When up against a state agency with vast resources and a track record of misleading tactics that is desperate to push a controversial project forward, activists sometimes have to get creative. That was the case last night when the nonprofit No More Freeways held a “People’s Public Hearing” on the Oregon Department of Transportation’s I-5 Rose Quarter project.

For over five years now, No More Freeways (NMF) has been locked in a battle with ODOT to stop the agency from expanding I-5 through Portland’s lower Albina neighborhood. When ODOT released the first federally required Environmental Assessment for this project in 2019, NMF used a mix of old and new-fashioned community organizing to collect over 2,000 (yes, thousand) official comments into the project — 91% of which were in opposition. These comments matter because they are entered into the official record by the Federal Highway Administration, which has ultimate control of the project’s destiny.

A focus of NMF’s work is to force ODOT to complete an Environmental Impact Statement — part of the federal review process which would be a more robust analysis of the project’s impacts than the Environmental Assessments that’s been done thus far. ODOT says an EA is sufficient and the Oregon Transportation Commission agreed with them and approved the project. In April 2021 NMF, along with Neighbors for Clean Air and the Eliot Neighborhood Association filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Transportation in hopes they would tell ODOT to halt the project. (Note that NMF and their partners are in favor of the highway lid and neighborhood street improvements. They just don’t believe a freeway expansion is necessary.)

ODOT has thus far managed to keep their ball moving down the field, thanks to a huge assist from former Oregon Governor Kate Brown. The Governor’s compromise — which included a large lid over the highway that could one day be developed on — triggered enough changes to the project to require a Supplemental Environmental Assessment (SEA).

Tonight (Wednesday, January 4th) is the final day for the public to submit comment on the SEA.

NMF was highly skeptical when ODOT scheduled the SEA comment period over the holiday, knowing it would suppress public engagement. The nonprofit group asked for a public hearing, but ODOT said no. So NMF held their own.

Over 40 people filed into the cafeteria of Harriet Tubman Middle School Tuesday night, just a few hundred feet from the hum of traffic on I-5. Several dozen of them walked up to the mic, started into a camera that was livestreaming the event to YouTube, and spoke their comments directly to ODOT. While unsanctioned and unofficial, the novel format was surprisingly empowering. People from many viewpoints shared strong testimony and seemed to relish the opportunity — even if ODOT staff weren’t seated across from them.

Here’s what some of them said:

Taylor Walker, 16 years old:

Taylor Walker

“What’s even worse is that time and time again, after we’ve gone to countless meetings for city council members, Metro and the Oregon Transportation Commission, after I and 1000s of my classmates took to the streets and protested and shouted at the adults in charge of the city to change and stand up against climate change. They keep making stupid decisions like the rose quarter expansion project. I’m 16 years old now. Climate scientists say our fate will be largely sealed by 2030. In 2030, I will be 23 years old. The kids that go here now will only be 19. What kind of life is that for us? Are we really willing to give up and succumb to this future? I’m not. It is time to fight. We cannot let this expansion pass.”

Nakisha Nathan, Neighbors for Clean Air:

Nakisha Nathan

“ODOT has failed to adequately address the increase in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that will result with the addition of over a million additional vehicle miles of travitt travel that will come from aspects of this design… This project is a disaster for air pollution in a community trying to heal from repeated harms caused by ODOT and institutional systemic racism.”

Joe Cortright, economist and co-founder of No More Freeways:

Joe Cortright

“This is a giant freeway, don’t listen to talk about so-called auxiliary lanes, it will increase traffic and greenhouse pollution according to the best available scientific information. Congestion won’t go down because of induced demand. It isn’t really needed because traffic in this area has stabilized and if anything declined, this is a hugely expensive project that they don’t have the money to pay for. And if they implement tolling, we really don’t even need to expand the freeway here.”

Alan Rudwick, Eliot Neighborhood:

“This neighborhood wants to be an urban neighborhood. It’s an inner area close to downtown, it has great access to lots of things. And this project has been hanging over the area for the last 13-14 years, delaying development. I’ve seen multiple projects proposed and get shelved. And a big part of it is, ‘Well what’s gonna happen over there with the freeway?’ So hurry up, kill it already so we can get on with building ourselves back up and realizing the vision that people have for greatness here.”

Michelle DuBarry, Families for Safe Streets:

“[My one year old son Seamus] was one of hundreds of people who have been killed and injured on ODOT roads. So when I hear the agency asking taxpayers to foot the bill for a $1.5 billion highway expansion, their claims about safety ring pretty hollow. Families for Safe Streets does not accept the deaths and injuries of our loved ones, the poisoning of the air or the destruction of our planet as acceptable trade offs for faster freight transport, or convenience of motorists.”

William Henderson, business owner:

For a state agency, who supposed to be working for us to be rushing through a project, trying to hit a arbitrary 2023 construction deadline they’ve set for themselves so that other folks can rush through our neighborhood. That is not what Portland’s about. That’s not why I started a business here. I don’t think it’s what makes Portland great. And I think we can do better.

Ukiah HalloranSteiner, Sunrise Rural Oregon/Youth Vs. ODOT:

Ukiah Halloran-Steiner

“I’m just a 17 year old girl, but I’ve done my research and I’m asking ODOT to do theirs. Hey ODOT, conduct an environmental impact statement on this unstrategic, polluting, dangerous money-sucking freeway expansion before it’s too late!”

Joan Petit, mother of two Black children and Tubman parent:

Joan Petit

“And now ODOT wants to double down on the harm to this community with an unnecessary freeway expansion. Even worse, they are calling it restorative justice, as if paying Black contractors to further destroy their communities and to hurt Black children is anything other than cynical exploitation. Is the health and well being of my children irrelevant to ODO? Are their lungs just collateral damage? Shame on ODOT for their cynical marketing, for their branding and rebranding. For their lies. For only seeing cars and trucks on the highway. For not really seeing the kids in this neighborhood in this school, who are as deserving of clean air and good schools as every other child in the state.”

Tegan Valo, B-Line Urban Delivery:

Tegan Valo

“I categorically reject any narrative that pits the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, the environment and the citizens who live here against the needs of freight, trucking the economy. Those needs are not mutually exclusive… our electric freight tricycles prevented over 500,000 pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere and reduced over 320,000 traffic miles that would have been done by traditional vehicles.”

If you haven’t commented yet, you have until midnight tonight (1/4). Make it happen on ODOT’s project website or via NMF’s handy comment generator. You can watch the livestream of the event here.

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