The Mayor of Portland Is Cheerleading for a Highway Expansion

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (blond, with glasses), is stumping for a half-billion-dollar highway project. Photo:  Wikimedia Commons
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (blond, with glasses), is stumping for a half-billion-dollar highway project. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ted Wheeler, the mayor of Portland, came out swinging last week against residents who are trying to stop a $450 million widening of I-5 in the Rose Quarter. For a city with a legacy of successful freeway revolts and a reputation as a national leader on sustainable transportation, it’s a surprising turn to watch the mayor go full-on highway booster.

Wheeler defended the highway widening in an interview on Oregon Public Broadcasting last week. He relied on a few rhetorical tricks that observers may recognize from other highway fights, like the I-70 widening in Denver. Identifying and picking apart these talking points is an essential exercise if you want to stop these highway projects and the traffic and pollution they cause.

Fortunately, Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland quickly rebutted Wheeler’s claims. Here’s a review of three major arguments from Wheeler and Maus’s response:

Hey, this freeway expansion is no big deal.

Wheeler said:

The narrative that’s out there right now that this is somehow a mega-project is sort of ridiculous. What we’re really talking about here is a quarter of a mile, two auxiliary lanes through the Rose Quarter to make the merge safer.

While the new lanes won’t add a huge amount of mileage, there’s no doubt that the project will add car capacity in the heart of the city. And Maus points out that the $450 million price tag certainly meets the legal definition of a mega project:

He says calling this a mega-project is “ridiculous,” yet at an estimated $450 million it’s $110 million more than the statutory definition of a mega-project as defined in Oregon law as per House Bill 2017, Section 121 (1) (on page 108).

That’s $450 million on road expansion instead of transit or safer biking and walking on local streets.

We need to expand this freeway to improve walking and biking.

In addition to more freeway lanes, the project calls for decking over small sections of I-5. These lids are a big component of Wheeler’s pitch:

If somebody came to me and said, ‘Hey Ted, do you want to spend half a billion on a freeway expansion?’ I’d say ‘No’ and ‘Hell no!’ But that’s not what this is. This is about reconnecting a community. It’s about bike, it’s about ped, it’s about transit, it’s about safety.”

Maus replies:

It’s unclear how two relatively small lids over the freeway will “reconnect the street grid for the historic Albina community.” ODOT has only described them as having vegetation and a former Portland Parks Bureau director said last week they’re likely to be “more of a liability than an amenity.” At City Council yesterday, one of Wheeler’s invited guests, Portland architect Matthew Arnold, testified that, “In my opinion those lids should be much larger if you really want to promote that kind of continuous urbanism.”

He referred to the two freeway lids as, “mostly a bicycle and pedestrian play.” That use of the word “play” sounds like an acknowledgment that they were included in the project purely as a way to curry favor with active transportation advocates. Merriam Webster defines that use of the word as a “a move or series of moves calculated to arouse friendly feelings.”

This freeway expansion is really about helping a historic black neighborhood. 

Wheeler said:

It actually restores the very neighborhood that was the most impacted by the development of I-5 and that’s the historic African American Albina community. And that’s why people who have testified on this — who have testified overwhelmingly in favor of this — tend to be people from communities of color who understand that history.

Maus replies:

The mayor’s reference to people of color testifying “overwhelmingly in favor” of the project is confusing. At the September 7th public hearing only four people (out of about 17 total) testified in favor of the project. Two of them were ODOT staffers (Shelli Romero and Andrew Plambeck), one was an invited Portland Planning Commissioner (Andre Baugh), and only one was an independent citizen (Terry Dublinski-Milton, who is white). Asked to clarify the mayor’s statement, his office said, “[At the September 7th hearing] handful of people of color testified and the majority of folks testified in support of the project which was in stark contrast to the people who testified in opposition. The evidence is in the recording of the council session.”

This is the playbook for pushing through urban highway expansions in the 21st century: Add some window dressing and claim it’s good for walking, biking, transit, and city residents. If Portland falls for this, which other cities will too?

More recommended reading today: Los Alamos Bikes corrects a local reporter who blamed pedestrians for their own deaths. And Transportation for America has an update on autonomous vehicle legislation in the Senate, which is shaping up as a “giveaway” to car companies.

36 thoughts on The Mayor of Portland Is Cheerleading for a Highway Expansion

  1. Adding auxiliary lanes to increase safety when vehicles merge and diverge isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you are just trying to make an existing roadway operate more efficiently. However, I do agree 450 million is a lot of money that can be used on multimodal transport that does not include cars.

  2. Hi, Angie

    Thank you for the link to my blog, Los Alamos Bikes.

    I think the main problem was that the New Mexican reporter talked mainly to the transportation officials, who seem oblivious to roadway design, and the Univ. of New Mexico folks who concentrate on impairment. The elephant in the room, that we have huge and fast “stroads” in Santa Fe, went undetected.

    I did get an email back from the reporter thanking me for input and asking for a future interview. So hopefully, that will not be the end of the story.

  3. Where does it say this would increase speeds? Maybe it would increase speeds during times of congestion, but if the baseline speeds during those times are less than half the speed limit of the road, the increase in speed would likely have negligible impacts on safety. It is a fully grade-separated, limited-access highway anyway.

  4. Vooch – There is a simple way for you to advance your desire for a city with less auto traffic. Live a lifestyle that requires no vehicular transportation to sustain your life. Grow your own food in your backyard (That would really suck if you chose live in an apartment). Do zero building projects. Also don’t live in a building, because that would require a truck delivering materials. Don’t buy clothes, books, or even bicycles (steel needs to be delivered). Actually the simplest solution is to not live in a large city at all. Imagine the peace you will feel, not having to dictate to everybody else which form of transportation you want them to use. It starts with you Vooch. Think globally act individually. Not “think globally and insist that everybody conforms to the world that you specifically want”. There are millions of bike lanes out there. It’s called the entire country outside city limits. Be proactive and go get it!

  5. fallacy that VMT equals economic activity

    the most prosperous societies in the world with highest living standards have VMTs 1/2 of ours


  6. 900 miles of protected bike lanes to support how many people and routes? And how much of this $450M money is use-it-or-lose-it highway funds from the feds that can’t be spent on your favorite local projects?

    I agree that VMT != GDP but how many of those “societies” take up space less than 1/2 of ours? And how much of that decrease is due to superior automobile infrastructure? Without the autobahn I’m sure Germany’s VMT would be a lot different.

    We have a major regional interstate restricted to a two-lane road through the downtown of one of the fastest growing cities in America. How many people have been injured or died on that stretch of highway? How much time and money is lost by our businesses and taxpayers? How much more lives and money must be wasted before you would agree on a common sense upgrade to this vital infrastructure?

  7. superhighways are good outside cities, superhighways inside cities subtract from economic activity and blight the city.

    increasing the blight by expanding a urban superhighway is poor economics.

    much better to eliminate the blight entirely; remove the highway and restore the preexisting street grid. propety values skyrocket and economic activity zooms once the black hole of blight is removed.

    carameggdon is a false fear, every single urban superhighway which was removed has resulted in a increase in economic activity and a decrease in traffic.

    Robert Moseswas wrong

  8. Don’t politicians in Oregon like other places have to be elected by the people?

    Respondents were asked what was more important: maintaining existing capacity for cars, or removing car lanes to make way for more bikes. Seventy-nine percent of respondents opted to maintain existing lanes.

    According to the survey, 68 percent of residents said widening or improving existing roads and highways would have a significant impact on congestion,
    Also this:

    City Council learns Mayor Ted Wheeler’s plan not near enough to cover Portland’s maintenance gap

    As the Portland City Council plans for tens of thousands more people to move to Portland over the next 20 years, it’s confronting an increasingly apparent problem — the city doesn’t have nearly enough money to maintain its existing streets, parks, civic buildings, and water and sewer systems, let alone expand them sufficiently to meet the expected demand.

    BTW, Central 70 ie being litigated. We’ll see soon enough who is standing on terra firma and who’s on quicksand.

  9. A freeway is a road built for higher speeds it’s actually more of a hazard if vehicles are forced to break on the freeway due to the merging of vehicles. Imagine going 70 mph and then having to step on your breaks for vehicles merging on. When it’s vehicle to vehicle speed differential is dangerous.

  10. In fact, they might be so close as to be the same person, the person who is also posting as Whateveryousay and RedMonk.

  11. I like downtown Portland but man I was not impressed by all their highways. Also yeah its pretty low density residential once you get tiny bit from the center. Beautiful though and lovely people

  12. The problem is when cars are exiting and entering at high speeds though? Have you ever walked near an urban highway exit? It’s terrifying.

  13. Yeah I really pity those people in Manhattan and Paris and Amsterdam with their lack of urban highways . If only they would move to “large city” and drive everywhere

  14. Did Robert Moses build that road? Robert Moses’s logic also was to build a freeway through a downtown which isn’t the best idea. If you noticed I was speaking of freeways in general terms referring to the ones that are used to move people great distances in less time. What’s the purpose of building a freeway if it doesn’t operate accordingly.

  15. You’re a zealot. It’s a grade-separated freeway. There are barriers and fences to prevent pedestrians and urban wildlife from wandering onto the roadway. That’s like saying: “Aircraft should be limited to 20-25 MPH because they are over urban airspace. That’s insanely dangerous. We all know that airplanes are only safe when they are parked.”

  16. cars exiting a 70 mph freeway onto a city street think 50 mph is really slow.

    This week a professional bus driver exited a superhighway in NYC and drove over 50 mph on a city street. He killed 3 people.

    your argument is wrong and dangerous

  17. That is a tragic example and your point about drivers’ perception of speed is valid. More highways is not a general-purpose answer to transportation problems, but upgrading the existing highways to reduce bottlenecks and improve both safety and efficiency is a good thing. I find that when I’m stuck in traffic congestion, once it clears, I’m inclined to drive well above the speed limit to try to make up for lost time, and you’d be right if you said that isn’t as safe as it could be.

  18. Yes, indeed, how did we ever have the massive economic expansion before Ike started leveling wide swaths of urban areas to install the interstate system? (cough, cough, sarcasm…)

    You make it sound like we have no options and offer a binary take on the whole situation. We do and it’s not. No one is talking about ripping out I-80 through Wyoming, However, finding a way to remove the I-5 through the middle of Portland is a valid conversation to have. Yes, steel does need to be delivered. There are docks and train lines all along the I-5 for exactly this purpose. However, they are sitting in disreapair because they can’t compete against a heavily subsidized interstate highway system.

    Remove those subsides and this conversation of ‘need’ would be over before it started. Are you willing to pay the free market price?

  19. I appreciate your measured, mature, and relevant response, Frank. It’s a rare occurrence on comment boards (which is why I generally avoid them). Nonetheless, I reject your assertion that I’m offering a binary take. I’m supporting the councils recommendation of a modest reconfiguration (extension of auxiliary lanes, widening of of shoulders, changing off-ramps etc) over a very short stretch of an EXISTING highway, which has been identified as the highest accident stretch in the state, is responsible for immeasurable unproductive time from commuters (and time being money, then that aspect is also immeasurably costly), and excess pollution resulting from miles of idling cars. The person I took up the reasonable defense of that with has “No cars between 11 am and 4 pm” as their icon gif and has posted over 10,000 comments on discus. And I HAVE A BINARY TAKE???? How can one possibly be in support of vision zero initiatives (I assume the followers of this blog are) and NOT support addressing in a practical, real, and immediate way, the highest accident section in the state? I would totally support moving I-5 out of central Portland, but I also recognize that it takes this city four years and two tries to replace the deck of a bridge, so I’m pretty confident in saying that’s not a practical solution, because it wouldn’t get finished in our lifetime (reference the crc). The hyperbole on display about this simple improvement is ridiculous…..And I’m accused of having the binary take.

  20. I’d like to point out the obvious evidence that is right before everyone’s eyes that refutes “induced demand” as an argument that congestion improves safety. The section of road we’re discussing is the most congested AND the most accident prone section in the state. Theory is meaningless when the evidence that’s presenting itself in the very instance we’re discussing is ignored.

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