Last week, over the space of about 24 hours, the prospects for Portland’s proposed the Rose Quarter freeway widening dimmed almost to extinction.

Leaders of Portland’s African-American community have concluded that the Oregon DOT had no intention of altering the project in response to community concerns, and when they withdrew, a host of local leaders pulled out as well.

The duplicity of ODOT is well-known to seasoned veterans in the region.

For several years, the Oregon Department of Transportation has been proposing to widen the I-5 freeway opposite downtown Portland near the Rose Quarter. At City Observatory, we’ve taken a close look at the project’s flawed traffic forecasts, environmental projections, phony safety claims, impact on cyclists and pedestrians, deceptive public relations, climate impacts and cost overruns. In addition to all these issues, the project doubles down on the historical insult to Portland’s African-American community; promoting more traffic and pollution in the neighborhood destroyed by the freeway’s original construction, and moving the roadway even closer to Harriet Tubman Middle School, which serves primarily children of color. While ODOT has offered up the feeble palliative of partial “covers” over the freeway (in reality glorified and traffic-choked overpasses), the project now appears to have foundered over opposition from the local African-American community, led by the Albina Vision Trust (AVT).  For the past several years, the trust has been pushing for a plan to revitalize the neighborhood to promote restorative justice for the damage wrought by the freeway and urban renewal. The decision by AVT to pull its support for the freeway widening appears, in very short order, to have tipped the political balance against the freeway widening project. Here’s a chronology that shows just how fast these events happened.

Dominos falling on the Rose Quarter Freeway widening project

June 30, 2020 12:06 pm Item: Albina Vision Trust (AVT) renounces its support for the freeway, and withdraws from the project’s “Executive Steering Committee.” The Oregonian’s Andrew Theen tweeted:

In a June 30 letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission, Albina Vision Trust Director Winta Yohannes wrote:
Effective immediately, the Albina Vision Trust is withdrawing its participation from all engagement with the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project.

The AVT team has engaged in this project for two-plus years, which has included the dedication of significant board and staff resources since the “reset” in January 2020. We believe that this project presented ODOT at its partners the opportunity to consider how a major public investment could be in service a broader community visions for healing, the generation of short and long-term wealth creation opportunities, and caring for our children who are here today and those who live in lower Albina in the future.Despite our good faith efforts we do not see our engagement resulting in meaningful changes to the project or its anticipated outcomes. For this reason we can no longer support the project. To be clear, we do not assign any individual claim. We are called to adhere to our organizational responsibility to ensure our actions and resources are aligned with our stated values.

June 30, 2020 12:47 pm Item: Portland Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly announces she, too, is opposed to the project, and is off the Committee as well.

. . . after the first executive steering committee, it became clear to me that ODOT was determined to move forward with the project as planned, that they were resistant to congestion pricing, that the steering committee was to be treated as an advisory body with no governing authority, that ODOT did not seem to grasp the concept of restorative justice, and we were unlikely to achieve the outcomes we were seeking.

June 30, 2020 1:31 pm Item:  Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler follows suit.

June 30, 2020, 9:00 PM.  Item:  Portland City Council adopts its long awaited climate emergency resolution.  The change of heart on the freeway widening comes at an auspicious time, as OPB’s Rebecca Ellis noted:

Hours earlier, this resolution would have placed council members in the uncomfortable position of advocating for policies to mitigate climate change, while simultaneously supporting a freeway widening project that climate activists have argued will increase traffic and worsen emissions.

The Council voted unanimously to adopt an amendment proposed by Commissioner Eudaly strengthening the cities requirement that demand management measures like congestion pricing be implemented before the city will support any new freeways.

Be it resolved, that since freeway expansions disproportionately harm communities of color and increase carbon emissions, the City of Portland will require demand management,  implemented equitably and in close cooperation with BIPOC communities, before any future freeway construction or expansion project.

The change strengthens the existing provisions of the City’s adopted Central City Plan, part of its comprehensive plan,

Wheeler amplified on his earlier remarks backing away from the project, according to OPB:

“ODOT has not met our goals around community and economic development or climate,” said Wheeler. “And going forward I will look forward to collaborating with transportation Commissioner Eudaly to prioritize congestion pricing strategies for our existing freeways within Portland.”

July 1, 2020 11:00 AM Item: At her weekly press conference (focused mainly on the response to Covid-19), Governor Kate Brown is asked about the Rose Quarter Freeway.  She too indicates the project won’t go forward for lack of support from the African-American community:

. . . in terms of the Rose Quarter, I think we all need to take a look at all of these transportation projects in light of the economic disruption that we’re seeing statewide and frankly, nationally.  That said, we’re not going to proceed with this particular project—with the Rose Quarter project—without community support and engagement from the Black and African-American community. It’s my hope that this particular project can be part of righting historic wrongs and I’m committed to bringing people back to the table for that discussion.

As The Oregonian reported, Brown’s statement doesn’t say she’s backing away from the project; instead its clear she’ll try to get Albina Vision back to the table:

Brown did not say that she had pulled her support from the Rose Quarter project, which the Oregon Legislature authorized and agreed to fund under a mammoth 2017 transportation package. But she said, “It’s my hope that this particular project can be part of righting historic wrongs.” And she said she is “committed to bringing people back to the table” to discuss how the planned changes to the interstate and its surroundings can and should accomplish that.

Portland’s Stop Work Order

Portland’s City Council clearly illustrated their current position on Monday, July 6th by unanimously signing a letter to city staff, directing them to immediately stop work on the project.  (City staff have been tasked with working with ODOT on project planning and survey work). The July 6 letter reads, in part,

Effectively immediately, we are directing all City Bureaus to suspend all operations until further notice related to the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project,.  This includes attending meetings, providing technical support or responding to project emails.”

The net effect of the local political exodus from Rose Quarter Steering Committeee, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Jeff Mapes, is a major blow” to the project. Mapes says while ODOT is trying to say it will work with its “now estranged local partners,” that it  will be “hard for Wheeler and Eudaly to reverse course, and its likely that ODOT will have to retool the project.”

Albina Vision:  Disrespected. Will they deal?

Project backers are desperately looking for a way, to get the Albina Vision Trust, in Governor Brown’s words, to “return to the table.” How likely is that to happen? In the past few days, AVT leaders, speaking in media interviews, have conveyed the roots of their disenchantment with ODOT.  They run deep.

Speaking with Willamette Week’s Mark Zusman, Yohannes made it clear that her organization’s opposition didn’t stem from narrow concerns about freeway caps or air quality near the Tubman middle school, but rather with ODOT’s intransigence about the scope of the project and the need to redress this historic wrongs done to the district.

There is not one or two issues. All of us who have signed on as partners in many letters to the OTC over the last year—that includes Albina Vision, the Mayor’s Office, Commissioner Eudaly’s office, Metro, and Multnomah County Commissioner Vega-Peterson—we have always said that the way that you can address these issues is by comprehensively looking at the project. If there is a process to evaluate the entire scope then you can actually problem-solve these issues one by one. What we never got from ODOT was a willingness to explore with us what is worth having for a half a billion to a billion dollar investment. And if what we have is a project which you described, then that’s not enough. It’s so much easier to reduce this down to an issue about caps or an issue about the school, when really it’s a comprehensive issue about the Department of Transportation once again looking at our communities as one that they can run through without considering the people and communities that exist around it today and in the future. (emphasis added)

Albina Vision board member Zari Santner, speaking on OPB’s Think Out Loud on July 7 explained:

“We have not received any indication that they are willing to change the plans that they have for this freeway work since ten years ago, and we have finally decided that they are interested in talking about change but not really actually making any change.”

We’ve seen a lot of talk about process, but no indication that the process was going to lead to an outcome that would really satisfy all the people who were sitting around the [Executive Steering Committee] table. As I said, it was talking about change, but no change. At the June 21 meeting of the Executive Steering Committee, a draft charter language of this committee was put forward by ODOT and included in it was, and I quote “move forward the House Bill 2017 defined I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project,” which basically means the project that was presented to the Legislature in 2017, without any modification.

No one should be surprised that ODOT’s “involvement” efforts with stakeholders are simply a sham to dodge and delay, while ODOT blunders ahead with the freeway project it always wanted. In fact, the motto of the agency’s new “Urban Mobility Office” spells this out explicitly:

From the Urban Mobility Office’s May 27, 2020 presentation to the Oregon Transportation Commission.

“Process is the project”: When the bureaucrats tell you that their job is to shine you on, you should take them at their word.

Analysis:  Why the project failed

In addition to the concerns raised by Albina Vision, there are powerful, and essentially un-contradicted arguments against the project on traffic, environmental, safety, urban design and other grounds. More than 90 percent of the over 2,000 comments submitted on the project’s environmental assessment opposed the freeway widening. The fact that key political leaders (notably Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Metro President Lynn Peterson) could claim that the project produced benefits for the African-American community was the thin reed on which the two could choose to ignore these copious arguments (and widespread community opposition).  This dynamic was captured by Bike Portland’s 2019 editorial cartoon on the subject:

For a time, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Metro President Lynn Peterson could use Albina Vision as an excuse for a badly flawed, widely opposed freeway widening project; No more. (Concept: Jonathan Maus/ Bike Portland – Illustration & Copyright: Cloe Ashton, May 2019).

The fate of the project nearly came to a head earlier this year, when the Oregon Transportation Commission elected to bull ahead with the project without preparing a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), instead choosing to rely on a much thinner (and deeply flawed) Environmental Assessment. Key leaders, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega-Peterson, Metro President Lynn Peterson and Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek had been asking for a full EIS to address the project’s manifold problems.  They and others relented, as part of a privately negotiated “reset” in which ODOT agreed to create a so-called “Executive Steering Committee,” to guide the project. The ESC, which held its first meeting May 22, included representatives from the City, Multnomah County, Metro, Portland Public Schools, and the Albina Vision Trust.  But as Albina Vision’s statements show, they now realize that  the executive steering committee is simply bureaucratic window dressing, there to create the illusion of involvement and consent; it had no power to modify the project in any significant fashion.

David Bragdon, former President of Metro, and now director of the Transit Center in New York, explained to Bike Portland why the effort failed.

“This final gambit was doomed by its core fallacy, the Governor’s apparent belief that a faux ‘engagement’ process manipulated by the State Highway Department with a predetermined outcome in mind would somehow produce the ‘right’ way to do something that is inherently wrong. The flaw in that assumption is that there IS no ‘right’ way to inflict more traffic and pollution on children of color and a waterfront park, and create more congestion – which is inevitably what this project was going to do, pretty drawings and insincere promises about caps notwithstanding. The State Highway Department tried to variously either co-opt, dupe, bully or bribe everyone, with falsified traffic forecasts, fraudulent fiscal fantasies and general incompetence and bad faith. Those standard ODOT tactics have now earned widespread, inalterable opposition from the community and a majority of local elected officials.

Bragdon knows whereof he speaks: A decade ago he led Metro when ODOT was pushing forward with the failed Columbia River Crossing project. Just as now, ODOT promised concessions to local governments and community groups, but as the process wore on, then ignored or reneged on those promises. For example, ODOT acceded, on paper, to then-Mayor Sam Adams insistence to reduce the size of the highway bridge from 12 lanes to 10, but instead of shrinking the bridge,  simply erased all the references to its actual physical width. Another example: A similar highway cap in Vancouver Washington, promoted as an elaborate landscaped connector between downtown Vancouver and historic Fort Vancouver was reduced to “bare bones” when the project went through “value-engineering.”

This dog ain’t dead yet

This rapid turn of events certainly doesn’t bode well for the future of the Rose Quarter freeway widening project, but its not enough to kill it—yet. For reference, the Washington and Oregon Legislature’s pulled the plug on the $3 billion Columbia River Crossing project (just a few miles north on I-5 from the Rose Quarter) in 2013.  But the project has lingered on, zombie-like, as a footnote buried deep in project plans. And sure enough, within the past year, the two states have ponied up tens of millions of dollars to try to re-animate the corpse.

Similar vestiges of the Rose Quarter project are buried in state law, Metro’s regional transportation plan and the City’s Central City plan, and will need to be excised before the project is completely dead.

If the region’s leaders are serious about terminating this project, or at least triggering a real conversation about how to rethink its scope to meet their stated goal of “restorative justice,” a good place to start would be rescinding the $129 million that the Metro has approved for project engineering and site acquisition just three months ago.

As Portland City Planning and Sustainability Commission member (and No More Freeways leader) Chris Smith puts it, the future of the Rose Quarter has to be decided in the context of how the region treats freeways as part of its stated goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  ODOT—which is in denial about how more road capacity leads to more traffic and emissions—is still seeking to build a gigantic new freeway bridge across the Columbia River, which in large part is driving its case for the Rose Quarter project.

I don’t think this will be really over until after the Columbia River Crossing is settled. The CRC discussion should be about the whole I-5 corridor from Battle Ground to Wilsonville (or Salem) and ideally would include the whole freeway network in the region. We need to establish the role of the freeway network in our climate change plans. We can’t do that effectively project-by-project.”

In some senses, the project may be more in danger of succumbing to fiscal reality that a local veto. The decline in driving prompted by the pandemic (and induced recession) is sharply cutting state gas tax revenues (which are needed to pay for the project).  Meanwhile, the cost of the Rose Quarter freeway widening has ballooned from $450 million (promised to the 2017 Legislature) to as much as $795 million—that before meeting any of the demands by the Albina Vision Trust for repairing the damage done by the freeway’s original construction. ODOT may simply not have the resources to build this project. Governor Kate Brown prefaced her comments about the Rose Quarter project by alluding to the need to re-evaluate the state’s entire investment plan in light of the new fiscal situation, saying:

. . . we all need to take a look at all of these transportation projects in light of the economic disruption that we’re seeing statewide and frankly, nationally.

Deja vu all over again

For long-time transportation advocates, like Bragdon and Mayor Sam Adams, ODOT’s duplicity on the Rose Quarter isn’t a surprise. It seems that with every decade’s megaproject, community groups must learn once again that the agency isn’t to be trusted. In 2009, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (since morphed into the Street Trust), similarly dropped its participation from the Columbia River Crossing after being abused and mislead by the Oregon Department of Transportation.  Here’s Elly Blue’s 2009 Bike Portland article, describing Michelle Poyourow’s resignation from that project’s steering committee:

“The BTA can no longer justify pouring our members’ precious resources into a project that is bad for the health and vitality of this region and now has a lousy bike and pedestrian facility to boot.”

Poyourow told BikePortland on Friday that she believes the BTA can effectively influence the project without sitting on — and thereby tacitly endorsing — the committee.

“The problem with the CRC is it’s just been deaf to community input,” she said, adding that bicycle advocates are not the only group to have had concerns about the bridge brushed aside. “They’re not listening. They’re determined to do what they’re going to do.”

It’s a decade later, its a different Governor, different members of the Oregon Transportation Commission and a different set of local officials and community leaders, but ODOT’s modus operandi is just the same. The process steps like the Executive Steering Committee are just cynical and insincere efforts to divert, delay and obscure criticism and pave the way for a wider road. And this isn’t just a decade-old problem, its a half-century long tradition. The original construction of I-5 through this neighborhood was riddled with exactly the same kind of tactics.

When the freeway was being planned, local officials objected to its impacts on neighborhoods and schools. The freeway bisected the attendance area for the Ockley Green Elementary School, meaning many students could no longer easily walk to school. Several local neighborhood streets were transformed into busy, high speed off ramps. In the planning process, local officials raised these concerns with the state highway department, and were offered assurances that “every effort” would be made to solve these problems. University of Oregon historian Henry Fackler describes the 1961 meeting convened by the city to address the effects of street closures:

At the meeting’s conclusion, state engineer Edwards assured those in attendance that “every attempt will be made to solve these problems.” The freeway opened to traffic in December 1963.  No changes were made to the route.

Six decades later, ODOT is still running the same scam. For the moment at least, the Albina Vision Trust isn’t falling for it.