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Activists want Portland to reject I-5 Rose Quarter expansion

The view of Interstate 5 from the Burnside Bridgehead. The Oregon Department of Transportation has proposed to expand the freeway from Interstate 84 to Interstate 405.(

A group of transportation and environmental activists want Portland to say "no, thanks" to a proposed freeway expansion in the Rose Quarter.

The Oregon Department of Transportation has proposed a $450 million expansion of Interstate 5 through the heart of Portland. The agency says adding lanes and shoulders would reduce crashes and congestion.

But more than 350 people and 26 groups have signed a letter asking the city to drop its support.

The call for a classic Portland freeway revolt comes as the City Council begins deliberating its Central City 2035 plan, a blueprint for downtown Portland and the Central Eastside that includes the freeway project.

Opponents say the project would be at best a temporary solution to congestion because it will prompt Portlanders to drive more often, re-clogging the freeway and increasing pollution.

"Our state is on fire," said Aaron Brown, a spokesman for the coalition. "We know climate change is real and happening right now, and 40 percent of our city’s carbon emissions come from auto emissions."

The $450 million expansion of Interstate 5 was among the projects singled out for funding in the state Legislature’s $5.3 billion transportation package earlier this year. The package would set aside $30 million a year starting in 2022 to pay off debt for the project.

The state transportation department says the project would address Oregon’s worst highway bottleneck, saving travelers 6.5 minutes during the morning commute and 8 minutes during the evening ride. It also says the addition of an auxiliary lane connecting on- and off-ramps would reduce crashes due to weaving and merging, another cause of delays.

Opponents say those estimates are far too optimistic. Instead, they say, the state should first implement tolling along the corridor, which would instead push drivers to reduce their trips on the road.

"If you really want to eliminate congestion, the only way to do it is by pricing the use of roads," said Portland economist Joe Cortright. "It’s $400 million that you might as well put in a pile and burn it, because it’s not going to have any effect on recurring congestion."

The Oregon Legislature, through the transportation funding package, also directed the state to implement freeway tolling in the Portland area.

The group has already claimed a partial victory.

Aides to Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees Portland’s Transportation Bureau, said he’ll seek a resolution asking the state to implement tolls before beginning the freeway expansion project. Such a resolution wouldn’t be binding.

The bureau, however, is supportive of the project as proposed, which includes covers over the freeway that could improve movement on surface streets, including for bicyclists and pedestrians.

"We see the Rose Quarter project as really reconnecting the central city," said Art Pearce, the Transportation Bureau’s manager for projects and planning. "It has the potential to reconnect the area, make it more of a destination … and having more of the bike and pedestrian streets people have come to expect in other parts of Portland."

The state, Pearce said, originally proposed a much larger expansion of the freeway. What’s proposed today represents years of negotiations that curtailed those earlier plans.

"It will indeed help the operations of the system, but it’s not designed to be a substantial expansion of the capacity," Pearce said. "That’s what makes it a compromise."

The Portland region famously, and successfully, resisted the construction of the Mount Hood Freeway, which would have run through Southeast Portland to Gresham and Sandy. The project was canceled in 1974.

More recently, the Columbia River Crossing project to replace the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River collapsed under withering criticism from both environmentalists and budget hawks.

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ODOT and the city of Porltand will hold an open house on the I-5 Rose Quarter project at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12, at the Matt Dishman Community Center, 77 N.E. Knott St. in Portland.

— Elliot Njus

enjus@oregonian.com
503-294-5034
@enjus

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