The Greenwashing of a Portland Highway Expansion

Photo:  Bike Portland
Photo: Bike Portland

The construction of Interstate 5 in northeast Portland in the 1960s was a classic urban renewal catastrophe. To make room for this highway, the state of Oregon bulldozed hundreds of homes in Albina, a majority black neighborhood, paying owners as little as $50 apiece. The neighborhood was never the same.

In the 1970s, Portland gained a reputation for highway revolts — successful campaigns to stop the Mount Hood Freeway and tear down Harbor Drive.

But the old political instinct to cram more cars through cities never dies — not even in Portland. Right now, in 2018, a $450 million expansion of I-5 in the Rose Quarter area is marching forward with the backing of the city’s Mayor, Ted Wheeler, and Oregon DOT.

ODOT has taken great pains to present the project as a more enlightened breed of urban freeway widening. The design includes a bicycle bridge and a landscaped cap spanning part of the sunken highway. But make no mistake, the purpose of the project is to add lanes for cars and rework interchanges to pump more traffic through I-5. That’s what most of the money is for.

More than 300 homes were demolished to make way for I-5 in Portland, originally called the Minnesota Freeway, because it replaced Minnesota Avenue. Photo via City Observatory
More than 300 Portland homes were demolished to make way for I-5 (originally called the Minnesota Freeway because it replaced Minnesota Avenue). Photo via City Observatory

Oregon DOT isn’t fooling the “No More Freeways” coalition, which includes the Portland NAACP, Oregon Walks, and the Eastside Democratic Club. They point out that adding highway capacity will exacerbate public health problems and undermine the city’s climate goals while doing nothing in the long run to solve congestion.

“The investment is fundamentally antithetical to the Portland region’s values in the 21st century,” said Aaron Brown, a leader with the volunteer group.

Widening I-5 won’t solve congestion

ODOT wants to add two “auxiliary lanes” to a four-lane freeway segment just over a mile long. The agency says it will shave minutes off rush hour car commutes. But even an analysis commissioned by ODOT found that any effect won’t last long: By 2027, traffic congestion will still be significant with the I-5 widening.

ODOT is also considering managing traffic with variable tolls that would rise during peak hours. Advocates want to move forward with the tolling plan without dumping half a billion dollars into highway expansion.

The highway caps are window dressing

City officials including Portland Bureau of Transportation Manager Art Pearce have come out in favor of the project, citing the surface streets and parkings that will be built over the widened highway segment. Pearce said the project will “reconnect the central city.”

But Joe Cortright at City Observatory isn’t impressed. The highway caps, he writes, are “actually just slightly oversized overpasses, with nearly all of their surface area devoted to roadway.”

Local advocate Jim Howell created a visualization to show how disconnected the new park spaces over the highway will be.

Other streets should be much higher priorities for safety improvements

ODOT also claims that this segment of I-5 should be rebuilt for public safety, saying it’s one of the most crash-prone corridors in the state.

That argument is deceptive, says Kristin Eberhard at the Sightline Institute. There have been two fatalities in the project area in recent years, she notes, and neither could be attributed to freeway design: In both cases, drivers struck homeless men walking on the highway. The high number of crashes reported by ODOT are mostly minor fender benders.

Meanwhile, Portland’s arterial streets really are in dire need of safety improvements. There are roughly five times as many serious crashes on these major surface streets as there are on the city’s freeways.

If ODOT genuinely wanted to improve safety, it could devote $450 million to support Portland’s Vision Zero program instead of a highway widening.

“They are spending half a billion nominally to improve safety but it’s just a guise for improving traffic,” said Cortright.

The project severs one of Portland’s most important bike routes

Image: Jim Howell via City Observatory
Image: Jim Howell via City Observatory

Bike traffic is growing at an impressive rate on Flint Street, which currently gets around 10,000 bike trips per day. But Flint Street will lose its appeal as a bike route if the I-5 project advances, because it calls for demolishing the Flint Street overpass, severing the street in two.

The new $15 million bike bridge ODOT is proposing to build, meanwhile, is in a less useful location.

“It’s symbolic to show that they’re building some bike infrastructure,” said Cortright. “It’s not what anyone who wanted to improve bike or [pedestrian infrastructure] in the neighborhood would impose.”

What’s next

The I-5 expansion is trudging on, with the state legislature beginning to budget for the project last year. But the state will be counting on federal funding too, and the matter isn’t settled yet.

ODOT still has to conduct an environmental review before it can access federal funds. In the meantime, the Portland Planning Commission could decide to remove the I-5 widening from the list of projects eligible for federal subsidies. Last year, one commissioner tried to do just that. He was overruled in a tight 6-4 vote.

Advocates like Brown aren’t giving up. “It’s the last gasp of freeway builders trying to get half a billion,” he said.

  • Alfonso Smurfjabwae

    The last gasp of freeway builders? That’s funny. Let’s see, in just the last ten years or so there was the Katy Freeway megaproject in Houston and the 405 widening in LA and now we have the Denver I70 East expansion and I could go on and on and on. We are delusional. We need to start dealing with reality. That means understanding why DOTs do what they do and then finding the work around that will resonate and change things instead of writing the same freaking article over and over and over again. It ain’t working.

  • MTW

    “That means understanding why DOTs do what they do and then finding the work around that will resonate and change things”

    Do you have a suggestion? Serious question, not trying to be snarky. I find this article (and the work Aaron Brown is doing) to be compelling and I’m hopeful it will result in this project being killed.

  • TakeFive

    Just a guess that the city of Portland is not the purview of ODOT. City of Portland is ofc free to pursue whatever it wishes. Deck parks are fine; they’re nice in fact.

  • TakeFive

    With respect to I-70 that’s a critical freight and commercial corridor for most of the state. There’s a lot of power and influence among all the western slope (ski) resorts. Other than for the legal harassment, when 5% of the population tries to bully the other 95%, the outcome is rather predictable.

  • LazyReader

    It’s not like neighborhoods don’t have the same reservations regarding transit. Maryland’s cancelled Red Line was gonna cut thru neighborhoods much to the uproar of the communities, when the Red Line commission agreed to do the project underground the cost rose to nearly 8 billion and was cancelled. But I-5’s expansion is merely a response to demand, Portlanders are not giving up their cars. Finally, despite the increase in work at homes, the number of cars used
    to take people to work has significantly grown. By dividing the number
    of two-person carpoolers by two, the number of three-person carpoolers
    by three, etc., we can estimate the total number of cars used by both
    drive-alones and carpoolers. This grew from about 655,000 in 2006 to
    764,000 in 2016. Adding more than 100,000 new cars to the road in a decade must have
    increased congestion, especially since Portland hasn’t built many, if
    any, new freeways and other arterials in that time period. Yet that
    congestion hasn’t led a greater share of commuters to ride transit. In
    fact, transit’s share shrank from 8.5 percent in 2015 to 8.0 percent in
    2016 even though there were 4.3 percent more cars commuting to work in
    2016 than in 2015. In short, Portland is definitely more congested, but nothing else has
    worked as planners hoped. Congestion has not boosted transit’s share or
    discouraged drive-alone’s share of commuting. All of the money spent on
    light rail has gotten people off of buses and onto trains, but hasn’t
    gotten people out of their cars and onto transit. All that has happened
    is that costs to everyone have grown.

  • TakeFive

    Have to say: well stated.

  • LazyReader

    Speaking of costs. Any unfunded obligation is worrisome. But some transit agencies are in dire need of emergency funds not for their trains or rail but their public pension and healthcare costs. Some of which are twice that of the operating budget of these agencies. The unfunded pension and health care obli-
    gations facing Portland’s TriMet are so serious that the agency’s general manager has warned that, to fulfill those obligations, the agency will have to cut all transit service by 70% by 2025. http://blog.oregonlive.com/commuting/2013/02/trimet_general_manager_warns_o.html
    Despite this they’re still panning a 2 billion dollar light rail line.

  • B_Carfree

    Hmm, let’s cherry-pick slightly different years. From 2007-2015 Portland added 54514 jobs but only 13177 of these new jobs saw the workers get into cars. That’s a lot of folks working at home, riding bikes, walking and taking transit. The percentage carpooling also rose dramatically.

    At times during this decade things looked better, with actual declines in car usage. Did we hear the car folks calling for fewer travel lanes earlier in the decade when all those people using transit, bicycles and their feet were decreasing congestion? Nope, people just created new trips to clog the roads. It’s induced demand, and even CalTrans has accepted it as reality. ODOT has yet to formally acknowledge that each mile of travel lane they create adds to congestion.

  • LazyReader

    New light-rail lines will in fact be counterproductive. Increasing property taxes will make housing even more expensive. Increased congestion from trains running in and crossing streets will delay buses even more. Rail’s high operating costs will probably mean higher bus fares. But this is typical of Portland’s light-rail mafia, which cares more about inputs than results. As the Portland Tribune noted a few days ago, census data reveal that the number of drivers on the road has greatly increased in the last three years.

    How Portlanders get to work:
    Total residents commuting to work, 2014: 301,226 in 2016: 320,080
    Those who drove alone, 2014: 187,726 2016: 202,102
    Those who carpooled, 2014: 29,651 in 2016: 28,186
    Those using public transportation, 2014: 38,529 in 2016: 44,691
    Those working from home, 2014: 24,681 in 2016: 27, 180

    Those who walked, biked or took motorcycle, taxi or other means, 2014: 45,320 in 2016: 45,091

    Two rivers and a 50-year-old highway system will certainly contribute to a congestion issue. Portland has no interest in upgrading it’s highways and streets. Back in 1980, Portland transit carried 10% of the region’s commuters to work. Since then, the region has increased its population density by 20 percent, the cities population has grown by 217,000 people. They’ve spent $5 billion building nearly 80 miles of rail transit lines, and subsidized scores of high-density, mixed-use housing projects in light-rail and other transit corridors. The result is that,
    in 2016, just 8.0% of commuters took transit to work. Transit ridership has declined nearly everywhere else nationwide. And it’s because transit agencies have sacrificed actual transportation priorities for building expensive projects. They care more about building infrastructure empires than they do providing transportation. TriMet
    is stuck with seemingly intractable budget problems, even as ridership
    grows and it takes federal grant money for new rail lines it doesn’t
    have the money to operate. there’s an overwhelming perception “that buses are boring and trains are
    sexy.” That mindset complicates the discussion of mass transit plans in
    growing metros: though advanced bus systems can perform as well or
    better than streetcar or light rail systems for less money, people would
    rather have trains. has caused many to overlook the potential for more cost-effective
    bus-based systems and even simpler improvements to bus services that do
    not require dedicated right of way or dedicated Bond measures.

    If they really wanna sell trains “image” to people; do what Hollywood does every day…………Fake it.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ee34457a42b45d6a74eaf8b98897c0bb3417fe043171d70ee604ef8fcdc241b2.jpg

    Give em buses that look like trains. Problem solved

  • CeeTee55

    Nah, they want trains.

  • Anon

    I-5 or I-205 needs widening (or a bypass highway for the whole metro area needs to be built) for it’s impact on regional and national transportation.

    For large portions of the day, no thru traffic can get *past* Portland without spending multiple hours in traffic. There simply are no decent alternate routes, especially for larger vehicles (ex: trucks), and the bottleneck hurts transportation on the entire West Coast.

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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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