(Source: ODOT project website)

Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter is a monument to the systemic racism that pervaded the Federal Highway Administration and their enablers at the Oregon Department of Transportation in the 1960s. The path of the freeway cut through the heart of Portland’s Black community like a “meat axe” and displaced hundreds of people. The loss of personal wealth and social capital for Portland’s Black residents was incalculable.

Sixty years later, ODOT wants to make the freeway even wider. But this time around, they’ve received an award for improving the lives of Black people.

Last Wednesday, the Portland chapter of the nonprofit Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) bestowed its 2022 Rosa Parks Diversity Leadership Award to the ODOT Urban Mobility Office for their work on the I-5 Rose Quarter Project. The mission of WTS is to, “Advance both the transportation industry and the professional women who lead it.”

Here’s the email sent from WTS Portland Chapter Vice President Lisa Patterson to ODOT:

I am writing with congratulations – the WTS Portland Chapter selected ODOT’s Urban Mobility Office as our 2022 Rosa Parks Diversity Leadership Award winner. The Rosa Parks Leadership Diversity Award recognizes an organization, project or individual that contributes significantly to promoting diversity, inclusion and multicultural awareness within their organization, the transportation industry, or in a project or activity that supports the goals and mission of WTS. Our Board and awards committee were impressed by the group’s determination to address past harms born upon Black Portlanders by previous government policies and investments and approaches to lead with equity in your programs. Of note was the description of the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project and how your team is using the project to help grow minority businesses, create new civic capacity and deliver a project based upon the vision of the community.

The project director of the I-5 Rose Quarter project is a Megan Channell. She recused herself from voting because she also happens to be president of the WTS Portland chapter.

While critics of this project say it will double-down on the negative community impacts of the initial freeway construction, Channell and her project team say it will enrich the lives of many by “connecting the community” and providing millions of dollars in high-paying jobs. ODOT is promising two million labor hours with up to $150 million in payroll and benefits with a goal of up to 22% of the total project contract value to be awarded to Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs, which must include at least 51% minority ownership).

ODOT has also gone to great lengths to make sure the project respects the lives of Black Portlanders past and present. In September 2020 they shut down the project’s Community Advisory Committee and created the Historic Albina Advisory Board in its place. In April 2021 ODOT launched a full rebranding effort which was revealed back in March. The new logo features the cupola of one of the old storefronts the freeway displaced.

This award comes at a time when ODOT needs good news. Also last week, a judge ruled against the agency in a public records case.

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