Who are the real beneficiaries of the $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter project?  Vancouver, Washington commuters, who won’t pay a dime for its construction.

Wider freeways just double down on the damage done to city neighborhoods and privilege suburban commuters over communities of color.

The editors of a suburban newspaper say the quiet part out loud:  the Rose Quarter freeway is really about serving suburban commuters and building a multi-billion dollar Columbia River Bridge.

Support for the $800 million Rose Quarter Freeway widening in Portland took a serious hit earlier this summer after a key Black advocacy group pulled out of the project. When the Albina Vision Trust walked away from the project’s advisory committee, so too did other key leaders, including Mayor Ted Wheeler. Overnight, the huge project went from fast track to off the rails.

Tellingly, the first local journal to weigh in with an editorial opinion was Vancouver’s Columbian newspaper, in a July 5th piece “In Our View: Leadership needed to clear I-5 roadblocks.”

A principal cause of the traffic jams on I-5, including at the Rose Quarter, comes from the tens of thousands of suburban Washington residents who drive their cars to jobs and stores in Oregon. From their perch on the North side of the Columbia, its editor’s priorities are clear:  widen the road, and build a giant new bridge to make it easier for Clark County residents to drive to Oregon:

Those efforts often have focused on the need for improvements through the heart of Portland, with critics pointing out that a new bridge will be inadequate if southbound drivers suddenly come to a standstill because of backups in the Rose Quarter area some 6 miles to the south.

Just as in the 1960s, when the freeway was built, the Albina neighborhood (and much of the rest of Portland) was just an inconvenient “roadblock” to those who wanted to live in Vancouver and drive to jobs and stores in Oregon.

The Columbian’s editorial tells you everything you need to know about the winners and losers in this freeway widening project.  The winners will be commuters from Washington, who get a new wider freeway which they hope (incorrectly, as it turns out) will make it easier for them to drive fast through the city of Portland.  Oregonians, meanwhile get stuck with the entire $800 million bill, and neighborhood residents and school kids at Harriet Tubman School get to breath even more car exhaust from the freeway.

It’s evidence of the institutional racism embedded in the transportation system that we routinely—and repeatedly—sacrifice the livability of urban neighborhoods (including historically Black neighborhoods like Lower Albina) for the convenience of suburban motorists, whose only interest in the area is driving through it as fast as they can.

Freeways are still racist

As we engage in national introspection about the embedded roots of racism, our freeway-dominated car-dependent transportation system plays an undeniable role. A Los Angeles Times Op-Ed posed and answered the question: Want to tear down insidious monuments to racism and segregation? Bulldoze L.A. freeways.  Highway planners intentionally routed freeways through Black neighborhoods and used freeways to create barriers between neighborhoods. And the sprawl enabled by massive freeway construction fueled white flight from the city. In Los Angeles, freeways drove segregation:

. . .neither the Klan nor legally dubious covenants nor flagrantly unconstitutional land grabs were arguably as effective as the automobile and its attendant infrastructure at turning Los Angeles into an intentionally segregated city.

This argument echoes across the nation.  Writing in the Hartford Courant, Thomas Broderick says:

For those looking to move beyond symbolism and tear down monuments that literally perpetuate structural racism and promote inequality, tearing down Connecticut’s urban highways should be a top priority. . . . It is difficult to overstate the devastation urban freeways wrought on the state’s cities.. . . Today, these highways reinforce the state’s unfortunate pattern: wealthy, majority-white suburbs trampling over and through impoverished majority-minority cities.

In Detroit, Nithin Nejenda, writes in the Free Press:

The protests over George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis Police have brought to the forefront the variety of ways in which our society continues to harbor white supremacy and perpetuate racism. Part of this reckoning involves removing racist monuments, including the Christopher Columbus statue that the City of Detroit recently put in storage.  But if we’re going to get serious about removing symbols of this country’s endemic racism, we shouldn’t stop there. Detroit’s most persistent, visible, and disruptive symbols of racism are its freeways.

Freeway widening for whomst?

Built in the early 1960s, Portland’s  I-5 freeway slashed through the middle of the Albina Neighborhood, historic center of the city’s once highly segregated Black community. ODOT likes to portray the freeway widening project as atoning for its past sins. It acknowledges that the freeway played a central role in devastating the neighborhood, that its an inarguable racist legacy.

While ODOT would like us to believe that this racism is purely  a thing of the past, the project itself is yet another repetition of the same privileging of (disproportionately white) car commuters over disproportionately poor and communities of color  who live in the area today. As we’ve shown at City Observatory, peak hour car commuters from Clark County, Washington have vastly higher incomes and are much more likely to be white than residents of the neighborhoods bisected by I-5 in Albina.  Albina has one of the highest rates of transit use, cycling and walking of any neighborhood.

Subsidizing the suburbs

The Columbian’s quick and unqualified lamentation about the prospective downfall of the project raises an important question:  If this stretch of freeway is so important to Southwest Washington travelers, why should the state of Oregon pay of the entire $800 million cost of building it? Why, is ODOT prioritizing this, rather than say, fixing the urban highways it runs in Portland which are the region’s most lethal?

A primary reason for traffic congestion on I-5 and I-205 is Washington residents driving to Oregon to evade Washington’s 8.2 percent sales tax on most retail purchases. We estimate that Clark County residents avoid about $120 million in sales tax annually, about $1,000 per year for the typical household. These shopping trips account for 10-20 percent of all the cross river traffic.

Peak hour tolling of I-5 and I-205 would immediately and dramatically reduce traffic congestion in the Portland area, in part by shifting many, if not most of these price-sensitive tax-avoidance trips to off-peak hours.  But even though the Oregon Legislature directed ODOT to implement congestion pricing three years ago, the agency is plainly dragging its feet in actually carrying out the 2017 law.

The Rose Quarter freeway widening is all about the Columbia River Crossing

In addition to revealing who the Rose Quarter project is really for, the Columbian editorial also speaks another truth that Oregon DOT officials have tried to conceal: The Rose Quarter widening is needed to service traffic from a new and much wider I-5 Bridge across the Columbia River, the project formerly known as the Columbia River Crossing.  The Columbian plainly makes the connection:

Improvements to the Rose Quarter area are inextricably linked to Clark County and efforts to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge.

City Observatory’s analysis of the Rose Quarter’s Environmental Assessment document revealed that Oregon DOT officials had buried all references to the CRC, but predicated their traffic models on the counterfactual assumption that the CRC was built in 2015.

The nation’s freeways, particularly the stretch of I-5 through Rose Quarter, are not just historic symbols of racism, they continue to be active contributors to the economic, racial, and spatial divisions of our metropolitan areas.

It’s no secret:  the divisions are acknowledged even in pop culture  One (of many) video parodies of Portlandia caricatures Vancouver (“The Dream of Suburbia is alive in Vancouver). At the end of the video, Melanie (the stand-in for Carrie Brownstein) has made it to the mall parking lot in Vancouver where the rest of the cast is singing. Asked what took her so long she says:  “I got stuck  on the I-5 bridge.” Her ersatz Fred Armisten responds: “Yeah, they need to replace that thing with a bigger bridge–and make Portland pay for it.”

The dream of the suburbs is alive in Vancouver (Youtube)