Oregon DOT is using phony claims about safety to sell a $1.45 billion freeway widening project

People are regularly being killed on ODOT roadways and the agency claims that it lacks the resources to fix these problems

Meanwhile, it proposes to spend billions of dollars widening freeways where virtually no one is killed or injured and labels this a “safety” project.

A wider I-5 freeway will do nothing to improve road safety in Portland.

On October 4, Sarah Pliner  was killed at the corner of SE 26th and Powell Boulevard, when she and her bike were crushed  by a truck.  Pliner was a chef at a Southeast Portland restaurant; she was cycling to work. This was no accident:  this intersection is one of the deadliest in Portland, having killed or maimed many over the past several years.  Powell Boulevard (aka US 26) is owned and managed by the Oregon Department of Transportation.  Pliner’s tragic death is just the latest example of the carnage on Oregon roads:  in the past year, pedestrian deaths in Oregon are up 61 percent.

Sarah Pliner (Bike Portland)

Powell is one of the multi-lane arterial highways ODOT operates that are the deadliest roads in the Portland metropolitan area.  Recently, ODOT has agreed to transfer another of its deadly arterials (a portion 82nd Avenue, aka Oregon highway 213) to the City of Portland, so that the City can implement a traffic calming and safety strategy.  That’s been in the works for years, but the hang up has been getting enough money to finance the improvements before the city can take over management.  Several years ago the city and state estimated it would cost $31 million to address the safety issues on this part of Powell Boulevard, but little has been done.  ODOT routinely pleads poverty when asked to fix these killer roads.

ODOT’s main priority is widening area freeways.  They’re proposing to spend as much as $1.45 billion widening about a 1.5 mile stretch of Interstate 5 in Portland’s Rose Quarter.  And they’re cynically and deceitfully packaging this spending as a “safety” project.  We’ve call out this lie time and again, but ODOT still repeats a false claim that this is the worst crash location on the Interstate.

That isn’t true—other stretches of Portland area interstate have higher crash rates, as shown by ODOT’s own data—it’s an intentionally misleading and calculatedly cynical talking point, crafted by the agency’s PR team.  And it’s beside the point.  Interstate freeways are relatively very safe, with few fatalities and serious injuries.  What “crashes” do happen are overwhelmingly minor fender benders, bad for a car’s bodywork, and sometimes a source of traffic delays, but not something that routinely kills and maims Portlanders.  ODOT loves to pretend it cares about safety by ginning up “crash” numbers, while ignoring serious injuries and fatalities. Meanwhile, it studiously ignores the deaths that occur on the arterial roads in operates, like Powell Boulevard, that regularly kill people like Sarah Pliner.

But that doesn’t stop ODOT from claiming that the Rose Quarter project is really all about safety.  Just weeks before Pliner was killed on ODOT’s Powell Boulevard, the agency sought legislative approval to apply for federal funding for the Rose Quarter, labeling it an important safety project.  The request for federal funds comes after the agency has allowed the project’s budget to more than triple from $450 million to as much as $1.45 billion—meaning that the Rose Quarter will consume a billion dollars that could have been used to fix roads like Powell.  Here’s what Kris Strickler said in a letter to legislators.

This Rose Quarter section of I-5 . . . has the highest crash rate of any section of interstate within Oregon. The project adds new ramp-to-ramp connections (also known as auxiliary lanes that connect one entrance ramp to the next exit ramp) and adds full shoulders to I-5 to improve traffic flow and reduce the frequency of crashes. Also included in the project is the construction of a highway cover over I-5 that will create new community spaces and enhance safety and connections for people walking, rolling, biking, riding transit, and driving on local streets. [emphasis added]

The claim that the “cover” over I-5 will enhance safety for pedestrians and cyclists is spurious and misleading.  By bringing even more cars into the Rose Quarter, the freeway widening increases the threats to vulnerable road users.  And as we’ve noted at City Observatory, a key part of the project’s design is widening the radius of curvature at many intersections, increasing the turning speed of traffic and lengthening the distance pedestrians must travel to cross the street, both of which are guaranteed to make the area more dangerous, not safer.  The entire purpose of this project is more and faster cars, something that we know will hurt safety, not help it.

ODOT’s own statistics from its Environmental Assessment make it clear that there haven’t been any fatalities, or even any serious injuries on I-5 in the five year period for which it reported data.  Their data also show that most crashes happen during the mid-day (9am to 4pm) not during peak hours.

ODOT is currently in the process of updating its Environmental Assessment to sell its now $1.45 billion project.  It hasn’t bothered to update any of the crash or safety data, and is relying on information that is at least seven years old to bolster its rationalization that this is somehow a “safety” project.

Claims that widening the freeway will make the region safer are simply wrong.

Over the past several years at City Observatory, we’ve dug deep into the claim that a wider freeway will somehow be safer.  A range of studies, some prepared by ODOT, confirm that the I-5 Rose Quarter project will do essentially nothing to improve traffic safety in the Portland region:

Metro’s Regional Transportation Plan  officially categorizes the purpose of the  the Rose Quarter widening as “reducing minor or non-injury crashes.”

After ODOT widened a nearby stretch of I-5, the crash rate went up, not down.

The “ISATe” methodology ODOT used to claim that crashes would go down as a result of widening doesn’t apply to freeways with ramp-meters—which I-5 has.

After years of badgering ODOT to stop making blatantly false claims that the Rose Quarter was “the #1 crash location in Oregon”—we got them to drop that claim from the project’s website.

ODOT narrowed its proposed freeway widening at the South end of the project to avoid encroaching on the Vera Katz Esplanade, with 11 foot lanes and narrow shoulders, yet its own analysis showed this would make only a trivial difference to the crash rate.

As Canadian planner Brent Toderian says, “The truth about a city’s aspirations isn’t found in its vision. It’s found in its budget.”  ODOT may claim to care about safety, but is only real interest is wider freeways, and more and faster car traffic—something that’s been repeatedly shown to lead to even more crashes, injuries and deaths, not fewer.