A so-called “peer review” panel was kept in the dark about critiques of the highway department’s flawed projections

This is a thinly veiled attempt These are the products of a hand-picked, spoon-fed group, asked by ODOT to address only a narrow and largely subsidiary set of questions and told to ignore fundamental issues. 

As we’ve noted at City Observatory, the proposal to spend upwards of $800 million to widen a little over a mile and half of urban freeway in Portland Oregon is based on sketchy and misleading traffic projections, and related air pollution and greenhouse gas analyses. The I-5 Rose Quarter project has been subject to a withering barrage of technical criticism, which the state transportation department has simply ignored.

In an attempt to buttress its environmental claims, the Oregon Department of Transportation hired six out of state consultants to form a “peer review” panel (PRP).  The panel was asked a very narrow set of questions, was guided in its work by a former Director of ODOT, and predictably produced a whitewash of the project’s environmental analysis.

ODOT’s “peer review” panel, hard at work.

In theory, the PRP undertook an environmental review, looking at air pollution, greenhouse gases and noise pollution. But because all these impacts depend on the volume of traffic and whether the project increases or decreases traffic, they are all subsidiary to the accuracy of the traffic modeling. And the panel apparently did absolutely nothing to validate the accuracy of these traffic projections.

What No More Freeways and other critics have shown is that ODOT’s traffic modeling was deeply flawed, and biased in favor of dramatically understating traffic impacts, and therefore understating environmental impacts. The conclusions in the project Environmental Assessment (EA) that the project will not increase pollution are the direct output of these flawed traffic projections.  For example, the EA traffic projections compare the build project to a fictitious No-Build scenario in which the 12-lane Columbia River Crossing was built in 2015 (it wasn’t).  Because  the EA overstates level of traffic in the baseline, it understates the increase in traffic and pollution due to the construction of the project.  The PRP wasn’t aware of and didn’t address this key issue.

Overlooking the project’s failure to model induced demand

In addition, the project’s increase in freeway capacity will result in induced demand.  In passing the panel confirms the reality of induced demand, but then allows itself to be persuaded to ignore the issue by an undocumented assertion that this was somehow addressed in the traffic modeling.

One panelist suggested that reduced congestion could lead to shorter commute times, thereby encouraging people to move further from the city. An indirect effect could be induced growth. ODOT responded that the traffic analysis did look at the larger transportation network and found that these vehicle trips were redistributed across the Portland Metro area since there were similar volumes in the network, and therefore, analysts concluded that no substantive change in the volume of vehicles entering the network from outside the region would result from the Project. (PRP, Meeting Notes, p. 10-11)

The panel’s meetings were never opened to the public, nor did critics or the public have a chance to testify, or even present written materials to the peer reviewers.  It’s also apparent from reading the panel’s report that the scope of their analysis was so constrained as to prevent them from asking fundamental questions about the traffic modelling that directly drives estimates of  air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and impacts estimates of noise pollution.

Question 2:  To what extent are the correct baseline conditions, model assumptions, input data, analysis, and conclusions reasonable and adequately documented?

Without a careful review and analysis of the comments made by No More Freeways, the peer review panel could not accurately answer this question. In its comments on the project’s Environmental Assessment, No More Freeways identified several flaws and in the project’s assumptions and data.For example, the baseline conditions (2015 traffic modeling) assumed that the Columbia River Crossing had already been built. In fact, the CRC was never built,so that “baseline condition” is incorrect. As a result, on a fundamental issue of fact, the panel failed to identify or address a deficiency.
NMF also pointed out that the baseline projections for the I-5 Rose Quarter were inconsistent with other ODOT prepared I-5 traffic projections for the same area, including the projections prepared as a part of the agency’s value pricing work, and also the Columbia River Crossing.

A failure to consider tolling as NEPA requires

Another key issue is how tolling will affect travel. Oregon law mandates tolls, and ODOT claims it will implement them on this stretch of freeway in the time period modeled in the EA. The panel acknowledges in its report that it failed to address the potential impacts of tolling on traffic.

While the Panel understands that tolling/congestion pricing would affect the traffic, it is not within the purview of the Panel to question alternate traffic scenarios that were not included in the EA. This discussion should instead be brought directly to the OTC.

Nothing in the panel’s charge or written materials, or meeting summary explains why “it is not within the panel’s purview.” In fact, because tolling is already mandated by state law, it constitutes a “reasonably foreseeable future condition” which NEPA mandates be addressed in the environmental assessment.  ODOT’s own technical work shows that tolling would virtually eliminate congestion in the Rose Quarter without building additional capacity. The omission of this alternate scenario, as well as the fictitious baseline that assumed 2015 construction of the CRC, constitute material errors that directly bias the computation of air pollution, greenhouse gases and noise pollution.

No More Freeways assembled its own independent panel of transportation modelers and experts to review the traffic projections developed for the Environmental Assessment in 2019. There’s no evidence that the panel members received copies of the technical critique of the EA provided by No More Freeways or similar analyses provided by other commenters. (The group prepared an 12-page technical memorandum, with extensive references and supporting materials, which was submitted to ODOT on 1 April 2019—a PDF copy of the report is presented below.)
In fact, the peer review report is deficient for failing to provide any bibliography listing the materials that were provided to or reviewed by the panel in its report.  Without knowing what information it reviewed its impossible to rely on the panel’s findings.

The panel’s report includes only conclusory statements which are not supported by facts.  For example, the panel chooses to laud ODOT for exceeding federal requirements by addressing greenhouse gases but fails to acknowledge that NEPA and US DOT NEPA guidance require that the EA show compliance with state and local regulations. NEPA requires that the environmental review demonstrate consistency with adopted State and local statues and plans (40 C.F.R. § 1506.2(d)). Oregon Revised Statutes 468A.205(1) sets goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent from 1990 levels by 2010, and by 75 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. Since Oregon’s legally adopted greenhouse gas emissions reductions are such a state regulation, the EA must address this issue. Nothing in the PRP report indicates any awareness by the panel of either the NEPA requirement or Oregon state law.

A sham process that buries the facts

The so-called peer review is simply a cynical effort to whitewash a deeply flawed environmental analysis. The panel’s meeting’s were behind closed doors. The critics of the Rose Quarter project were not notified of the meetings of the peer review panel or provided any opportunity to brief the panel or present materials. (ODOT chose to invite people from one community group and from Multnomah County, but pointedly did not invite No More Freeways, which actually submitted detailed testimony, exhibits and data germane to the panel’s deliberations).

The process by which this process was conducted by ODOT shows that the agency is dismissive of public comment on the project, a violation of the spirit, and perhaps the legal requirements of NEPA.  It invited the public to offer comments on the project, which were offered in considerable technical detail, but they chose not to allow critics to attend or present information to the panel; The panel’s report was also not written by panel members, but by ODOT’s paid consultant–a former director of the ODOT. And ODOT has, by its own admission, lied about the carbon impact of its projects in the past.

One can only surmise that ODOT realized that if the panel were provided these facts, it would reach a different conclusion.

An open, honest review process would have chosen experts who included those who could look in detail at the reasonableness of the project’s traffic modeling and core assumptions, and would have allowed project critics to present their technical reports –just as the panel was briefed by ODOT staff paid to support the project.

No one should have any illusions on how this report will be used.  ODOT will claim that its project has been independently reviewed and approved by these “experts.”  But the process is a sham.  The panel was asked the wrong questions, presented a with a one-sided case, denied the opportunity to hear from independent critics, and had its report written by someone else.

No More Freeways, Technical Traffic Report, April 1, 2019