Some tough words about the legacy and impact of the I-5 were spoken by the Rose Quarter at the Portland City Council meeting on Wednesday. But for a project that has withstood years of vitriol and controversy, the overall tone was frankly collective.
“This is a family get-together,” said the leader of the Albina Vision Trust, a nonprofit that pulled out of the project in 2020, at one point.
After two years of walking away from the controversial I-5 Rose Quarter — a project that would expand the highway between I-84 and the Fremont Bridge, build freeway cover and upgrade surface streets — the Portland City Council has made it clear that they are “prepared to join the state’s Department of Transportation” Oregon moving forward.
As the commissioner in charge of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, Jo Ann Hardesty had to tread well on her introductory notes. Just two years ago, the project was so far from Portland’s values that Commissioner Hardesty’s predecessor took the unprecedented step of issuing a formal stop-work order. The project has also faced stiff opposition from people who distrust the ODOT and who fear that any new capacity on I-5 will create more leadership and move us in the wrong direction in the battle with climate change.
On Wednesday’s agenda was the first reading of an ordinance that would reverse the 2020 arrangement and bring the city of Portland into an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with the ODOT so that the state can pay nearly $5 million for PBOT planning work related to the project.
Hardesty’s comments drew a tone of exasperation over the ODOT legacy and previous decisions about I-5, while at the same time painting her agency’s work as a big win.
“The black community bore the brunt of this highway and the city’s failed urban renewal efforts. Instead of our neighborhood we have a ditch full of inhospitable highway traffic and pollution. All this in order to make it easier for people who live farther away.”
Left to their own devices, Hardesty said ODOT would have added more lanes to the highway and would have made the same mistakes again. “The City of Portland halted that plan,” she said. “Today I am proposing that the City of Portland return to the I-5 Rose Quarter project. This is a big step.”
Hardisty gave her office much of the credit, but didn’t say it was the work of activists like Sunrise PDX and No More Freeways who pushed the Overton window and helped make space for elected officials like her and the more conservative advocacy group Albina Vision Trust to force ODOT into concessions.
PBOT says they’re back at the table, not just because of the deal Gov. Kate Brown struck last August, but because ODOT has kept many promises. According to Hardesty, ODOT will: use congestion rates to manage traffic and reduce emissions, move Harriet Tubman Middle School off the highway, work closely with the Albina Vision Trust (AVT), and award construction contracts to black-owned businesses.
“[These construction contracts are an] An opportunity to make our community whole…to build the economic capacity of blacks. This is huge as far as I’m concerned.”
– James Bussey
James Posey is the co-founder of the National Association of Minority Contractors in Oregon and has been invited to testify in support of the project. Busy, who is also a member of the project’s community oversight advisory committee, said that despite ODOT’s “historic problems,” the agency is “intent on stepping back” to do things right this time. Bussey described the construction contracts as an “opportunity to make our community whole” and a way to “build the economic capacity of blacks.” “This is huge as far as I’m concerned.”
AVT CEO Winta Yohannes credited the city of Portland for standing up to ODOT. “Because of the city’s clear and decisive action, the local community has not been put under pressure,” she said. “The compromises that were made about the design of the highway cover and the width of the highway itself were all significant.”
When the public testimony began, the glowing reviews ended.
“We have allowed climate justice to be against racial justice. In the long run, we cannot win if we allow these two things to be set against each other.”
– Chris Smith, No More Highways
No More Freeways co-founder Chris Smith testified that he supports highway coverage and surface street improvements, but not the broader highway:
“We both celebrate and mourn today. We celebrate the achievements of our friends at Albina Vision and HAAB. [Historic Albina Advisory Board, convened by ODOT]…but we mourn the missed opportunity with respect to the climate. Your climate emergency declaration states that we should consider pricing solutions before expanding highways. ODOT has deliberately tampered with the process, so we’ll do it the other way. We’ll program the expansion and then we’ll talk about pricing.”
All of the speakers (outside the board) at the Wednesday meeting who spoke in favor of the project were black and everyone who opposed it (only two people) were white.
Smith, who is white, was the only person to talk about this when he said, “What happened here is that we’ve allowed climate justice to conflict with racial justice. In the long run, we can’t win if we let these two things run against each other.”
Terrence Hayes puts a good point in this dynamic. He testified as an employee of Black-owned Raimore Construction, and said his job recently allowed him to buy his first home. “I see that there are a lot of different concerns and these concerns are fair. I think the city also needs to consider the climate and all of those things. But when we talk about the black community — the community that has been affected by that original red line more than anyone else — we have to hear from people from this community.”
After the public testimony, the advisors discussed the decree.
Commissioner Mingus Mapps said he wants to hear more about how to respond to the many environmental concerns he has received from voters. ODOT and PBOT employees responded by outlining their efforts on congestion pricing.
ODOT’s Office of Urban Mobility Director Brendan Fenn said they hope to have the I-5 pricing system in place in the Portland area by the end of 2025. He then appeared to misspoke when he said pricing would happen, “before construction…or before completion of building the project.
This is at the heart of Chris Smith’s comments that ODOT is doing it backwards. “We can put an end to the current highway and manage congestion with pricing, and get the same benefits while drastically reducing negative impacts and potentially saving money in the process,” Smith said. He wants the council to pause, renegotiate the intergovernmental agreement, and do a full analysis of the pricing strategy first.
Given the tone of the comments on Wednesday, that seems highly unlikely. And according to a comment by Mayor Ted Wheeler, more cars on wider highways isn’t necessarily bad for climate change.
At the end of the meeting, Mayor Wheeler said the only analysis he would like to see is how many people will be driving “zero-emission vehicles” in the future. “Someone during public testimony raised the issue of induced demand…but my question is demand for what kind of vehicle?…I would like to know what the assumptions are for zero-emission transmission, because induced demand only matters if you are creating a cause of demand for Carbon-based compounds that pollute”.
Wheeler is wrong. Emissions are just one of the many ways cars pollute and have a negative impact on our city, but that’s a post for another day.
For now, the decree will return next week for a vote. If passed, the agreement will be valid for two years. At that time, project personnel must return to the city council to prove that ODOT has delivered on its promises.