for its megaprojects.  As we’ll see, all of the financial problems plaguing the Rose Quarter project pre-date the Kotek Administration and are the direct product of decisions made by ODOT staff, including Finn.

About the HAAB and the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway Widening Project

The I-5 Rose Quarter project would widen about 1.5 miles of freeway in North and Northeast Portland.  Part of the project involves constructing a partial cover over a portion of the freeway, ostensibly to make up for the damage the freeway did in dividing the historically Black Albina neighborhood.  (Construction of I-5 in the 1960s was actually one of three ODOT projects that divided and helped trigger the decline of Albina.  Facing community resistance to the project in September 2020, ODOT unilaterally disbanded an earlier community advisory group—which was raising uncomfortable questions—and instead created the Historic Albina Advisory Board.  ODOT rebranded the project as contributing to “restorative justice” in part by building the covers, and in part by implying it would hire Black contractors to do much of the work.  In City Observatory’s view, there are multiple fatal flaws with the Rose Quarter project:  it’s vastly too expensive, doesn’t fix any safety problem, won’t reduce congestion, will actually increase pollution, and doesn’t revitalize the neighborhood.  

A 2017 Earmark for the Rose Quarter:  Diverted by ODOT

The Legislature’s landmark 2017 transportation package specifically included the $450 million in funds for the Rose Quarter in the form of a 2 cent per gallon statewide gas tax.  The bill contained no funding the I-205 project.  Even so, in 2018, ODOT used its discretion to divert more than $50 million from a variety of sources to move the I-205 project forward.  Here’s a list of the funds ODOT scraped together to pay for I-205:

Then, in 2021, ODOT convinced the Legislature pass HB 3055, to open up the $450 million set aside for the Rose Quarter project for other projects, including the I-205 Abernethy Project.  ODOT quickly used that discretion to effectively commit all of that money to paying for I-205, rather than the Rose Quarter.

Evading federal environmental review for I-205 by using Rose Quarter funds

ODOT used the Rose Quarter funding diversion to evade federal environmental review of the I-205 project. ODOT assured the Federal Highway Administration that the Abernethy Bridge could be built without any toll revenues, by diverting the funds originally earmarked for the Rose Quarter.  This enabled ODOT to get an exemption from federal environmental review—a CE or “categorical exclusion.” If ODOT hadn’t offered those assurances, FHWA would have had to perform a lengthy Environmental Assessment on the I-205 bridge project (called “Phase 1a”), something that has slowed the I-5 Rose Quarter project.  Here’s the FHWA’s official finding:

Recently signed into law, Oregon House Bill 3055 provides financing options that allow Phase 1a of the I-205: Stafford Road to OR 213 Improvements Project to be constructed beginning in the spring/summer 2022 without the use of toll revenue. . .

As Phase 1a is now advancing as a separate project with independent funding, the 2018 CE decision is being reduced in scope to include only Phase 1a (the “I-205: Phase 1a Project” or “Phase 1a Project”).

[Emily Kline, “Re-Evaluation of the Categorical Exclusion for the I-205: Stafford Road to OR 213 Improvements Project, Federal Highway Administration, May 4, 2022, page 3.]

A key reason for the Rose Quarter’s delay, despite its head-start over the I-205 bridge, is ODOT’s flawed project development process and environmental assessment.  The City of Portland pulled out of the project in 2020 citing a lack of community engagement.  And the Federal Highway Administration rescinded the project’s Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), in part because of flaws in the ODOT-prepared Environmental Assessment. Only the personal intervention of then-Governor Kate Brown revived the project.

ODOT gave preferential treatment to the I-205 bridge project

ODOT also chose to launch the Abernethy Bridge construction first, expediting a construction contract, even though the bridge repair came in at double ODOT’s cost estimate. (And in an unnoticed part of ODOT’s new financial plan is an acknowledgment that the Abernethy Bridge Project will now cost $622 million, up from $500 million a year ago).

Now that the Abernethy project is launched, ODOT is dissembling about the role of tolls.  The agency’s finance director flatly contradicted the FHWA finding in his testimony to the Oregon Transportation Commission on June 28.  Brouwer said:

. . . we’ve already put the Abernethy Bridge Project out to bid based on the assumption of being able to toll this and it is under contract, under construction so we have now that the situation where if for any reason tolls on I-205 do not move forward whether that’s due to action at the federal, state or regional level it would punch a significant hole in the finance plan.

As a result, the failure to toll I-205 now will likely jeopardize funding for the Rose Quarter, because ODOT is contractually obligated to pay for the Abernethy Bridge even if tolling doesn’t materialize.

Rose Quarter:  Cost Overruns and No Funding Plan

As we’ve documented, the Rose Quarter has chalked up an impressive string of cost-overruns, with new, and much higher cost figures, arriving every 18 to 24 months.  The project was originally budgeted at $450 million when approved in 2017, jumped to $795 million just two years later, and then to $1.45 billion in 2021, and now $1.9 billion

In September 2021, the Oregon Transportation Commission, shocked by the new cost figures, directed ODOT staff to come back with a new finance plan by December of 2021. As Willamette Week reported, OTC was hoping somebody else would ride to the rescue:

The OTC told ODOT staff to come back with a funding proposal by Dec. 1 that includes significantly more than the $500 million to $700 million available from the state. The commission directed ODOT to include specific information in the funding plan, including (1) an estimate of the amount of dedicated funding needed to build the project and (2) “a discussion of whether a viable plan to secure that dedicated funding from federal, state and/or the city of Portland, Metro, Multnomah County, TriMet and other organizations in Portland is reasonably likely to be authorized and appropriated by July 1, 2023.”

The department completely missed that deadline.  More than 18 months later, in May 2023, the staff showed up at a Commission meeting and asked for yet another year of delay to prepare a financial plan.  This project’s financial woes are not the product of the recently announced tolling postponement; they’re a long-standing dereliction of financial duty by ODOT.

Rose Quarter is now permanently behind an even more expensive Abernethy Bridge.

Now that the Abernethy Bridge has started construction, that project takes absolute priority over the Rose Quarter project. As ODOT Finance Director Travis Brouwer testified to the Oregon Transportation Commission on June 28, because the agency had started the I-205 Abernethy Bridge, that was “locked in.”

. . . we have started on the I-205 Abernethy bridge and so that is locked in . . .

OTC Vice Chair Lee Beyer confirmed that in his comments in the meeting:

. . . one of the fiscal realities is we have to move forward on Abernathy because we’re in the midst of construction we really don’t have an alternative there . . “

But the loss of funding was only part of the problem:  ODOT has badly botched the design of the Rose Quarter project, leading to an escalating series of cost overruns.  The project which was estimated to cost $450 million in 2017, jumped to $795 million in 2018, to $1.45 billion in 2021, and now to $1.9 billion.

Rose Quarter’s Fatal Flaw:  A Too Wide Design

All of these cost increases are driven by ODOT’s decision to build a massively wider freeway.  The current roadway is about 82 feet wide; ODOT plans to double it to 160 feet (and in places 200 feet).  ODOT has got to great lengths to conceal the actual dimensions of the freeway, and claims that it’s adding just one auxiliary lane in each direction.  The reality is its intent on building a roadway broad enough for ten travel lanes (up from four today).

ODOT’s own consultants, the internationally recognized engineering firm ARUP, explicitly said that ODOT was designing an excessively wide roadway, with shoulders in the covered section wider than in any city in North America.  It recommended reducing the width of the roadway by more than 40 feet.

The excessive width of the roadway is the biggest cost driver.  It necessitates huge and expensive columns and girders to carry local streets across the widened freeway.  And because the beams supporting the road (and proposed covers) have to be much taller than current beams, ODOT has to depress the roadbed of the freeway below its current level—excavating at great expense to assure adequate vertical clearance for the new road.

ODOT’s attempt to package the I-5 Rose Quarter project as “restorative justice” for the damage a series of ODOT highway construction projects did to the Albina neighborhood from the 1950s to the 1970.  Grafting elaborate (but still very constrained) covers on to its overly wide freeway is plainly uneconomical.


Testimony to the Oregon Transportation Commission

On June 28, 2023, City Observatory’s Joe Cortright testified to the Oregon Transportation Commission about the agency’s dire financial situation.

Background:  The Oregon Department of Transportation is pushing a multi-billion dollar freeway widening program in Portland, dubbed the “Urban Mobility Plan.” The agency has never fully identified how the plan would be paid for, and recent plans to put tolling on hold for two years, prompted Governor Tina Kotek to direct a new look at project plans and agency finances.  ODOT has cancelled one project (Phase 2 of I-205), and effectively admitted it has no way to pay for another, the I-5 Rose Quarter project.  The new plan reveals yet more cost-overruns on these already bloated projects, and in reality, provides no explanation of how they might be funded.

For the record: Joe Cortright. I’m an economist with City Observatory and a member of No More Freeways. I’m commenting on the Urban Mobility Finance Plan developed by your staff. This isn’t really so much a plan at all as as it is a belated and only partial admission of the deep-seated structural financial problems for which your staff has no serious solution. The “plan” that they are offering is a vague hope that more federal and state funds will magically appear for the projects in the Urban Mobility plan.

The fiscal crisis that ODOT is now in was foreseeable and foreseen to anyone who took a serious look at the at the agency’s finances. Your revenue model and your expenditure processes are broken: the gas tax is already coming in below projections and is projected to decline further. Vehicle miles traveled, according to your own forecasts, are in permanent decline. State climate goals call for a 50 percent decline in gasoline sales which will further reduce your revenue.

And we received notice earlier this month that the Highway Cost Allocation Study shows that because of ODOT spending patterns we’ll have to reimburse trucks and heavy over-the-road vehicles about $220 million per year. So your revenue situation is far worse than you’ve acknowledged.

In the face of this, the Urban Mobility Plan is confronting you with huge cost overruns. We’ve seen that the Rose Quarter Project’s price tag has now ballooned to $1.9 billion —more than four times the $450 million that the Legislature was told that this project would cost when it approved it in 2017.

Despite these cost overruns, there is not one word in this plan about right-sizing any of these projects, which are all over-built. I would note that then-Speaker now Governor Tina Kotek called for right-sizing these projects in 2021 when she voted against House Bill 3055 which authorized the commission to do additional borrowing.

Please take a close look at the scale of these projects, because your staff has concealed exactly how large these projects are. This is the reason they’re so expensive is that the Rose Quarter project is a 10-lane wide freeway project and the Interstate Bridge Replacement is a 12-lane wide freeway project. If these projects were right-sized they would be vastly less expensive.

Finally you’re counting on toll revenues to bail out your financial situation. As an economist I can tell you the effect of tolls will be to reduce traffic, which in many respects is a good thing. But by tolling these roadways to pay for them, you will essentially obviate the need for additional capacity. ODOT’s own studies of the Rose Quarter project show that implementation of Regional Mobility Pricing will be more effective in reducing congestion than the now $1.9 billion cost of widening the roadway through there.

In the past you’ll pursued a piecemeal approach to these projects. ODOT is in the midst of a serious financial crisis: the cost of these projects is exploding. It’s time to take a serious objective look —and I just have to say as somebody who’s been commenting on these projects for more than a couple of decades now— some engagement by your staff in a serious fashion, rather than just two minutes of enduring the comments that we make and then simply ignoring them would be much appreciated. We have technical expertise and would be happy to engage with your staff and assist the commission to deal with the gnarly financial problems that it faces.

Pens down!

The price of ODOT’s trouble plagued Rose Quarter project has quadrupled to $1.9 billion, and the agency has no way to pay for it, because it spent the money the Legislature provided in 2017 on another project.  And agency staff is telling the state Transportation Commission there’s nothing that can be done to consider modifying the project or reducing its cost because they’ve gotten to a “pens down” moment.

At the same time it’s saying “pens down”, the agency is also asking for two more years and another $40 to $60 million to get the project to a level of just “30 percent” design.

ODOT is claiming “pens down” even after it has just revealed a new interchange flyover design that hasn’t gotten public review, city approval or inclusion in required federal environmental documents.

Even though the agency has no money to pay for the Rose Quarter, and hasn’t studied tolling, ODOT insists on moving forward as if $1.9 billion will magically appear, a strategy that can be fairly called “extend and pretend.”

The Rose Quarter debacle illustrates the incompetence and dysfunction of ODOT:  costs can only increase, and the only solution is getting more money for bloated projects.

Newly appointed OTC Commissioner Jeff Baker got his bureaucratic baptism at the June 28 special meeting of the Oregon Transportation Commission.

The Commission was called into a special meeting to review the dire budget situation confronting ODOT’s “Urban Mobility Program”—a multi-billion dollar collection of highway expansion projects proposed for the Portland area.  In May, Governor Tina Kotek announced a delay in tolling plans until no earlier than 2026, and directed ODOT to present a new financial plan.

The key element of that plan was an acknowledgement that ODOT’s revenues were shrinking even as the cost of its projects was growing.  The plan called for effectively cancelling the I-205 Phase 2 project, and indefinitely shelving the I-5 Boone Bridge.  But the big hole in the budget is the exploding cost of the 1.5 mile I-5 Rose Quarter project in Portland.  The Rose Quarter project faces a $1.75 billion funding shortfall, and as we reported earlier, ODOT’s strategy is “extend and pretend:”  keep spending. money on project planning and hope someone will magically find the needed cash.  ODOT’s staff told the commission that was essentially their only option.  But is it?

Pens down, Commissioner Baker

Yes, the cost of the Rose Quarter project just ballooned to $1.9 billion—more than four times the estimate that ODOT gave the legislature when this project was approved in 2017, but according to ODOT staff, now its simply too late to do anything to reduce the costs or modify the scope of the project.  That’s what Urban Mobility Office Director Brendan Finn told newly appointed Oregon Transportation Commissioner Jeff Baker at the June 28 meeting.

Baker asked whether, in light of revenue shortfalls, scope creep and cost overruns, the OTC had an obligation to ask whether it was sensible to move forward. (A longer transcript is below):

I’m just curious about governance.. . . what happens when we get scope creep when we get inflation that reaches a certain magnitude?  At what point do we have an obligation to go back and and relook at decisions that we’ve made in the past—whether it be 205 or or whether it be a Rose Quarter or anything else that that we’ve got coming on—because obviously, this is a it’s important, but it’s becoming increasingly expensive.  And it appears that we’re not done yet in terms of defining what the overall scope of the project is.

Brendan Finn shut that down:

This is the design that we are taking through the environmental process. This is the design that we are seeking federal approval on. I think we’ve come to a “pens down” moment.

Never mind that there’s no actual money for the project.  Never mind that the project is years away from construction, even if the money can be found. Changing the scope of the project is simply an inadmissible question.

Who’s in charge:  The commission or its staff?

Finn’s “pens down” assertion that nothing can be changed is problematic on many of levels.

First, and most importantly, who decides when it’s time to put “pens down?”  Finn works for the Oregon Transportation Commission, not vice-versa.  If the Commission decides it doesn’t want to move forward with the $1.9 billion design, ODOT staff can’t do so.  It is a “governance” issue, exactly as Commissioner Baker framed it.  Nothing in statute authorizes staff to make “all-or-nothing” ultimatums to the commission.  Arguably, asking questions about this project (and others) is exactly the Commission’s responsibility, a point we made when the project’s price tag jumped to nearly $800 million in 2019.

Second, the truth is, ODOT hasn’t put its pen down:  the agency  is very much in the business of re-designing this project, even as it made this presentation to the commission.  It just unveiled a new “flyover ramp” which hasn’t been reviewed or approved by any local or federal partners (See below).  In addition, ODOT’s own presentation concedes the project it will take another two years and an additional $40 to $60 million to get the project to a level of 30 percent designed.  There’s lots ›of ink yet to be spilled on this project.  Apparently, ODOT has made little progress on Rose Quarter design:  Almost two years ago, in September 2021, Brendan Finn told OPB:

Well, the project is still pretty much in its infancy, it’s only being at 15 percent design.

Third, going forward nothing precludes ODOT (or any other state highway agency) from further “refining” the project when it encounters design problems, cost overruns funding shortfalls or changing circumstances.  The federal partners essentially never force a “pens down” moment.  Take for example one of the Biden Administration’s signature infrastructure projects, the $3 billion expansion of Cincinnati’s Brent Spence Bridge.  There, the state DOTs just lopped off 40 percent of the project (to save costs) years after it had completed environmental reviews.  And the City of Cincinnati is pushing further design changes to eliminate off-ramps and free up 30 acres of land for development.  All this more than six months after the Biden Administration approved $1.6 billion in federal funding for the project.  Nothing in the National Environmental Policy Act or the policy or practices of the Federal Highway Administration (the “federal partners”) locks Oregon into an unaffordable project, or precludes designing a more affordable and environmentally sensible alternative.

Fourth, ODOT can’t get federal environmental approval until it pulls together actual funding for the project.  Federal Highway Administration rules prohibit environmental approvals for projects for which funding hasn’t been demonstrated to be “reasonably available,”—a standard the Rose Quarter is nowhere meeting. As just one indicator, the current Regional Transportation Plan allows for a total budget of $375 million for the Rose Quarter, more than $1.5 billion short of the amount needed to pay for the proejct.

In theory, it might be fair to say, “pens down,” if the project had received federal environmental approval (it hasn’t), has been approved by local governments (they just saw the new flyover design for the first time), and if the money for the project were in hand. None of these things are true. ODOT concedes that even if the money could be found, construction on the main part of the project wouldn’t happen before  2028.

Instead of having a serious conversation about whether we can afford this project and whether its still makes sense, and whether something smaller, more useful and actually affordable would be a better idea is off the table.  Instead, ODOT staff is insisting that we “extend and pretend.”

ODOT is still actively redesigning the Rose Quarter Project

And notice that just the day prior to this meeting—for the very first time—ODOT publicly revealed a new, never-before-seen exit ramp design for the project, one that hasn’t been subjected to any environmental review.

The new design adds a flyover offramp (the orange horseshoe-shaped object) from I-5 southbound that creates an elevated hairpin turn midway over the widened I-5 freeway, before the road joins with the existing I-5 NB offramp at Weidler.  The Urban Mobility Finance Plan is vague on the details, but it doesn’t appear that the current price estimate of $1.9 billion includes this new off-ramp configuration, which also is not part of any existing state or city transportation plan.

As Commissioner Sharon Smith put it at the meeting, ODOT is “out of money.”  The only hope for paying for the Rose Quarter is implementing tolling, but the project’s current environmental analysis explicitly says it will not include congestion pricing because tolls “aren’t reasonably foreseeable.”   ODOT staff are saying the OTC is powerless to consider, or even suggest, that a smaller, more affordable project might be the best way forward, or that perhaps we should first implement congestion pricing, and then see, what, if any, additional capacity is needed.

Appendix:  Partial Transcript, Oregon Transportation Commission, June 28, 2023

OTC Commissioner Jeff Baker:

I apologize for being the new guy, asking some naive question here. So bear with me, As it relates to the Rose Quarter, and again I think we’re all feeling that this is an important project on a whole lot of levels, the cost from time the Commission last looked at this in ‘21 versus the cost we’re looking at today has increased by 30 percent.

And I’m just curious about governance. And what happens when we get scope creep when we get inflation that reaches a certain magnitude at what point do we have an obligation to go back and and relook at decisions that we’ve made in the past whether it be 205 or or whether it be a Rose Quarter or anything else that that we’ve got coming on, because obviously, this is a it’s important but it’s becoming increasingly expensive. And it appears that we’re not done yet in terms of defining what the overall scope of the project is. So do we have a responsibility at this point? Is there governance around really taking a look at this or you know, other entities that have a stake in it the Governor’s office, the Commission, or the Legislature?

Brendan Finn, (Director, ODOT Urban Mobility Office)

Madam Chair, Commissioner Baker, I guess I’d say first, the scope creep topic. Obviously, a lot of these changes in came forward through various discussions, various tables. This is the design that we are taking through the environmental process. This is the design that we are seeking federal approval on. I think we’ve come to a “pens down” moment. And we feel that our partners and the community feel that way too. So this this is what we’re carrying forward. Through, obviously, the iterations that we’ve had the conversations with the Commission, and others, so I guess I want to get out in front of that, Commissioner. This is this is the time where we’re putting the pens down and we’re taking this design forward.

Jeff Baker

Okay, so as I understand it, the design is frozen at this point, it’s pens down, no more changes?

Brendan Finn

Well, I will say that we are going through an environmental process right now. We are working with our federal partners, so I don’t want to get out in front of that. Commissioner, we do need to still look at some of the efforts that we’re going to need to put in to get that approval. They have not signaled that yet. So I guess I want to caveat that, but this is this is the this is the design that we’ve been, that we’re putting forward.

Jeff Baker

Okay. You know, I think it’s important that you know, when we look at any project, there’s constraints. And as we’re wrestling with them today, we’ve got financial constraints. We’ve got time constraints, we’ve got other constraints that go into it. So we need to manage them and not let them get away from us because ultimately, time kills projects and cost kills projects, so we have to be really diligent, especially when there’s something as important as this one to really be on top of our game and, and be sure that we we manage it in such a way that it can reach a really great conclusion.

Another exploding whale: ODOT’s freeway widening cost quadruples

It now looks like Oregon DOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter $450 million freeway widening project will cost more than $1.9 billion

The project’s estimated cost has nearly quadrupled in just six years, and still has further cost overrun risk

Even OTC commissioners question whether it’s worth more than a billion dollars to widen a 1.5 mile stretch of freeway

The Oregon DOT has experienced massive cost-overruns on all of its largest construction projects, and has systematically concealed and understated the frequency and scale of cost overruns

Our metaphor for ODOT project cost management is the famous exploding whale.

One of the most viewed clips on YouTube depicts the handiwork of Oregon Department of Transportation engineers. In the fall of 1970, faced with the rotting corpse of a 45-foot long sperm whale on a Pacific beach, ODOT engineers planted half a ton of dynamite under the carcass; when detonated it created a rain of blubber that sent bystanders running for their lives—a  a huge chunk that crushed a nearby car. ODOT has subsequently given up on dynamiting stranded whale carcasses (it now carefully buries them).  But it has found another thing to explode, and something it does regularly: project budgets.

ODOT then: Exploding Whales. ODOT Now: Exploding Budgets

We keep saying this, but they’ve done it again.  The latest cost estimate for the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project has burgeoned to $1.9 billion.  This is the third reported cost-overrun since the project was first approved in 2017—and the agency has yet to break ground.

The I-5 Rose Quarter project was sold to the Legislature in 2017 as having a price tag of $450 million; that jumped to $795 million in 2019, $1.45 billion in 2021, and now to as much as $1.9 billion.  And if you read the bureaucratic tea leaves right, they’re likely to have an another jump in project costs a year or two from now.

Dead project walking

It doesn’t really matter how much the project costs, because the agency now concedes that it effectively doesn’t have any money to pay for actually building it.  ODOT diverted most of the original $450 million provided by the Legislature to build another project (the I-205 Abernethy Bridge).  The Governor and Legislature have put tolling plans on hold, and the agency’s revenue is falling, it is cutting preservation and maintenance, and threatening to cut operations (like plowing roads in the winter).  The best the agency can offer is the vain hope that some new and undiscovered source of federal or state funds will magically appear sometime in the next few years.  The agency has already spent $114 million on planning and engineering to get the project to the “30 percent” level of design, and says it would need an additional $100 to $140 million to complete plans and acquire right of way, and a further $1.2 to $1.6 billion to actually build something. As the Commission’s Chair lamented at its June 28, 2023 meeting “We’re out of money”.—None of this money is currently identified in ODOT’s budget.  In theory, it might be possible to use future toll revenue to pay a portion of the cost of the project, but ODOT simply hasn’t done the needed financial homework, and has repeatedly said during the environmental review process that tolling is not “reaasonably foreseeable” for this project.

And ODOT’s own consultants have said tolling this stretch of I-5 would actually eliminate the need to widen the freeway at all.  The Rose Quarter project is looking more and more like the 21st Century version of ODOT’s exploding whale.

Is it time to pull the plug on this project?

Less than two years ago, in September 2021, when the price was a mere $1.45 billion, OTC Commissioners questioned whether the Rose Quarter made any sense at all.  Every dollar spent on this barely 1.5 mile long freeway widening project is a dollar that isn’t available to maintain or improve roads elsewhere in the state, and as we’ve noted, bonding grants this project an irrevocable priority for state and federal funds.  Back then, according to the Oregon Public Broadcasting, Commissioner Sharon Smith argued:

 Smith questioned the overall viability of the project and asked her colleagues whether they believe Oregonians would approve the project if it were put on the ballot.

“Do you want to spend $1.5 billion on a road project? Is that the best use of our public funds right now? And I don’t know if the answer would be yes,” she said.

Two years later, and the cost has risen to $1.9 billion, and yet Commissioner Smith—now chair of the Commission—is still waving the project forward.  Just prior to the vote approving the staff’s plan she said:

“. . . we did make a commitment to the Rose Quarter and I’m not willing to back off of that.  Unfortunately we do have a different plan than when we first started into it and the cost is astronomical—we need to figure a way of doing it.”
OTC Meeting Transcript.  June 28, 2023

Time and again, as the agency they nominally supervise has blown through its previous budget estimates, the Oregon Transportation Commission has simply acquiesced and said “Ole’!”  At least when it came to disposing of whale carcasses ODOT learned from its mistakes.

Cost Overruns:  ODOT’s Reign of Error

To some, a cost increase of this magnitude may seem like an aberration.  For anyone who has followed ODOT closely, it’s apparent this is very, very common.  Over the past decade and a half at least, ODOT has blown through the budget estimates of virtually every large project they’ve undertaken.

ODOT has consistently underestimated the cost to complete its major highway projects.  A review of ODOTs own reports for the largest projects its undertaken in the past 20 years shows a consistent pattern of cost overruns, as summarized here:

Source: Compiled from ODOT reports. Note: Newberg Dundee estimates are for entire project, which is only partially complete. Other projects latest cost reflect total cost as completed.

There’s abundant academic evidence about the consistent tendency of “megaprojects” to overrun early cost estimates.  Bengt Flyvberg has literally written a book about it. The problem isn’t unique to Oregon.  Two of the biggest bridge projects nationally (rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge N. of NYC, and SF’s Bay Bridge West Span both produced colossal overruns).

No Accountability for Overruns

There have been furtive efforts to oversee ODOT.  In November 2015, Governor Brown said she was commissioning an performance management audit of ODOT.

ODOT did nothing for the first five months of 2016, and said the project would cost as much as half a million dollars. Initially, ODOT awarded a $350,000 oversight contract to an insider, who as it turns out, was angling for then ODOT director Matt Garrett’s job.   .

After this conflict-of-interest was exposed, the department rescinded the contract in instead gave a million dollar contract to McKinsey & Co, (so without irony, ODOT had at least a 100 percent cost overrun on the contract to do their audit.)

And what McKinsey produced amounted to a whitewash, as I explained at Bike Portland.  The audit covered up a long series of ODOT cost overruns, and instead focused on a long series of meaningless measures of internal administrative processes, such as the average time needed to process purchase orders. Meanwhile, the state’s million dollar auditors excluded from their cost overrun calculations the US20 Pioneer Mountain-Eddyville project, the single most expensive project that ODOT had undertaken, and even though excluding it, managed to understate and mis-label the 300 percent cost-overrun.

The final report from McKinsey recommended that ODOT could become more efficient by giving more money to consultants like McKinsey (as humorist Dave Barry would say “I’m not making this up.”)

Which, in a way, brings us full circle:  Dave Barry was one of those principally responsible for popularizing the exploding whale story.  With ODOT, the explosions just keep coming, but now they’re confined mostly destroying project budgets, rather than raining blubber. At least with whales, ODOT learned from its mistakes.  When it comes to massive cost overruns, it’s simply become the way this agency does business. We give the last word to Barry, who narrates the whale explosion:

So they moved the spectators back up the beach, put a half-ton of dynamite next to the whale and set it off. I am probably not guilty of understatement when I say that what follows, on the videotape, is the most wonderful event in the history of the universe. First you see the whale carcass disappear in a huge blast of smoke and flame. Then you hear the happy spectators shouting “Yayy!” and “Whee!” Then, suddenly, the crowd’s tone changes. You hear a new sound like “splud.” You hear a woman’s voice shouting “Here come pieces of… MY GOD!” Something smears the camera lens.



The Week Observed, July 28, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Myth-busting:  Idling and greenhouse gas emissions.  Highway boosters are fond of claiming that they can help fight climate change by widening highways so that cars don’t have to spend so much time idling. It’s a comforting illusion to think that helping you drive faster is the solution to climate change.  But as careful research shows, widening roadways to reduce congestion simply backfires, and leads to more driving, and more emissions.

This particular myth was busted by research from Alex Bigazzi and Miguel Figliozzi of Portland State University. They showed that induced demand means that faster roadways generate more vehicle miles of travel (and more carbon emissions), and that metro areas with higher travel speeds and less vehicle delay have higher rates of greenhouse gas emissions than other metro areas.

Must Read

Krugman on Congestion Pricing:  An Act of vehicular NIMBYism.  Economist Paul Krugman weighs in on New Jersey’s lawsuit against congestion pricing in Manhattan.  Congestion pricing makes sense on both efficiency and equity grounds.  As Krugman points out, each additional auto trip to Manhattan likely imposes costs of $100 (or more) on travelers and residents.  The proposed fee will likely reduce traffic and lower the burden of those costs.  But some auto commuters, especially from New Jersey will pay more.  That’s where Krugman points out the equity issue:

What’s really striking is how few people stand to benefit from New Jersey’s attempt to block or delay congestion charges. Fewer than 60,000 New Jersey residents, out of a state labor force of almost five million, commute into New York City by car. They are also, as it happens, relatively affluent, with a median annual income of more than $100,000, relatively well able to handle the extra cost. For this, New Jersey is trying to sabotage crucial policy in a neighboring state?

New Jersey politicians are sticking up for a relative handful car commuters, who are outnumbered by the several hundred thousand New Jersey residents who commute via transit to New York. They stand to gain handsomely from much improved travel times when pricing unclogs streets and throughways.

Why congestion pricing is good for cities.  At Planetizen, Michael Lewyn takes on claims made by columnist and economist Tyler Cowen that Manhattan’s proposed congestion pricing would somehow be bad for the city’s economy and health.  Cowen reasons that the congestion charge will function as a barrier to entry to the city, discouraging people for traveling there and reducing activity, spending, and jobs.  But as Lewyn argues, those cities that catered most to the car were the one’s most devastated by disinvestment and sprawl; places like New York that avoided car dependence have seen less decline, and more resurgence.

The argument rests on an assumption that a city is most appealing when automobile commuting is easy. But this assumption seems inconsistent with historical reality. . . . a “drivable” city is not necessarily a prosperous one. So if making cities like Manhattan easier to drive through doesn’t make them more appealing, it logically follows that making them harder to drive through won’t make them less appealing.

While the congestion charge may make the city less attractive to cars, it iws likely to make it more attractive to people, and easier to access and travel through for the people who value being there.  Ironically, Cowen’s argument mimics the early and now long forgotten arguments against parking meters in cities.  Charging people for urban space causes them to use in more efficiently, and tends to allocate it to users who value it highly (and who contribute greatly to the local economy).

New Knowledge

Traffic calming and traffic evaporation.  One of the chief concerns with road diets, low traffic neighborhoods and other systems of bike/pedestrian improvements is that such measures will divert and concentrate traffic on other nearby streets. A new literature review from Germany summarizes the results of evaluations of such projects in several European cities and concludes that, contrary to these oft-raised concerns, traffic largely evaporates, rather than being displaced.

The authors conclude:

Overall, the empirical findings from Germany and abroad invalidate the fears that consistent traffic calming measures will merely shift the problem to the adjacent road network. On the contrary: Almost all surveys confirm the phenomenon of “traffic evaporation”– the volume of traffic does not just flow away one-to-one like a liquid elsewhere, but is reduced as a whole.

The authors report that studies show that traffic tends to decline in  extensive traffic calming projects between 15 and 28 percent, within entire inner cities by between 25 and 69 percent, in the area surrounding individual redesigned streets by between 4 and 52 percent.

The effect can be explained by a change in traffic behavior: the more attractive footpaths and cycle paths are, the more people use them.  Although the measurements certainly show displacement effects in adjoining streets, these are usually moderate

Uta Bauer, Sonja Bettge & Thoams Stein, Traffic calming: discharge instead of collapse! Measures and their effects in German and European cities. German Institute for Urban Studies (Difu), Berlin, 2023.  (Text in German). (!). (Quotations translated from German via Google Translate and abridged)

The Week Observed, July 21, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Few highway construction dollars for Black-owned firms in Oregon.  The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is falling short of its own goals of contracting with disadvantaged business enterprises. One-tenth of one percent of construction contracts for the I-205 Abernethy Bridge, ODOT’s largest current project, went to Black construction firms.

ODOT professed a strong interest in helping Black contractors as a selling point for the
I-5 Rose Quarter project, but instead advanced the I-205 Abernethy Bridge project, which has provided very little opportunities for Black-owned firms.  Apparently, ODOT is only interested in helping Black-owned businesses if it helps the agency sell a project in Northeast Portland (home to Portland’s historically Black Albina neighborhhood.

Must Read

How the mighty have fallen.  Bloomberg Business Week looks back at the history of urban economic success (and decline) in a data-fueled column.  His thesis is that despite its current challenges, San Francisco is unlikely to become an economic basket-case.  The case is buttressed by a look back at the nation’s highest income metropolitan areas from 1949.  It’s a fascinating list:  Some are still at the top; but others have fallen.  Surprisingly, from today’s perspective, the richest metro list is populated mostly by the industrial powerhouses that have struggled in the intervening seven decades.  Detroit was number one; and no fewer than six Ohio metros ranked in the top fifteen.

Nearly all of these older industrial centers have fallen out of the top rank of US metros.  As Fox points out, their places have been taken chiefly by emerging tech centers in other parts of the nation.  The cities have have consistently been in the top rank include New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington DC.  These large, diverse, knowledge-driven urban economies are the ones that have adapted best to economic transition, and are likely to do so in the future.

A new look at the destruction of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street.  The folks at Segregation by Design have a powerful new animation showing the demolition of the Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood.  The neighborhood, often called “Black Wall Street” was famously destroyed in the Tulsa Massacre of 1924, but then rebuilt and actually reached its zenith years later, only to recieve its final coup de grace courtesy of the Oklahoma highway department, that plowed two interstate freeways through the heart of the negibhorhood.

Via twitter, Segregation by Design has a short animation showing how highway construction obliterated hundreds of homes and businesses, producing scars that have yet to heal.

New Knowledge

Low wage workers have seen significant wage gains since the pandemic.  Labor economist Arin Dube tweeted the most recent data on wage changes since the pandemic.  Strikingly, the gains in wages have been proportionately higher for front-line workers (the production and non-supervisory workers who make up 80 percent of the private sector workforce), compared to other workers.

Wages for both categories of workers surged during the early days of the pandemic (due primarily to a composition effect–part-time and low wage workers had fewer hours of work during the pandemic.  As the dashed line on the chart shows, the latest data show that wages for front line workers are significantly outperforming wages for all workers , and that they are about on trend for where they were prior to the pandemic.  Wages for all workers are rising more slowly and sare still below trend.

The data are evidence of “wage compression”–i.e. a falling difference in wages between the highest paid and lowest paid workers.  The continued tight labor markets that have persisted since the pandemic appear to be bolstering the wages of the lowest paid workers.



The Week Observed, July 14, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

We have an in-depth series of reports on the Oregon Department of Transportation’s imploding I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project.

The cost of the I-5 Rose Quarter project has now quadrupled to $1.9 billion—it was a mere $450 million when it was sold to the Legislature in 2017.

ODOT hasn’t admitted its Rose Quarter project is actually dead, even though it has a $1.7 billion funding shortfall.  Instead, the agency is playing a game called “Extend and pretend“—spending $40 to $60 million over the next two years to advance design work on the main part of the project to 30 percent completion, in hopes that someone will magically provide the needed funding.

Despite the project’s ballooning price-tag, ODOT officials claim its too late to do anything to reduce the size, scope or cost of the project, claiming they’ve reached a “pens down” moment.  That’s factually untrue:  the agency is still in the throes of designing the project, and just released yet another previously un-seen design concept including a new flyover ramp last month.  Nothing in federal regulations precludes “right-sizing” the project even after funding and initial environmental approvals are received: that’s exactly what FHWA allowed with Cincinnati’s Brent Spence Bridge which was just sliced by about 40 percent in size and cost.  Finally, federal regulations prohibit environmental approvals for projects that don’t have “reasonably available funding” and the Rose Quarter is nowhere close to that standard, by ODOT’s own admission.

The apparent collapse of the Rose Quarter project has angered many in Portland’s Black community, who were promised the project would somehow help restore the neighborhood devastated by the original freeway construction, as well as providing a bonanza of jobs and contracting opportunities for the community.  Instead, ODOT took $450 million originally earmarked for the Rose Quarter project and diverted it to paying for the I-205 Abernethy Bridge, in suburban (and vastly whiter) West Linn Oregon.  ODOT’s even signed contracts and started construction on this project, and its cost has now increased to $622 million.

Must Read

Freeways and the damage done:  don’t just acknowledge, change.  Transportation for America has a powerful new report—Divided by Design—on the damage that freeways have done to the nation’s cities, and the policy changes that need to be made to repair that harm, and prevent further destruction.  Case studies of Washington and Atlanta show how urban freeways have decimated neighborhoods, displaced people–especially people of color–and harmed local budgets.  Lately, its become fashionable for highway agencies to publicly acknowledge this harm; but most of that acknowledgement is purely rhetorical and performative, because the same agencies, including the US DOT are doubling down on their historic mistakes by pumping more billions into the same failed policies and projects.  The Transportation for America reports decries this duplicity:

 [Federal and state leaders] intent to do things differently or better than their publicly racist forebears in the 1950s and 1960s is irrelevant when many of those previous practices are still deeply embedded in the transportation policies and standards of today. Today’s leaders must understand how the past is still shaping current practices. They must reevaluate how their decisions are made and who their decisions serve.  Congress and the federal government are right in part: it is time to fix the harms of our transportation system, but creating tiny new programs will fail to address the damage.

Transportation for America has a series of specific, substantive recommendations for addressing and correcting the inequities woven into the current structure of transportation policy in the US.

Utah’s smart road usage charge experiment.  Kea Wilson at Streetsblog reports on Utah’s application of the latest technology to road use charging.  It’s increasingly apparent that the gas tax is in terminal decline as a way to pay for roads, and state and federal governments are scrambling to come up with an alternative.  The choice is likely to come down to some kind of VMT (vehicle mile traveled) fee, but the big policy question is whether it will be a smart fee, or a dumb one.  The simple minded approach is to charge a flat fee per mile, but not all vehicles and not all miles are created equal.  Providing capacity for travel at peak hours is much more expensive, as is accommodating heavier, more dangerous and more highly polluting vehicles.  Utah’s monitoring system provided by technology startup ClearRoad allows road user fees to vary by vehicle, by time of date, and by road traveled. Utah is testing

a new GPS-equipped dongle that will not just monitor how much motorists drive, but exactly where they do it, down the specific lane on the highway they choose. Then, communities can consolidate that data into a single road usage charge that can be automatically adjusted based on their unique priorities — think extra tolls for using the express lane, or graduated fees for low-income motorists who truly have to drive — and automatically distributed to the agencies that manage the exact roadways those drivers’ actually traveled.

We get one chance a century to change the way we pay for transportation:  we need to get this right.  Smart technology can enable a smart choice.

In the news

City Observatory Director Joe Cortright was named one of the 100 Most Influential Urbanists, Past and Present in a poll conducted by Planetizen.


The Week Observed, July 7, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Yet another exploding whale:  One of the Internet’s most popular videos shows employees of the Oregon Department of Transportation blowing up a dead whale carcass stranded on an Ocean beach, with bystanders running in terror from a rain of blubber.  ODOT’s latest fiasco is the exploding price tag of its 1.5 mile I-5 Rose Quiarter Freeway project.  This week the agency announced the price of the freeway widening project in Northeast Portland had increased yet again, to as much as $1.9 billion, more than four times the price quoted to the Oregon Legislature when it voted to approve $450 million in funding six years ago.

In addition to a ballooning price tag, ODOT spent the money the Legislature originally appropriated for the project on another freeway (in Portland’s suburbs) and is, according to OTC Member Sharon Smith “out of money.”  It looks like the Rose Quarter is a dead freeway walking.

Must Read

Portland’s “Missing Middle” reforms start bearing fruit.  Just a year ago, the Portland City Council approved the city’s “Residential Infill Policy” to allow a greater variety of housing, including multi-plex units to be built in the city’s previously exclusively single family zones.  It’s still early days for the policy, but an interim report from the Portland Planning Bureau shows that more housing in the pipeline, on its way to getting built.

The city reports that in its first year, new policy produced permits for 271 units of middle housing (duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and sixplexes) in what were formerly single-family zones. Three-quarters of these were in fourplexes.  And over the past year, permits for “middle housing” in these residential zones well outpaced permits for conventional single family homes (just 78 were permitted).  This appears to represent strong demand for additional density.

Chart from the RIP Year-One report showing permit activity by housing type in the single-dwelling zones.

Overall, the policy resulted in approving the construction of about 3.4 units on each lot.  Middle housing provides considerably more housing per lot than the city’s permitting of accessory dwelling units (ADUs): the 126 houses and accessory dwelling units built in conjunction with a house were built on 102 lots (about 1.2 units per lot).

Americans prefer walkable neighborhoods and will pay a premium for them.  A new survey from the National Association of Realtors shows that Americans are looking for places that are walkable and have an abundance of amenities and destinations close-by.  And importantly, most signal that they are willing to pay more for to live in these walkable places.

The realtor group’s findings confirm a growing body of research, including our own City Observatory analysis, showing that houses with higher walk scores  command higher prices than other, less walkable houses, even after controlling for a wide array of characteristics that influence home values.  The premium for walkability is an indication that we haven’t built enough walkable neighborhoods in the US, and that we haven’t built enough housing in those places with high levels of walkability.

New Knowledge

Accessibility:  Proximity to Activity Centers.  Adie Tomer and Caroline George of the Brookings Institution’s Metro program have a new research report looking at the connection between activity centers and travel in the nation’s large metropolitan areas.

The report studies how distance to activity centers (concentrations of workplaces, stores, institutions and other common destinations) influences the travel behavior of households.  The study relies on detailed mapping of large US metro areas, and anonymized data from mobile devices to measure travel patterns.  Here’s a map showing person miles of travel for the Portland metropolitan area.

The key takeaway is that living in a more accessible location, in this case, defined as being within 3 miles of at least five defined activity centers, produces a significant reduction in daily travel.  In Portland, for example, households living within 3 miles of five or more activity centers travel about a third less than households living seven miles or more from 5 activity centers.  As Brookings points out, less driving translates into lower travel expense for households–and reduced carbon emissions.

The Brookings report is a helpful reminder that land use patterns–particularly accessibility to a rich set of destinations–is a key to reducing automobile dependence.  Essentially what we have to do is reverse the pattern of the past several decades, where people and activities became more dispersed, leading to greater driving, travel cost and pollution.

Metropolitan America has now spent nearly a century undercutting the importance of proximity. Urban land area grew 1.4 times faster than the population between 1960 and 2020, leading to drops in overall population density, significant increases in roadway lane miles, and longer distances between where people live and where they need to go. The result is a multi-decade expansion of the average mileage each person travels per day, or what’s known as PMT: from 19.5 miles in 1969 to 40 miles in 2017. Covering those kinds of distances overwhelmingly favors car usage, so it is little surprise that 92% of American households now have access—often by necessity—to a private vehicle.

Adie Tomer & Caroline George, Building for proximity: The role of activity centers in reducing total miles traveled, Brookings Institution, , June 29, 2023,

Building for proximity: The role of activity centers in reducing total miles traveled

Note:  City Observatory reviewed and commented on a prepublication draft of this report; City Observatory was not compensated for its review.

In the news

Axios Portland quoted City Observatory Director Joe Cortright in its story on Oregon lawmakers voting funding for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project.

Urban myth busting: Congestion, idling, and carbon emissions

Increasing road capacity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will backfire

Widening roads to reduce idling simply induces more travel and more pollution

Cities with faster travel have higher greenhouse gas emissions

Time for another episode of City Observatory’s Urban Myth Busters, which itself is an homage to the venerable Discovery Channel series “Mythbusters” that featured co-hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman using something called “science” to test whether commonly believed tropes were really true. In each episode, they would construct elaborate (often explosive) experiments to test whether something you see on television or in the movies could actually happen in real life. (Sadly, you can’t make a bullet curve no matter how fast you flick your arm.)  


In our first installment, we took on the oft-repeated claim that somehow building more housing for middle and upper income people made housing less affordable for lower income households. (It doesn’t).

Today’s claim comes from the world of transportation. As we all know, transportation is now the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Here, when confronted with the need to do something to address climate change, the highway lobby likes to point out that cars emit carbon, and when they’re idling or driving in stop and go traffic, they may emit  more carbon per mile than when they travel at a nice steady speed. And of course, they have a solution for that: spend more money expanding capacity so cars don’t have to slow down so much. That’ll be great for the environment, or so the argument goes.

This claim has been invoked by highway advocates everywhere. Most recently, its been raised by officials  speaking in favor of spending upwards of a billion dollars on three freeway widening projects in the Portland area.  State Senator Lee Beyer argued that truck idling due to congestion was contributing to global warming. Here’s what Beyer told Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud program on April 18, 2017:

To the extent that we have congestion, in Portland for example, or anywhere else, but there particularly, if you look at the amount of exhaust those trucks are spewing into the air during that 52 hours while they sit in traffic, that may have more of a negative impact on the environment and more carbon release than we would gain solely through the low carbon fuels piece as its currently structured.

His argument was echoed by City Commissioner Amanda Fritz:

It seems likely the emissions from vehicles crawling in this section are worse than those at normal speed.

When he was appointed Director of the Oregon Department of Transportation in 2019, Kris Strickler trotted out the same tired claim:

…. it’s clear about 40% of the greenhouse gas emissions are from the transportation sector, so it’s an important aspect of the work we do.   I believe that there is no silver bullet, there is no single answer to address GHG emissions overnight.   And its something on our task list and our to-do list as a priority for us as we go forward and we need to attack it in multiple avenues.   One is, clearly, through design decisions that we can help to free up and move congested areas, because we know that cars sitting in traffic, frankly, emitting the emissions is not necessarily the best way to manage greenhouse gas reductions.

So is there any truth to the idea that reducing traffic congestion will lower vehicle emissions?

In place of the now retired duo of Adam and Jamie, we’ll turn this question over to Alex and Miguel–Alex Bigazzi and Miguel Figliozzi, two transportation researchers at Portland State University. Their research shows that savings in emissions from idling can be more than offset by increased driving prompted by lower levels of congestion.  The underlying problem is our old friend, induced demand: when you reduce congestion, people drive more, and the “more driving” more than cancels out any savings from reduced idling. As they conclude:

Induced or suppressed travel demand . . . are critical considerations when assessing the emissions effects of capacity-based congestion mitigation strategies. Capacity expansions that reduce marginal emissions rates by increasing travel speeds are likely to increase total emissions in the long run through induced demand.

In a companion paper, they look at a variety of data, including variations among metropolitan areas, changes over time in congestion and emissions, and corridor level estimates of traffic and emissions. In each case, they find that carbon emissions are strongly correlated with the length of travel and weakly correlated (or uncorrelated) with levels of congestion.

Specifically, metropolitan areas with high levels of congestion do not have higher levels of CO2 emissions per capita than ones with low congestion. They conclude there is “no relation.” But vehicle miles traveled is a strong correlate. Here’s a chart showing daily peak period hours of vehicle travel per peak period travel (on the horizontal axis) and CO2 emissions per peak period traveler per day. More driving is correlated with more carbon emissions.


Similarly, metro areas that had an increase in congestion (as measured by the Texas Transportation Institute’s Travel Time Index), didn’t see proportionate increases in CO2 emissions.  The following panel shows how the change in emissions per traveler between 2000 and 2010 for an array of 101 metropolitan areas related to changes in congestion (left hand chart), changes in hours traveled per person (center chart) and vehicle miles traveled (right hand chart). There’s essentially no relation between increases in congestion and per traveler emissions; but more hours of travel and greater distances traveled translate very directly into more carbon emissions.

There’s also another kicker to the speed/emissions relationship that you’ll never hear highway advocates mention. While its true that cars emit more carbon per mile while idling and in stop and go traffic than they do when cruising at 30 to 45 miles per hour, traveling at higher speeds is actually less fuel efficient and produces more CO2 per mile driven. Hence one of the strategies that we ought to employ is imposing stricter speed limits (say 55 miles per hour). This also means that the more we build roads that let people drive at higher speeds (60 to 70 miles per hour) the more we’re increasing global warming.

This myth is busted: adding more capacity might reduce idling a bit, but it will actually induce more driving, which will lead to higher, not lower carbon emissions.

And, a technological post-script: Automakers are now increasingly equipping their vehicles with stop-start technology, which automatically turns the engine off when the car stops moving, and then re-starts the engine when the driver takes her foot of the brake. This virtually eliminates idling emissions, not just in traffic, but at red lights too. Some 15 million European cars already have stop-start, a majority of cars sold in North America are predicted to have in the next few years. In addition, electric vehicles don’t idle when they’re stopped. So in the long run, if we want to reduce emissions from idling, a technical fix is in the works–no need to widen roads to address this source of pollution.

This commentary was originally published by City Observatory in 2017.  Sadly, six years later, people are still claiming that we can fight climate change by widening roads to reduce the amount of time people spend idling.