ODOT graphics from the online open house (left) and Supplemental Environmental Assessment.

“ODOT is using these sleights of hand to hide the fact that they don’t want to study an alternative that does not add additional lanes of freeway into the neighborhood.”

-Aaron Brown, No More Freeways

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has released the long-awaited Supplemental Environmental Assessment (SEA) for its I-5 Rose Quarter expansion plan. This will kickstart a new era for the controversial freeway project, as it opens up an online open house and another public comment period and faces continued scrutiny from advocates, who are largely unimpressed with the assessment and the changes ODOT has made to the plan.

This is not the full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) advocates want from ODOT, which would require the agency to study alternatives to the lane expansion – a task they have not embraced (to say the least). Members of the Rose Quarter expansion opposition group No More Freeways (NMF), along with the Eliot Neighborhood Association and Neighbors for Clean Air, have taken ODOT to court on the grounds that they must complete an EIS.

ODOT’s timeline of environmental assessment for the I-5 Rose Quarter expansion project. (Source: ODOT)

Last year, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its “finding of no significant impact” (FONSI) it previously gave to the Rose Quarter project and instructed ODOT to do more environmental assessment on its impacts.

In the SEA released this week, ODOT downplays the federal verdict, saying they had agreed with the FHWA that the Rose Quarter design changes needed additional analysis. In reality, this was a setback for the project partially prompted by the NMF-led lawsuit.

ODOT’s big focus in this new Environmental Assessment is the so-called “restorative justice” element of the widening project they say will be accomplished through the highway covers that will go along with the lane expansion. We looked at the details of their latest design for the covers, which will ostensibly reconnect the Albina neighborhood that was severely impacted by the construction of I-5 more than 50 years ago.

Overall, advocates aren’t impressed.

“The [SEA] shows that the covers are, at best, a half-baked policy… [ODOT] is now making it clear it won’t do anything to pay the costs of actually building anything permanent on top of the covers,” Joe Cortright, an ODOT watchdog and co-founder of NMF, wrote in a City Observatory article about the design. “This is clear evidence of the hollowness of ODOT’s promises of restorative justice:  they have no commitment to seeing anything actually gets built on these highway covers.”

But any benefits the covers could provide would be possible without a lane expansion. NMF wants ODOT to add these freeway caps to reconnect the Albina neighborhood — no lane expansion needed.

“No More Freeways is excited about and supportive of ODOT’s plans to build caps to reconnect the greater Albina community included in the proposal but believe that ODOT should move forward with the project that does not include adding additional lanes of traffic to pollute the neighborhood,” a recent NMF press release states.

In the new EA, ODOT also heralds the benefits the project will bring for active transportation in Portland’s central city, including for the construction of the Portland Green Loop, which will be routed onto NE Broadway and Weidler with sidewalk-level raised cycling lanes. In the online open house for the SEA, ODOT states that the “movement for people walking, biking and rolling would improve overall with the project compared to without the project” thanks to:

– Improved bicycle and pedestrian connections with the highway cover.
– Improved safety through signal timing to separate bicycles and pedestrians from turning vehicles.
– Improved safety through physical separation from vehicles.

But in a laudable bit of honesty, ODOT also acknowledges that conditions for bikers and walkers will get worse. They cite crosswalk closures which would create out-of-direction travel for some people, longer delays for bike riders due to new signal timing that separates them from drivers, and they even admit that there is “potential for pedestrian/auto conflict at the proposed new I-5 southbound ramp location, which could increase due to the additional traffic at this location.”

A screen grab from a NMF virtual press conference Thursday afternoon.

Bike advocates are very skeptical about these purported benefits (despite city and state transportation officials’ attempts to quell concerns.) In another recent City Observatory article, Cortright wrote that the new design will create an environment in which “bike riders will have to negotiate on Portland’s busy North Williams bikeway will have to negotiate two back-to-back freeway ramps that carry more than 20,000 cars per day.”

Overall, some advocates think the SEA is a continuation of a historical lack of transparency from an agency bent on promoting the freeway industrial complex at all costs. They want ODOT to analyze the impacts of congestion pricing on reducing traffic impacts on I-5 through the Rose Quarter and study air quality impacts of the expansion – both of which they say the agency has largely avoided doing as of now, even as it releases more environmental analyses.

“We believe that ODOT is deliberately using these sleights of hand to hide the fact that they don’t want to study an alternative that does not add additional lanes of freeway into the Albina neighborhood,” NMF co-leader Aaron Brown said at a press briefing on the Rose Quarter project earlier today.

The fact that ODOT has released this open house and opened the public comment period right before the winter holiday season is also suspicious to agency critics.

“It’s clear that ODOT is making it as difficult as possible for people to comment,” Brown said.

Despite their belief that ODOT has been less than transparent in their communications about this project, NMF advocates want people to participate in the public comment period. They also say they will be launching new efforts for activists to get involved in fighting the lane expansion in the coming weeks.

You can browse all the documents (including the transportation technical report), learn about bike-specific plans, and share your comment at the online open house. Comments will be accepted until January 4. Stay tuned for more coverage on the SEA and advocacy efforts around it.



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