Update, 1:45 pm Tuesday:
Mayor Ted Wheeler has also withdrawn his support from the I-5 project:
At every step, I have asked ODOT for specific goals to be met around climate, community, and economic development. Those goals have not been met. Therefore, I am withdrawing my support for the I-5 Rose Quarter Project.
— Mayor Ted Wheeler (@tedwheeler) June 30, 2020
Portland leaders are starting to withdraw their support from the Oregon Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) plan to expand a portion of Interstate 5 in the Rose Quarter.
On Tuesday morning, the Albina Vision Trust (AVT) told ODOT in an email that it would no longer be engaged in planning for the project. AVT is an organization dedicated to rebuilding the Albina area, a historically Black neighborhood that was devastated by the original construction of I-5 in the 1960s. AVT leaders had hoped to work with ODOT to ensure the freeway expansion project also included restorative justice measures that would help stitch the neighborhood back together—but ultimately found ODOT to be an unwilling partner.
“Despite our good faith efforts, we do not see our engagement resulting in meaningful changes to the project or its anticipated outcomes,” wrote Winta Yohannes, AVT’s managing director. “For this reason, we can no longer support the project.”
ODOT’s $800 million Rose Quarter Improvement Project—which centers around a plan to add two lanes to a 1.7-mile stretch of I-5 in the Rose Quarter—has long faced pushback from Portland leaders concerned that the project would worsen air quality, increase carbon emissions, and exacerbate racial disparities. One point of contention was that ODOT declined to complete an environmental impact statement (EIS), meaning the project did not face a rigorous assessment of potential ecological harm it could cause. Elected officials from Metro Council, Portland City Council, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, and Portland Public Schools all opposed moving the project forward without the EIS.
But until now, ODOT has retained tacit support from local leaders because of the plan’s potential to improve its surrounding area. AVT’s vision for the Rose Quarter included freeway coverings capable of supporting multi-story buildings. AVT hoped the coverings would bring a sense of cohesion to the neighborhood, and provide affordable housing and opportunities for Black-owned businesses.
“The only consolation of this project, in my opinion, was the promised investment in the surface streets, and in particular the caps, that were intended to help stitch Lower Albina back together and pave the way for development focused on racial equity and restorative justice,” Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said in a statement sent to the Mercury Tuesday.
ODOT was reluctant to commit to funding the coverings as part of the project, prompting AVT to withdraw its participation Tuesday. Also on Tuesday, Eudaly—who oversees the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT)—withdrew her support for the project. In her statement sent to the Mercury, Eudaly said “ODOT did not seem to grasp the concept of restorative justice” and that the local Portland steering committee, which she was a part of, was not given real power over the project’s parameters.
“This is the wrong project for our city,” Eudaly said. “I am stepping down from the steering committee. I do not support the Rose Quarter I-5 Corridor project. And I urge the state to prioritize safety, climate change, and racial justice in all future transportation investments.”
It’s unclear which other Portland leaders will follow suit in withdrawing their support for the project. City of Portland staffers were still digesting the developments and discussing a path forward early Tuesday afternoon. Willamette Week reported that Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson and Metro President Lynn Peterson are supportive of AVT’s withdrawal.
AVT’s and Eudaly’s withdrawals of support show a stark difference from just three months ago, when Yohannes retained hope that ODOT and AVT could continue to work together.
“This is doable,” Yohannes told the Mercury in March. “I hope that becomes the prevailing sense of this project—that we actually can rise to the challenge.”