Is Portland Losing Its Resolve Against Highway Expansions?

Photo:  Bike Portland
Photo: Bike Portland

Building safe and convenient transit and biking connections is essential, but if your local highway network is expanding, all those good things will get swamped by increases in car traffic.

In the 1970s, some American cities revolted against highway expansion and kept the worst excesses of the interstate construction spree in check. Those cities, like San Francisco and Portland, tend to be the most walkable and transit-oriented places in the nation today.

But in Portland that legacy is in jeopardy. There’s now a developing consensus among public officials that some highway widening projects should get built, reports Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland:

Back in February, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane advocated for three freeway expansion projects in the Portland region during a speech in Washington County. After transportation activists turned up at a TriMet board meeting to express their disappointment in his stance, McFarlane accused the media who accurately covered his speech as being nothing more than “fake news” outlets.

Also last month, Oregon State Representative Rich Vial went public with his plans for a massive new highway on the west side he’s dubbed the “Northwest Passage”. Rep. Vial isn’t just sharing a pet project, he’s pushing House Bill 3231, which would give broad powers to local governments to build highways without the state’s support. That bill is being taken seriously enough to have earned a public hearing scheduled for this Wednesday (4/5).

At a panel last month Leah Treat, director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation said she supports the widening of I-5 through the Rose Quarter, as long as the project also builds new bikeways and other upgrades on adjacent surface streets. “There’s a need to address through-put,” she said, acknowledging that adding freeway capacity is the only way to get the “yes” votes needed for a transportation funding package.

Fortunately, a broad coalition has come together to push back against the “normalization” of highway expansions, Maus writes:

Two weeks ago a new coalition came together to demand that any freeway expansions come with equal funding for active transportation.

And on Thursday, 1000 Friends of Oregon encouraged their supporters to show up and testify against HB 3231…

Oregon’s environment and transportation advocacy groups seem to have learned a major lesson: Four years ago they sat on the sidelines as the Columbia River Crossing freeway expansion project nearly became a reality.

Highway expansion is an extreme idea that leads to incalculable negative externalities. If we are silent as it creeps back into the mainstream, it will become normalized. That’s a risk none of us should be willing to take.

More recommended reading today: Transportation for America shares a letter signed by 162 organizations urging the House and Senate to reject Trump’s push to defund transit and TIGER grants. NextSTL reports that voters in St. Louis approved the expansion of Metrolink via Prop 1 while rejecting a tax for a new sports stadium. And the California High Speed Rail Blog weighs in on the Trump team’s apparent enthusiasm for the Hyperloop, a comically fantastical and unproven transport concept promoted by Elon Musk.

  • When you have a huge influx of residents, many of whom are priced out of the city market and need to live in the burbs, this is what you get. Not everyone has the luxury of riding a bike or of being close to mass transit. You have to be smart with how to handle the consequences of adding a couple hundred thousand people to your area. Infrastructure, like roads and transit, are slower to plan or build, but officials need to think short and long term about how they plan to house and move people around. Otherwise, you end up with the Bay Area. Learn from the mistakes made in and around SF.

  • calwatch

    Portland also has the most underpowered freeways in the nation, as measured by lane miles divided by freeway miles. I-5 through the Rose Quarter is two through lanes in each direction and should be widened, if only to provide more reliable transit for buses coming in and out. Not widening I-205 at the south end makes it less effective as a bypass for vehicles outside Portland. I’m less of a fan of the SR-217 widening, but WES would need to be expanded into more of a regional rail service than the current peak hour service so that it could be more of an option compared to SR-217.

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TriMet's Neil McFarlane is perfectly willing to undermine transit with highway expansions. His agency will get a light rail expansion in the bargain. Photo:  Bike Portland

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