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Highway Boondoggles

Boondoggle: Oregon Highway Widening Gets ‘Reconnecting Communities’ Cash

The US Department of Transportation just awarded $450 million to the $1.9-billion Rose Quarter 1-5 project, which opponents have long called one of America’s most-notorious highway boondoggles.

Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland|

I-5 northbound through the Rose Quarter.

A federal program known as Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods is meant to provide funding for neighborhood groups to begin the process of undoing the vast damage caused by urban freeways that created barriers to community connectivity.

So then why is the single biggest grant in the $4.2-billion program being spent on a freeway widening project in Portland?

The US Department of Transportation just awarded $450 million to the $1.9-billion Rose Quarter 1-5 project, which opponents have long called one of America’s most-notorious highway boondoggles. Advocates say the Rose Quarter project will repair the damage that the Oregon Department of Transportation did in the 1960s, when the construction of Interstate 5 slashed through Portland's historically Black Albina neighborhood.

Make no mistake, ODOT is culpable for engineering the destruction of this neighborhood, building three different highway projects that destroyed hundreds of homes. These projects triggered wholesale neighborhood decline, with Albina's population falling by two-thirds, from 14,000 in 1950 to 4,000 in 1980.

ODOT now claims all of this damage will be remediated because the agency plans to add several hundred feet of "covers" over the I-5 freeway. The agency’s promotional materials for the project regularly feature gauzy green images of the street trees and multi-story buildings that will be built on top of the covers, creating the impression that the project will restore the neighborhood to verdant glory. This rendering shows 10 different multi-story buildings to be built atop of, or adjacent to the freeway:

Project brochures, planning materials and presentations are replete with images of new homes, apartment buildings and even an "African-American Workforce Center" — and almost nothing showing any roadways.

The reality is far different.  

In fact, none of the buildings shown in these illustrations are funded by ODOT as part of this project. Notwithstanding the fact that ODOT demolished hundreds of homes to build highways that eviscerated Albina, the nearly $2-billion project budget doesn’t contain a dime to build a single unit of housing — which current residents say is their highest priority, as revealed in the agency’s public outreach process.

Despite the renderings, ODOT’s own materials claim that highway funds won’t build a freeway cover strong enough to support weighty buildings — and that someone else will have to pay the added costs of anything more than just a bare bones roadway.

“Increasing the girder size beyond the transportation needs cannot [be] paid for using transportation funds,” the agency told the Historic Albina Advisory Board at its Jan. 23, 2024 update. The girders in question can only accommodate “up to three-story buildings.”

The 1.5-mile project has a price-tag of $1.9 billion — up from an estimated cost of $450 million in 2017 — making it the most expensive highway project in Oregon history, and one of the most expensive nationally. The cost-per-mile of the Rose Quarter dwarfs Houston's I-45 project (24 miles, $9 billion total, $375 million per mile), the Cincinnati's Brent Spence Bridge (8 miles, $3.5 billion total, $437 million per mile), and Austin's I-35 project (10 miles, $5 billion total, $500 million per mile). Those other projects have also been repeatedly called boondoggles.

The highway cap is not the reason this project is so expensive. The real expense comes from doubling the width of the existing highway — something that ODOT has gone to great pains to conceal.  The existing roadway is 82 feet wide, and ODOT's plans — which were not revealed publicly, but which we obtained via a public records request — show that the agency plans to nearly double the width of the highway to 160 feet along much of its length. In some places, it will roughly triple it to 240 feet. 

Instead of disclosing the massive highway expansion, though, ODOT instead claims that it is merely adding "one auxiliary lane" in each direction to the existing four-lane freeway, and calling for wide inside and outside shoulders that can be easily be re-striped into travel lanes once the project is built (which can be done without additional environmental review under FHWA regulations, by the way).

The agency also claims that this widening-by-another-name will result in no increase in road capacity, and that therefore there won't be any additional traffic on I-5. But ODOT's own traffic count data predicts that traffic will grow from about 120,000 today to 142,000 per day in 2045 – a 18-percent increase 

This would not likely happen if the freeway isn't expanded: Traffic has been declining for the past quarter century at an average rate of more than half a percent per year at the Rose Quarter, according to ODOT's own statistics. 

In reality, a wider road will induce more traffic, no matter what you call the lanes. Independent traffic calculations done by ODOT consultants show that the Rose Quarter project will increase peak hour traffic volumes by 10 to 20 percent, adding more than 1,200 vehicles per hour in the morning and afternoon peak hours, compared to the No-Build scenario.  And this is just with two additional lanes; widening the roadway to the 10 lanes that this project is engineered to accommodate would increase traffic even further.

That traffic will end up in the Albina neighborhood, increasing local noise and pollution. And that's a huge problem for any efforts to revitalize and reconnect the neighborhood.

Pollution is not the only issue for urban neighborhoods: high traffic volumes themselves have a toxic effect on neighborhood livability. The bulk of the two-thirds decline in Albina population occurred in the decade after I-5 was completed. The flood of traffic from the freeway caused a decline in local businesses, and a shift to an auto-dependent landscape which generated continued population loss. Far from reconnecting and re-energizing the community, an expanded highway makes it harder to encourage redevelopment.

The Portland Trail Blazers, who have been working to build an arena in the Rose Quarter for 25 years, know the deal. In testimony, the team wrote that the highway expansion “exacerbates the unattractiveness to redevelopment at the Rose Quarter by ‘doubling down’ on high traffic volumes and vehicle speeds, limiting development access locations, and general noise, vibration, and harshness issues associated with the freeway … and dramatically increases risk of conflicts for pedestrians and bicyclists. … The high vehicle volumes and speeds surrounding these blocks … will reduce the attractiveness of these locations for ground-level businesses and redevelopment in general."

A real effort to reconnect and rebuild this community would consider capping the existing freeway without widening it. At just 82 feet wide, caps would be vastly more economical. And if ODOT really cared about restorative justice, it could start by replacing some of the hundreds of homes it demolished to build highways through Albina. 

Contrary to what the agency claims, federal highway funds can be — and have been — used to replace housing demolished for highways. Lexington, Kentucky got an FHWA award for a project to rebuild homes torn town for a never-built highway. And Title VI of the Civil Rights Act imposes an affirmative obligation on highway agencies to take steps to remedy the effects of past discriminatory practices (and ODOT has repeatedly admitted that its discriminatory practices led to the devastation of the Albina neighborhood).

What ODOT has done instead — and what the US Department of Transportation has rewarded — is cynically re-brand a monster highway expansion project as re-connecting a community.  Only a highway engineer could believe that doubling the width of a highway, and increasing traffic and pollution along with it, would repair the damage done by the highway's initial construction.

Even the much-vaunted highway covers aren’t a done deal. As the project’s revised environmental assessment concedes, the highway agency will regard the project as complete once the covers are finished — someone else (a corporation, a developer or maybe taxpayers) will be responsible for making anything happen on the covers.

Across the country, many communities are looking seriously at removing obsolete and destructive highways, or turning freeways into safer, more accessible boulevards. It is a tragic mistake that the money that could have gone to support such efforts is used to subsidize a project that doubles down on a 1950s approach to expanding highway capacity.

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