It was a bipartisan triumph, the crowning glory of the 2017 Legislature, a $5.3 billion package brimming with progressive and traditional projects. Paid for with new and higher taxes and fees, Oregon’s long-sought transportation bill had overcome another squabble over the Clean Fuels Program and won the support of bike and pedestrian advocates, freight haulers, environmental groups, transit backers, urban Democrats and rural Republicans.
A big part of the bill is an estimated $450 million project in the heart of Portland.
Outlined in a 2012 agreement between the Oregon Department of Transportation and the city of Portland, the state gets new I-5 lanes and shoulders intended to smooth a notoriously choked mile-and-a-half corridor in the Rose Quarter. The city gets freeway crossings and covers that it envisions knitting together and revitalizing a historically African American district torn apart by I-5’s construction in the 1960s.
But six years later, with the transportation bill set to provide $30 million annually beginning in 2022 to repay construction bonds, the freeway portion of the project has opened the plan up to attack.
ODOT, trucking companies and other business interests see the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project as a sensible re-engineering of the road, not a freeway expansion. Shovels aren’t scheduled to hit the ground until 2023, however, and into that breach a wide coalition of grassroots activists have charged ahead to fight the project, calling themselves … wait for it … No More Freeway Expansions.
Central to their argument is “induced demand,” a veritable law of transportation systems they say guarantees the project will draw more cars onto I-5, doing little or nothing to relieve congestion. Joe Cortright, an economist with the Portland firm Impresa and a longtime freeway foe, put it simply: “Whenever we add capacity, it attracts additional traffic.”
The activists’ answer to the congestion is another provision of the transportation bill, one that would see drivers paying tolls on I-5. What lawmakers saw as a possible complement to the freeway work, expansion opponents see as a less-expensive and more climate-friendly alternative.
It’s unclear where the activists’ efforts might lead, but in a city with a rich history of derailed freeways, they’ve already put Portland city leaders in the awkward position of standing by a freeway project when progressive opposition is so strong. And the project’s opponents say other politicians can expect to feel the heat as well as they hammer away at the plan.
As Chris Smith, a Portland planning commissioner and a leader in No More Freeway Expansions, said, “We’re a long way from 2023.”
When I-5 through Portland was completed in the mid-1960s, some saw it as a triumph. At a 1966 dedication, Gladstone Mayor Eugene Bauer, president of the League of Oregon Cities, called it “one of the greatest of economic arteries.”
But the freeway, along with the construction of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, also brought “the displacement of residents and a commercial district that were the heart of Portland’s African American community,” as a 2012 ODOT/city report put it. And in a cruel irony, I-5 was soon proving inadequate, beginning decades of fruitless scheming to make it wider.
Now, I-5 through the Rose Quarter, heading south in the afternoon, is the region’s “most severe recurring bottleneck,” ODOT says. Actually, according to the agency, the bottleneck has grown so bad that it starts in the morning, at 11 a.m., and doesn’t loosen up until a quarter past six. It’s also the site of more crashes than any other spot in the state, which makes the freeway less reliable, requiring drivers to build in extra time to make sure they get to their destination on schedule.
The problem is the scrum that results from vehicles entering and exiting the roadway in a series of tightly spaced on- and off-ramps between the Banfield Freeway and the Fremont Bridge, slowing traffic on the scant two lanes of through traffic and causing accidents.
“That bottleneck greatly increases the cost to move products through the area,” Jana Jarvis, president of the Oregon Trucking Associations, said. “That’s what makes this more than a Portland concern. It impacts businesses throughout the state.”
ODOT says between 13,600 to 17,800 trucks traveled the I-5 corridor daily in 2015, more than on any other freeway in the region. The American Transportation Research Institute recently put the segment at No. 62 on its Top 100 Truck Bottleneck list. That’s an improvement from No. 41 a year ago, but not because traffic flowed any better; the average speed at peak was actually nearly 8 percent slower, the group said.
At Boshart Trucking in the Mid-Valley, drivers time trips through Portland to avoid bottlenecks, leaving Tangent as early as 4 a.m. to haul straw, wheat and other agricultural products to ports in the city and northward, according to Shelly Boshart Davis, the company’s vice president.
“That’s becoming harder to do as Portland and Oregon become more populated and traffic increases,” she said. The likelihood that things will only grow worse, she added, leaves her “surprised that any widening or expansion” is running into opposition.
ODOT, though, doesn’t quite call the Rose Quarter project a freeway widening; it emphasizes that the footprint won’t expand, and says the new lanes are “auxiliary lanes,” not through lanes, that vehicles will use to get on and off the freeway more easily and safely.
“We are anticipating that these auxiliary lanes will reduce crashes by 50 percent,” spokesman Don Hamilton said. “There have been a lot of statements about those not being severe crashes, but even fender benders can result in medical bills, body shop bills, missed work — and they’re a significant cause of congestion.”
Shoulders will also make it easier to get crashes and stalled vehicles out of the way, ODOT says.
“What it’s going to be is a more efficient freeway,” Hamilton said. “Bottleneck periods will shrink and you’ll have fewer days with bad tie-ups.”
Jarvis said trucking companies saw enough potential benefit from the Rose Quarter work — along with widening projects on Interstate 205 and Highway 217 — to endorse the transportation bill. And, more significantly, she said, to help pay for it.
“The weight-mile tax went up 25 percent on January 1,” she said, referring to the levy that Oregon truckers pay in lieu of a diesel tax. “We have the highest operating taxes in the nation, but we balanced the cost to our industry against the cost of inaction.”
Putting a price on it
Along with earmarking the Rose Quarter project in the transportation bill, lawmakers told ODOT to come up with a plan for tolling on I-5 and I-205 from their junction to the Columbia River. An advisory committee is working on recommendations now, and the Oregon Transportation Commission is required to submit a proposal to federal authorities by the end of the year.
Called “value pricing” or “congestion pricing,” the idea is to price access to one or all lanes in response to demand, encouraging drivers to move their trips away from peak periods or use alternatives. It’s a concept in limited but increasing use around the country.
Truckers and business interests, like the Westside Economic Alliance, accept value pricing, which is strongly supported by environmental groups, as a complementary piece to the freeway work. But there’s a cleavage with the activists.
No More Freeway Expansions — with support from more than two dozen organizations, including the local Audubon and NAACP chapters, Neighbors for Clean Air, the Community Cycling Center and the Eliot Neighborhood Association, as well as several small businesses and more than 400 individuals — sees it as the only way forward.
“There’s no question that there’s congestion on I-5,” Cortright, the economist, said. “But it’s not because the facility is substandard. It’s because there’s an overwhelming demand, and any increment to capacity is going to be eaten up.”
The classic example of this, he says, is the 23-lane Katy Freeway in Houston. When it was widened, traffic flow improved at first, but within three years, travel times were actually longer than before the billions were spent.
ODOT responds that the Rose Quarter project is hardly comparable and a range of factors will determine future traffic levels, something the department will be studying as it moves forward on the project’s design.
“To make the presumption that a new shoulder and an auxiliary lane will create some huge jump in traffic counts is not really based on anything in particular, as far as we can see,” the agency’s Hamilton said.
Beyond the question of induced demand, Cortright argues that if I-5 as presently constituted is slowing down traffic, there’s no evidence it’s slowing the region’s economy.
“We have the largest and most productive economy we’ve ever had,” he said. “Whether freight takes 5 minutes to move through the area or 15 minutes, Portland is thriving. It has shown that it doesn’t need more freeway capacity to be economically successful.”
Wait and see?
No More Freeway Expansions says that by moving forward with the freeway project, Oregon will miss a chance to see if value pricing alone can take care of the problem — and to put that money to better use.
“We might find out that people have much more flexibility than we believe,” Cortright said, pointing to Louisville, where a new bridge doubled capacity in 2016 and yet traffic declined because the bridge was tolled.
“Think of it in terms of opportunity costs,” Smith, the Portland planning commissioner, said. “Imagine putting that money into 82nd Avenue, and turning it into a real street that people wanted to be on, not the sewer that it is. Imagine the economic growth that would come from that.”
The group has been pressing these points with the city, hoping to crack open official opposition. The project is part of Portland’s Central City 2035 plan, and as the city worked to update that plan over the past several months, No More Freeway Expansions brought out dozens of speakers and hundreds of comments asking the city to pull the freeway work.
“The idea was that if the city could remove it from their plan update, it could force a regional conversation,” said the group’s Aaron Brown, who managed the campaign for a Portland gasoline tax in 2016.
That didn’t happen. And while the City Council did endorse value pricing — and officials from Mayor Ted Wheeler on down say they want to see it happen as soon as possible — the city hasn’t demanded that value pricing be implemented and assessed before the freeway work moves ahead.
“Our priorities are the local street connections in this project and the benefits to safer bike and pedestrian access,” said Dylan Rivera, a Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman. “Those are things that will really enable the job and housing growth that we want to see in that area.”
And, said Leah Treat, the bureau’s director, “without the I-5 Rose Quarter project, the improvements at the city level would not happen.”
No More Freeway Expansions, meanwhile, has grown increasingly skeptical of the surface street plans the city holds so dear. In a letter to the Council last month, the group lamented the planned removal of the North Flint Ave. overpass, said the new I-5 crossings will be too steep, and labeled the freeway covers mere “floating green islands surrounded by multiple lanes of congested traffic.”
Art Pearce, PBOT’s planning manager, said the city is open to the critiques. “There’s a fair amount of refinement that happens in this stage,” he said. “This is a crucial time to engage the project.”
The activists say he can count on that, but the city isn’t their only possible wedge in trying to dislodge the freeway work.
Smith sees Metro’s quadrennial review of a regional transportation plan, unfolding now, as a target, focusing on how a wider freeway fits into (or doesn’t) climate goals.
“So there’s that. And then there’s the Legislature,” Smith said.
By 2020, ODOT needs to take a report to Salem on the Rose Quarter project, updating the design plan and the cost (one question is whether the bond payments will be enough to pay for the whole thing). That could be a chance to derail the project, he believes, putting pressure on Portland-area legislators.
“We’re going to keep pulling at strings in the hope that we can unravel this thing,” Smith said.
Or as Brown put it when asked if the project didn’t appear inevitable: “Freeway projects are inevitable until they aren’t.”