The members of ODOT’s “Historic Albina Advisory Board” (HAAB) are hopping mad. As related by Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland, they feel board betrayed by a decision to postpone construction of the $1.6 billion I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project.
For years, the staff of the Oregon Department of Transportation have been promising the HAAB a bonanza of community improvements and lucrative construction contracts as part of its I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project. A key part of ODOT’s marketing of the freeway widening is a claim that highway covers (really oversized overpasses) will be instrumental in providing restorative justice to the Albina neighborhood that was ripped apart by three different ODOT highway projects over several decades.
At its June 27, 2023 meeting, ODOT staff dropped the bombshell that after more than five years of planning, ODOT simply doesn’t have the money to pay to actually build the Rose Quarter project. Members of the HAAB feel they’ve been betrayed.
ODOT staff tried to claim that the project’s apparent demise was because of a May decision to suspend tolling for at least two years, to 2026. At the HAAB meeting on June 27, Brendan Finn squarely put the blame on Governor Tina Kotek’s decision to postpone tolling in Oregon:
Something’s happening down in Salem that I want to share with all of y’all . . . we have been moving forward on two separate tolling programs. The Rose Quarter project is intertwined with those tolling programs in that they are supposed to help pay for portions of construction . . . we’ve known going through the design process together over the years that this project is under-funded— it was way underfunded. . . . Governor Kotek came into office . . . and said to us you got to take a little bit more time with tolling . . . so she delayed the implementation of tolling . . . that has reverberations on all of our projects and the timing of implementation . . . we have put together a a financial plan for for these pieces that takes into account the fact that we are not going to be getting the revenue from tolling.
As a result, Finn conceded, the Rose Quarter project would be put on life support, with barely enough money to keep planning moving forward, and construction delayed for at least two years (and likely much longer). The members of the HAAB could tell they were in deep trouble, but Finn’s explanation—effectively blaming Governor Kotek’s suspension of tolling—isn’t right. The actual cause of the project’s demise is much different. Every step of the way, over the past five years. ODOT has taken actions that undercut the progress of the Rose Quarter project and instead elevated and accelerated another project, a $622 million rebuilding of the I-205 Abernethy Bridge in the wealthy and predominantly white suburb of West Linn, rather than the Rose Quarter (in Portland’s historically Black Albina neighborhood).
Along the way, ODOT:
- “found” money to move the I-205 project forward when the Legislature appropriated nothing for its construction.
- diverted state gas tax funds originally earmarked by the 2017 Oregon Legislature for the Rose Quarter to pay for the I-205 bridge
- Used Rose Quarter funding to enable the I-205 bridge to circumvent federal environmental review (which has delayed the Rose Quarter project)
- Accelerated signing construction contracts for the I-205 bridge, putting it ahead of Rose Quarter in line for state funding
- Proceeded with the I-205 bridge even though its cost as increased by 150 percent since 2018, from $250 million to $622 million
- Officially told the federal government that it wasn’t “reasonably foreseeable” that the Rose Quarter project would be financed by tolling revenues.
As a result of all these decisions, the I-205 Bridge is moving forward, and ODOT, by its own admission is committing to paying for the bridge even if that state raises no toll revenue. Meanwhile, the Rose Quarter project is languishing, and is no closer to construction than it was six years ago.
It’s baffling that Finn would blame ODOT’s financial woes on Governor Kotek’s recent actions. It’s been apparent for years that ODOT has lacked the money to actually build the Rose Quarter project, and Kotek has been Governor for just six months. In 2021, as House Speaker, Kotek voted against the bill that allowed the diversion of funds from the Rose Quarter (HB 3055) and urged ODOT to “right-size” its mega-highway projects. And in May, as Governor, Kotek finally insisted on injecting a note of fiscal realism into ODOT’s work by requiring this new financial plan for its megaprojects. As we’ll see, all of the financial problems plaguing the Rose Quarter project pre-date the Kotek Administration and are the direct product of decisions made by ODOT staff, including Finn.
About the HAAB and the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway Widening Project
The I-5 Rose Quarter project would widen about 1.5 miles of freeway in North and Northeast Portland. Part of the project involves constructing a partial cover over a portion of the freeway, ostensibly to make up for the damage the freeway did in dividing the historically Black Albina neighborhood. (Construction of I-5 in the 1960s was actually one of three ODOT projects that divided and helped trigger the decline of Albina. Facing community resistance to the project in September 2020, ODOT unilaterally disbanded an earlier community advisory group—which was raising uncomfortable questions—and instead created the Historic Albina Advisory Board. ODOT rebranded the project as contributing to “restorative justice” in part by building the covers, and in part by implying it would hire Black contractors to do much of the work. In City Observatory’s view, there are multiple fatal flaws with the Rose Quarter project: it’s vastly too expensive, doesn’t fix any safety problem, won’t reduce congestion, will actually increase pollution, and doesn’t revitalize the neighborhood.
A 2017 Earmark for the Rose Quarter: Diverted by ODOT
The Legislature’s landmark 2017 transportation package specifically included the $450 million in funds for the Rose Quarter in the form of a 2 cent per gallon statewide gas tax. The bill contained no funding the I-205 project. Even so, in 2018, ODOT used its discretion to divert more than $50 million from a variety of sources to move the I-205 project forward. Here’s a list of the funds ODOT scraped together to pay for I-205:
Then, in 2021, ODOT convinced the Legislature pass HB 3055, to open up the $450 million set aside for the Rose Quarter project for other projects, including the I-205 Abernethy Project. ODOT quickly used that discretion to effectively commit all of that money to paying for I-205, rather than the Rose Quarter.
Evading federal environmental review for I-205 by using Rose Quarter funds
ODOT used the Rose Quarter funding diversion to evade federal environmental review of the I-205 project. ODOT assured the Federal Highway Administration that the Abernethy Bridge could be built without any toll revenues, by diverting the funds originally earmarked for the Rose Quarter. This enabled ODOT to get an exemption from federal environmental review—a CE or “categorical exclusion.” If ODOT hadn’t offered those assurances, FHWA would have had to perform a lengthy Environmental Assessment on the I-205 bridge project (called “Phase 1a”), something that has slowed the I-5 Rose Quarter project. Here’s the FHWA’s official finding:
Recently signed into law, Oregon House Bill 3055 provides financing options that allow Phase 1a of the I-205: Stafford Road to OR 213 Improvements Project to be constructed beginning in the spring/summer 2022 without the use of toll revenue. . .
As Phase 1a is now advancing as a separate project with independent funding, the 2018 CE decision is being reduced in scope to include only Phase 1a (the “I-205: Phase 1a Project” or “Phase 1a Project”).
[Emily Kline, “Re-Evaluation of the Categorical Exclusion for the I-205: Stafford Road to OR 213 Improvements Project, Federal Highway Administration, May 4, 2022, page 3.]
A key reason for the Rose Quarter’s delay, despite its head-start over the I-205 bridge, is ODOT’s flawed project development process and environmental assessment. The City of Portland pulled out of the project in 2020 citing a lack of community engagement. And the Federal Highway Administration rescinded the project’s Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), in part because of flaws in the ODOT-prepared Environmental Assessment. Only the personal intervention of then-Governor Kate Brown revived the project.
ODOT gave preferential treatment to the I-205 bridge project
ODOT also chose to launch the Abernethy Bridge construction first, expediting a construction contract, even though the bridge repair came in at double ODOT’s cost estimate. (And in an unnoticed part of ODOT’s new financial plan is an acknowledgment that the Abernethy Bridge Project will now cost $622 million, up from $500 million a year ago).
Now that the Abernethy project is launched, ODOT is dissembling about the role of tolls. The agency’s finance director flatly contradicted the FHWA finding in his testimony to the Oregon Transportation Commission on June 28. Brouwer said:
. . . we’ve already put the Abernethy Bridge Project out to bid based on the assumption of being able to toll this and it is under contract, under construction so we have now that the situation where if for any reason tolls on I-205 do not move forward whether that’s due to action at the federal, state or regional level it would punch a significant hole in the finance plan.
As a result, the failure to toll I-205 now will likely jeopardize funding for the Rose Quarter, because ODOT is contractually obligated to pay for the Abernethy Bridge even if tolling doesn’t materialize.
Rose Quarter: Cost Overruns and No Funding Plan
As we’ve documented, the Rose Quarter has chalked up an impressive string of cost-overruns, with new, and much higher cost figures, arriving every 18 to 24 months. The project was originally budgeted at $450 million when approved in 2017, jumped to $795 million just two years later, and then to $1.45 billion in 2021, and now $1.9 billion
In September 2021, the Oregon Transportation Commission, shocked by the new cost figures, directed ODOT staff to come back with a new finance plan by December of 2021. As Willamette Week reported, OTC was hoping somebody else would ride to the rescue:
The OTC told ODOT staff to come back with a funding proposal by Dec. 1 that includes significantly more than the $500 million to $700 million available from the state. The commission directed ODOT to include specific information in the funding plan, including (1) an estimate of the amount of dedicated funding needed to build the project and (2) “a discussion of whether a viable plan to secure that dedicated funding from federal, state and/or the city of Portland, Metro, Multnomah County, TriMet and other organizations in Portland is reasonably likely to be authorized and appropriated by July 1, 2023.”
The department completely missed that deadline. More than 18 months later, in May 2023, the staff showed up at a Commission meeting and asked for yet another year of delay to prepare a financial plan. This project’s financial woes are not the product of the recently announced tolling postponement; they’re a long-standing dereliction of financial duty by ODOT.
Rose Quarter is now permanently behind an even more expensive Abernethy Bridge.
Now that the Abernethy Bridge has started construction, that project takes absolute priority over the Rose Quarter project. As ODOT Finance Director Travis Brouwer testified to the Oregon Transportation Commission on June 28, because the agency had started the I-205 Abernethy Bridge, that was “locked in.”
. . . we have started on the I-205 Abernethy bridge and so that is locked in . . .
OTC Vice Chair Lee Beyer confirmed that in his comments in the meeting:
. . . one of the fiscal realities is we have to move forward on Abernathy because we’re in the midst of construction we really don’t have an alternative there . . “
But the loss of funding was only part of the problem: ODOT has badly botched the design of the Rose Quarter project, leading to an escalating series of cost overruns. The project which was estimated to cost $450 million in 2017, jumped to $795 million in 2018, to $1.45 billion in 2021, and now to $1.9 billion.
Rose Quarter’s Fatal Flaw: A Too Wide Design
All of these cost increases are driven by ODOT’s decision to build a massively wider freeway. The current roadway is about 82 feet wide; ODOT plans to double it to 160 feet (and in places 200 feet). ODOT has got to great lengths to conceal the actual dimensions of the freeway, and claims that it’s adding just one auxiliary lane in each direction. The reality is its intent on building a roadway broad enough for ten travel lanes (up from four today).
ODOT’s own consultants, the internationally recognized engineering firm ARUP, explicitly said that ODOT was designing an excessively wide roadway, with shoulders in the covered section wider than in any city in North America. It recommended reducing the width of the roadway by more than 40 feet.
The excessive width of the roadway is the biggest cost driver. It necessitates huge and expensive columns and girders to carry local streets across the widened freeway. And because the beams supporting the road (and proposed covers) have to be much taller than current beams, ODOT has to depress the roadbed of the freeway below its current level—excavating at great expense to assure adequate vertical clearance for the new road.
ODOT’s attempt to package the I-5 Rose Quarter project as “restorative justice” for the damage a series of ODOT highway construction projects did to the Albina neighborhood from the 1950s to the 1970. Grafting elaborate (but still very constrained) covers on to its overly wide freeway is plainly uneconomical.