Coal in ODOT’s stocking: No More Freeways’ 2020 year-in-review

Greetings, folks! It’s once again time for our year-in-review blog post over here at No More Freeways. No More Freeways stayed very busy this year despite all the punches that 2020 chose to throw in our direction. Throughout the omnicrisis, we continued our fight against ODOT’s $800 million Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion, scoring numerous political victories throughout the summer and holding the agency accountable for their public deception and lack of accountability as they push forward an $800 million freeway expansion. Furthermore, the events of the year – historic climate-change-fueled wildfires burning across the state, a growing movement demanding a reckoning of institutional racism, a devastating pandemic in which proximity to air pollution appears a significant risk factor – have only emboldened our conviction that the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion is directly antithetical to all of Oregon’s goals for a greener, more equitable, and healthier future.

At the bottom of this blog, we’re going to ask you chip in a few bucks to help us gear up for some legal action and continued community organizing in 2021. But before we do, let’s share the updates from our fight with ODOT and our support of transportation policies reforms across our city, region and state. 

WINTER

Thanks to Joan Petit and so many other advocates for testifying at the OTC hearing in January.

No More Freeways, Sunrise, Tubman Moms storm OTC in Lake Oswego – The Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) is the byzantine entity of appointed officials that ostensibly provides oversight and direction for the Oregon Department of Transportation. Functionally, the entity has largely been a rubber stamp for the agency’s freeway expansion ambitions, and has historically operated with clandestine secrecy, with little interest in public accessibility and accountability. So we showed up to their hearing midweek at a hotel in Lake Oswego to demand an Environmental Impact Statement after organizing thousands of letters and postcards to the OTC demanding a rigorous look at the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion.

There was so much excellent testimony, but for our money, the best came from NMF’s Tubman Mom champion, Joan Petit, who spoke passionately about systemic racism and the need for ODOT to stick up for her children and all the students at Tubman Middle School.

Thanks to NMF’s lawyers and FOIA experts, we caught ODOT trying to trick the city into approving this expansion of I-5 over the Eastbank Esplanade. ODOT’s latest proposal for the freeway removes this intrusion into the park and river.

FOIA fuss fuels freeway fighters – No More Freeways’ FOIA expert Alan Kessler requested and received documents from ODOT that demonstrated the agency was attempting to circumvent the City of Portland’s Parks Department‘s approval of the expansion of the freeway over the city’s Eastbank Esplanade. Later this fall, ODOT would announce they changed their proposals to not expand over the esplanade and avoid building into the Willamette River.

We ❤ Rose Lanes, too.

Rose Lane Project Passes City CouncilThanks to the leadership from PBOT and Commissioner Eudaly, in February Portland City Council approved the Rose Lane Project, a historic policy advancement that will reallocate road space to transit over single-occupancy vehicles. (Editor’s Note: the proposed Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion would actually slow transit through the Albina neighborhood, with numerous buses seeing delays from the proposed surface-level street changes).

SPRING

Op-Ed in support of Traffic Safety published in the OWe’re so grateful for Michelle DuBarry, who experienced unfathomable tragedy after the loss of her 22-month son to traffic violence on an ODOT arterial. She wrote about her frustration with ODOT’s lack of commitment to investing in traffic safety, as represented by the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion, in The Oregonian.

“I don’t know what political mountains need to be moved for the agency to repurpose that money, but I am hoping our local leaders and advocates can apply enough pressure to convince them to invest in real traffic safety. They might start with the intersection of North Lombard Street and North Interstate Avenue where my son was killed in his stroller on a two-block walk from our house to the grocery store.

If the state has nearly a billion dollars to invest in safety, surely we can do better than a freeway expansion.”

Michelle DuBarry, “ODOT’s ‘safety’ project in Rose Quarter ignores state’s deadliest roads” The Oregonian

One of our chief outrages about the Rose Quarter is the extent to which ODOT is willing to prioritize spending billions on widening freeways while simultaneously claiming poverty when asked by local community leaders to address the orphan highways and dangerous arterials that frequently harm and kill Oregonians across the state due to poor design and disinvestment.

The kids are alright!

Tubman students, Sunrise host mayoral debateNo More Freeways was grateful to see students from the Harriet Tubman Middle School Environmental Justice club partner with Sunrise PDX and 350PDX to host a mayoral forum that asked the candidates about their views on climate justice, freeway expansion, and transit service. This was the last in-person event for many of us before the pandemic struck, and it was spectacular to be in a room where the next generation of Oregonians got to grill local officials on their commitment to climate action.

ODOT buried report showing Black Oregonians deeply skeptical of agency – In 2019, ODOT conducted a public opinion studies with Black Oregonians about their views on the expansion and whether they thought ODOT was trustworthy. Black Oregonians overwhelmingly expressed skepticism that the agency could be trusted to deliver on their promises of restorative justice. This report was shared with the Oregon Transportation Commission in February, but wasn’t made available to the public until June, after the OTC voted in April to move forward with the Environmental Assessment. That didn’t stop OTC members from citing “support from the Black community” as a significant talking point in their unanimous support for the expansion.

SUMMER

Black Lives Matter protests reigned throughout the summer, including one evening in June, when the protests took to the Fremont Bridge

Albina Vision, City, County officially oppose Freeway Expansion, withdraw from participationThree months after ODOT promised the Oregon Transportation Commission that they would fully partner with community leaders to secure their vote for the Environmental Assessment, community leaders expressed their frustration with ODOT’s abysmal public engagement by publicly revoking their support and participation in the project. Inspired in part by the global reckoning with white supremacy in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Albina Vision Trust’s announcement of unequivocal opposition to the project led local elected officials Commissioner Eudaly and Commissioner Vega Pederson to publicly withdraw support and no longer participate in ODOT’s Executive Steering Committee.

“This is the wrong project for our city. 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.”

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, quoted in Racial Justice Group Albina Vision Trust Withdraws Its Support for I-5 Rose Quarter Expansion, Willamette Week

Mayor Ted Wheeler, originally a proponent of the project, also announced his opposition in June.

“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.”

– Mayor Ted Wheeler, quoted in Mayor Ted Wheeler Is Also Withdrawing Support for ODOT’s Rose Quarter Project, Willamette Week

One week later, Commissioner Eudaly and the Portland City Council took their opposition to the project one step further, writing a letter decreeing all municipal bureaus should cease any and all communication with ODOT staffers on the project.

The letter — signed by Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Chloe Eudaly, Jo Ann Hardesty and Amanda Fritz — is the clearest signal yet that even modest efforts to expand freeways in Portland may be politically unpalatable.

Portland bureaus cease work on ODOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter plan, Portland Tribune

Even The Oregonian’s editorial board chimed in, stating that “while the highway project may have the legislative authority to proceed, it now lacks the moral authority to do so.”

Despite the prominent withdrawl from the Mayor and other prominent elected officials and community leaders, ODOT has continued throughout the year to hold meetings with the Executive Steering Committee, and made surprisingly little reference to the absence of prominent stakeholders and leaders in subsequent meetings.

sixplexes for all!

Residential Infill Project PassesWhile it’s not directly related to fighting ODOT, No More Freeways and our allies were closely tracking the Residential Infill Project, which passed Portland City Council in August. Our pals at Sightline Institute and Portland: Neighbors Welcome have the full run down on this historic victory.

FALL

Climate apocalypse arrives. Is ODOT paying attention? – As the entire West Coast was draped with smoke for weeks and Oregon experienced record-breaking death and destruction from acres of wildfires, No More Freeways joined Sunrise PDX for a photoshoot on the Eastbank Esplanade.

40% of Oregon’s carbon emissions come from transportation. It’s the only sector of our economy where emissions are growing. According to 2018’s IPCC report, we now have only nine years left to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. The Oregon fires this fall killed at least 11 people, burned more than 1,000,000 acres of land, destroyed thousands of homes, and radicalized a generation of Oregonians already petrified about the looming climate apocalypse.

Probably time for ODOT to stop spending billions widening freeways! 

Community Advisory Committee disbanded, pens letter rejecting ODOT’s attempt to force them to “rubber stamp” expansion – This spring, ODOT established a Community Advisory Committee designed to provide feedback to the agency about the proposed plans. Yet community members repeatedly asked ODOT pointed questions about the charter of the committee, their ability to write statements questioning the need for additional lanes of freeway, and their desire to have more input beyond minor cosmetic details irrelevant to the bulk of the $800 million project. After four meetings of increasingly pointed questions from a diverse set of committee members, ODOT disbanded the entity days before the CAC members planned to resign in protest.

“The Oregon Department of Transportation disbanded the CAC because we didn’t play ball with them. We refused to be a compliant part of the non-transparent facade of community engagement that ODOT had created in the CAC. We refused to rubber-stamp a project that will lead to poor air quality outcomes for children at Harriet Tubman Middle School and the neighborhood at large. We refused to stop asking the hard questions, and we demanded that our voices, including and especially the voices of Black Portlanders, be heard….Without reconsidering the project from scratch, the State risks continuing the “business as usual” approach that perpetuates racism, white supremacy, and the climate injustices that are embedded and interwoven into the very creation of I5 and the Rose Quarter.”

Letter to OTC, elected officials, signed from 14 former members of the Community Advisory Committee members

Members of the CAC penned a sharp letter to ODOT and local elected officials sharing their frustration with being asked to “rubber stamp” the expansion and their inability to provide meaningful feedback on their concerns about restorative justice, carbon emissions or air pollution. OPB’s Dave Miller grilled ODOT’s staff on the decision on a memorable episode of Think Out Loud, which featured appearances from former CAC members Oregon Walks’ Claire Vlach and Soul District Business Association’s John Washington. 

“As the kids would say, it was shady.”

-Liz Fouther-Branch, former Community Advisory Committee (CAC) member, quoted in “Inside a Contentious, Now-Shuttered Advisory Committee on the Portland I-5 Widening Plan“, Portland Mercury

City of Portland Tells Feds: We’re Out Months after City Council forbid municipal staff from working with ODOT on the freeway expansion, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly wrote the federal government explicitly articulating that the City of Portland would refuse to participate with ODOT on the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion

“Bringing these issues to you in our role as a partner agency is unprecedented in our region’s history… we hope that agency leadership will take them seriously.”

– Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, Portland makes ‘unprecedented’ withdrawal from ODOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter project, BikePortland.org
Ted Wheeler’s Voter Pamphlet Statement, in which he runs on his record of “demand[ing] a Rose Quarter that aligns with Albina Vision goals.”

Election Night brings new wave of ODOT-skeptics to local officials – Every single candidate who won an election for local office this year expressed healthy skepticism of ODOT and the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion. Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan and Commissioners-Elect Mingus Mapps and Carmen Rubio are on the record in opposition to the project and demanding ODOT conduct an Environmental Impact Statement. Metro Councilor-Elect Mary Nolan flipped to a position of opposition to the project this summer. Mayor Ted Wheeler even gave a shoutout to his concern with the Rose Quarter in his Voter Pamphlet Statement mailed to voters. While candidates like NMF-cofounder Chris Smith and Sarah Iannarone (and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, the greatest elected champion of our cause) lost election bids this fall, no candidate could run for local office without stating opposition to ODOT’s freeway expansion plans. Numerous new legislators similarly expressed skepticism as well. It’s encouraging to see widespread agreement from local leaders that freeway expansion is unacceptable to municipal climate, health, and equity goals. 

Sunrise PDX youth climate leadaers, in January, testifying at Metro in support of a climate-smart regional transportation package

And while No More Freeways’ members were split on the large regional transportation measure that failed on the ballot this November, an emerging consensus has grown from political leaders around the region that climate and transit justice must be addressed with any upcoming subsequent proposal. We look forward to joining local advocates in demanding that Metro’s next attempt at a package doubles down on the need to invest in transit, biking and walking over road and highway expansions. The electoral engagement of Sunrise PDX is a bright spot that will continue to push for climate accountability at ODOT and other agencies in their transportation decisions in the years ahead.

OTC ignores public feedback, heightened scrutiny in latest round of STIP funding – In most years, ODOT and the OTC move forward with allocating funding for the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) with minimal fanfare. This program determines where the state agency will spend billions of dollars on transportation projects across the state – and unsurprisingly, the agency overwhelmingly allocates funding to highways over bicycle or pedestrian projects. This fall, however, No More Freeways joined our heroic partners at Oregon Environmental Council and BikeLoudPDX to raise a ruckus and help send hundreds of letters from advocates for traffic safety, climate action, and racial justice all over the state.

“Where the failure is occurring is, we keep falling back to incrementalism and the status quo. We would love to see leadership at the state, ODOT, and OTC really step up and recognize that the time for incrementalism is over. This is a powerful agency making decisions about hundreds of millions of dollars and we need to see that money go to where it can help Oregonians now and in the future.”

– Sara Wright, Oregon Environmental Council, quoted in ODOT delays $2.2 billion allocation vote after changing funding options, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Our Loud

Oral and written testimony from Bend, Jacksonville, Beavercreek, Eugene, Portland and Corvallis overwhelmed the OTC with demands they invest 15% of the upcoming STIP funding for biking, walking, and transit projects; the OTC ignored the public comment and instead moved forward with their original plans. Special thanks to BikePortland for significant coverage of this vote. 

What’s in store for 2021?

We are gearing up for another busy year of fighting the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion and challenging the freeway industrial complex that currently dictates the billions of dollars in the budget of the Oregon Department of Transportation.

On one hand, our campaign to fight the Rose Quarter has never looked better – community leaders continue to come out of the woodwork to express their frustrations with this $800 million boondoggle freeway expansion, and the increased urgency of the voices asking for restorative justice and climate action continues to inspire new voices to speak up and demand accountability from ODOT for this freeway expansion and the road-heavy statewide budget. The state is broke, thanks to the covid-recession, and it’s uncertain where the agency could possibly find the substantial funding necessary for the ongoing cost overruns, let alone to fund a truly restorative investment in the Albina neighborhood. Voters in Oregon (and Portland specifically) are increasingly identifying climate action as a top priority, and the only way ODOT can get positive support for the proposal is to demonstrably lie about the potential impacts of the expansion on air pollution, traffic safety and climate.

JPACT hearing, October 2020, in which Sunrise Beaverton members testified in opposition to widening Highway 217

On the other hand, our year ended just as it began: watching the Oregon Transportation Commission ignore passionate, overwhelming testimony pleading for reform of ODOT to align the budget and policy priorities with the values of Oregonians clamoring for climate action, racial justice, cleaner air, transportation options, and congestion relief. While our efforts are undeniably growing in strength, with a wider cross-section of advocates representing a larger swath of Oregonians, the OTC and ODOT continues to muscle forward with status quo paradigms that current and future generations simply cannot afford. ODOT continues to spend countless dollars on consultants and lobbyists to steamroll this project and act as though all the aforementioned opposition is irrelevant to the inevitability of this sprawling monstrosity of a freeway expansion. After disbanding the Community Advisory Committee, the agency cynically announced it was starting a new “Historic Albina Advisory Committee” to “center Black voices,” as if the Black voices on the original CAC were inauthentic because they dared challenge the agency. Furthermore, ODOT’s making new hires to move forward with the Abernethy Bridge expansion in Clackamas County, and appears to be moving quickly to push for a new Columbia River Crossing proposal with their pals at WsDOT across the river.

Letter NMF sent to Oregon Transportation Commission, complaining that seven months into the pandemic the Commission still hadn’t figured out how to take public testimony during virtual hearings

But freeway expansions are inevitable until they aren’t. Our all-volunteer civic effort has made so much progress in building opposition to this freeway expansion over the last three and a half years, thanks to the help of so many organizations, individuals, and everyday Oregonians who want to invest in communities instead of freeways. We are so grateful for the moral clarity of all who have joined us to challenge this reckless project, and for the gift of community we’ve found in organizing our neighbors and partners to speak up and demand ODOT live up to our values. If you have to bare the brunt of the wildfires, it’s best to bare it with your peers in a bold action demanding accountability from the agency’s committing arson by pouring gasoline on our future, diesel in our lungs, freeways in our communities.

In 2021, in a first for No More Freeways, we intend to pursue legal action and sue the pants off of ODOT. We think we have a pretty good case – a few pretty good cases, actually. We are actively working with our lawyers to challenge the federal NEPA Finding of No Significant Impact, and to organize our community to join us, and how to make sure our efforts for transportation reform empower our partners to reshape their community in their own image – not in ODOT’s.

Lawyers cost money, unfortunately. And while we’ve been particularly thrifty with the money you’ve given us over the years, we’re gonna need another chunk of change to mount the legal challenge we need to hold ODOT accountable for what they are proposing to do to our climate, our community, our city, our lungs. We also need money to keep our website afloat and advertise our future action alerts, as we closely watch OTC meetings, and the upcoming legislative session.

Click the above button to donate to No More Freeways and help us sue ODOT

An anonymous donor has pledged to match up to $5000 in our efforts to fundraise for our year ahead. If you’re able to support No More Freeways with a donation – whether $500, $50 or $15, whatever you can afford – we’ll send you a thank you card and a button. We may not have the army of consultants and PR flacks that ODOT does – but we have an army of community advocates, we have moral clarity in the fight for climate and restorative justice, and we soon enough will have a vaccine that allows us to once again rabblerouse against this freeway in person.

Thanks for your support!
Together, we’re going to kill this dumb freeway.

Yours,
Aaron

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