ODOT’s lies about safety at the Rose Quarter are so blatant they can be seen 400 miles away.

Freeway widening isn’t about deaths or injuries, but “motorist inconvenience” according to this safety expert, making this $800 million project an egregious waste of funds

Traffic safety is a real issue, and by any objective measure, Oregon is failing badly. Between 2013 and 2016 traffic deaths in the state increased by more than 50 percent.  Car crashes kill hundreds of Oregonians each year.

Those grim statistics rightly make safety a primary concern in transportation planning. But they’ve also led the Oregon Department of Transportation to hijack that concern and to pervert concerns about safety to support spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a project that has ultimately, nothing to do with safety.

This case is so egregious that it’s visible a full state away, in Boise, Idaho.

Don Kostelec is one of the sharpest voices for transportation safety in the US.A traffic engineer, he consistently points out the flaws in our current system of designing road to optimize vehicle speeds and throughput.He researches, practices and writes tirelessly on the subject; his “Twelve Days of Safety Myths,” published by Strong Towns, is an insightful exposure of the biases of many current industry practices.

Last March, Kostelec was an expert presenter for Boise’s citizen planning academy, a training course that helps citizens become more knowledgable about a range of land use, transportation and housing issues. In his presentation, “Is Congestion Really the Problem?” Kostelec singled out Portland’s Rose Quarter Freeway project as a classic example of a state Department of Transportation using lies about safety to sell a project designed to make cars move faster.

As we’ve noted at City Observatory, one of the Oregon’s Department of Transportation has loudly (and dishonestly) claimed that I-5 at the Rose Quarter is the state’s “#1 crash location.”  As Kostelec notes, that sounds pretty scary to the public and most officials:

The Oregon DOT . . . says that part of the project need to spend $450 million to add some amplified on and off ramps  is due to safety issues on I-5, and it says that it has the highest crash rate in the state. And you’re a policy-maker, you’re a legislator, you’re a planning and zoning commissioner, and you hear the state DOT saying we have the highest crash rate on the state system–we have to do that, right? We’ve got to do something?

Well, you’ve got to go to the Appendix . . .

And Kostelec takes his audience to the Appendix, which looks like this:

A slide from Don Kostelec’s March 2019 Presentation.

As Kostelec points out, according to ODOT’s own data for the most recent five-year period, none of the crashes in the project area have been fatal, or even serious.  Nearly all of the crashes are non-injury fender benders.

Kostelec digs deeper:  Despite ODOT’s claims that peak hour traffic is slowed by these fender-benders, ODOT’s data shows that most crashes actually happen during non-peak hours.

“. . . when you look at when crashes are occurring, for the most part, they’re occurring mid-day,  not at the time of day that the traffic models and things are trying to address.”

Because most of the crashes happen when the freeway is not jammed, widening the freeway is unlikely to do anything to reduce the number of crashes. If anything, as Kostelec argues, faster traffic is likely to increase the severity of the crashes that do occur.

The key takeaway here is that we ought to care about lives lost and injuries sustained, not the number of crashes. As a result, the I-5 Rose Quarter project isn’t about safety, its rally about motorist convenience. Kostelec:

“What are we trying to do here?  We’re trying to prevent a bunch of no-injury crashes.  Now nobody wants to be in a fender bender.  I have a minor ding.  But that’s what I call a motorists inconvenience crash . . . and we’re proposing to put $500 million into this . . . good for you Oregon DOT.  You’ve done a hell of a job with safety, . . .

Designing our roads–and indeed, re-engineering our entire urban environment–for the speed and convenience of drivers are what has produced our current lethal transportation system. It’s shocking and perverse that highway engineers at the Oregon Department of Transportation can use the mantle of “safety” to peddle a an $800 million project that addresses no real safety need, at the same time it routinely pleads poverty when asked to fix the many multi-lane arterial streets in the Portland area that routinely kill and maim our citizens.

Editor’s note:  $450 million to $500 million was the range of ODOT estimates of project costs when Kostelec gave his talk in March 2019; to almost no one’s surprise that has gone up, and ODOT now estimates the project could cost between $700 and $800 million, and buildable freeway covers that some community leaders say are essential to the project could cost another $200 to $400 million.