New lawsuit says I-5 Rose Quarter freeway expansion runs afoul of city, regional plans

    I-5 running under NE Broadway and Weidler through the Rose Quarter. (Google Earth)

    If you’re new to the I-5 Rose Quarter project and never looked too far beyond recent headlines or press releases, you’d think it was a community redevelopment project that will build a highway cover, restore a vibrant community, and add a bunch of new bike facilities to surface streets.

    But the thrust of the $1.9 billion project from the get-go, and still it’s most expensive element, is something Oregon Department of Transportation officials and other project partners hardly ever mention these days: A significant expansion of I-5 and new freeway lanes between I-84 and I-405 that will exacerbate many of the same community wounds the recent $450 million federal grant aims to heal.

    This week a coalition of nonprofit organizations emerged once again to remind ODOT of this inconvenient truth and filed of another lawsuit against their Rose Quarter project.

    Led by ODOT’s most persistent nemesis No More Freeways, the four other plaintiffs on the suit are Neighbors for Clean Air, Oregon and SW Washington Families for Safe Streets, BikeLoud PDX, and the Eliot Neighborhood Association.

    This is the third time No More Freeways has joined with some of these litigants on a lawsuit against ODOT and this project. In two separate lawsuits filed in 2021 they claimed ODOT failed to adhere to federal environmental law and that the plan to expand the freeway ran afoul of the City of Portland’s Comprehensive Plan. Both those suits were withdrawn in 2022 when Federal Highway Administration officials told ODOT to go back to the drawing board and do more environmental assessments.

    This new lawsuit that ODOT’s proposal still fails to comply with the City of Portland’s Comprehensive Plan as well as Metro’s Regional Transportation Plan, citing numerous specific details of the proposed expansion that litigants say are, “demonstrably out of alignment with the city’s tentative approval of the expansion back in 2012.”

    While ODOT has maintained their freeway work isn’t technically an expansion or that it will add new lanes — preferring more politically innocuous terms like “auxiliary” or “ramp-to-ramp” lanes or the phrase they used in a meeting today, “safety and operational improvements in the areas underneath the highway cover” — No More Freeways and their partner groups see it differently. City Observatory, a website run by economist Joe Cortright, a co-founder of No More Freeways, maintains ODOT is hiding a wolf in sheep’s clothing and their true intent is to double or triple the width of the freeway and make it wide enough to include ten lanes. That would be “in direct contradiction of the city’s formally adopted climate, transportation and lane use plans,” according to a press release from No More Freeways released today.

    “It’s absurd for ODOT to claim that their proposed $1.9 billion 10-lane highway is in compliance with the city’s existing plans,” said No More Freeways co-founder Chris Smith. “We filed this lawsuit because state law requires ODOT to follow the city’s clean air and climate goals. ODOT shouldn’t be allowed to advance a project that brazenly violates the city’s adopted plans.”

    And Allan Rudwick, chair of the Eliot Neighborhood Association’s Land Use and Transportation Committee added, “The Eliot Neighborhood needs more homes, not more highways. Routing lots of extra traffic onto our roads may put a damper on this revitalization for another century and we continue to oppose ODOT’s road-widening project.”

    Nakisha Nathan with Neighbors for Clean Air said she’s joining the lawsuit because ODOT’s freeway plans “would significantly pollute the air in the Albina neighborhood and actively harm the health and well being of North Portland residents.”

    For road safety advocate Michelle DuBarry, ODOT’s investment in a wider freeway to increase driving capacity flies in the face of more urgent needs like improving crossings of local streets similar to the one where her 22-month-old son was killed in 2010. “ODOT has continued to prioritize investment in endless freeway expansion instead of targeting improvements to streets like North Lombard, where my son was killed,” DuBarry said in the statement.

    This lawsuit and accompanying critiques of the I-5 Rose Quarter project create dissonance in the community. On one hand we have Albina Vision Trust and ODOT’s Historic Albina Advisory Board (made up of Black residents with ties to the neighborhoods destroyed by construction of I-5 in the 1960s) who are eager to start the project and are forging ever stronger ties to ODOT to make it happen. And on the other hand you’ve got the No More Freeways coalition and many local transportation reform advocates who remain appalled by the freeway expansion elements and want to, “Construct the caps. Lose the lanes.”

    Whether or not the freeway expansion can be decoupled from the highway caps and surface street elements of the project, depends on who you ask. A clear ruling from a judge about whether the expansion is even legal would help settle the debate.

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