Community Advocates Declare Round One Victory over ODOT on Proposed Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion

PORTLAND – Weeks after the Federal Government rescinded the Record of Decision for ODOT’s proposed Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion, co-plaintiffs No More Freeways, Eliot Neighborhood Association and Neighbors for Clean Air officially withdrew their federal National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) lawsuit against the project filed last April. The voluntary dismissal was done “without prejudice” meaning that the plaintiffs reserve the right to sue again when ODOT’s re-evaluation of the environmental impacts is complete.

“This legal decision formalizes what we’ve said for weeks: community advocates concerned about air pollution, traffic congestion and climate change have won round one of the fight against ODOT’s proposed Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion,” said Aaron Brown, an organizer with No More Freeways. “Now would be an excellent time for local elected officials to pressure ODOT to acknowledge what we’ve all known for years: a polluting freeway expansion this large and disruptive to the community should be subject to a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that studies alternatives to spending billions on additional lanes of freeways. If necessary, No More Freeways stands ready and willing to refile a NEPA complaint in the months ahead to achieve the basic demand that ODOT do their homework and conduct an EIS.”

    “The Eliot Neighborhood Association is pleased to see that the federal government’s pressure has motivated ODOT to reassess the proposed Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion,” said Allan Rudwick, a spokesperson of the Eliot Neighborhood Association and parent of future students at Harriet Tubman Middle School.  “We know that ODOT has not done honest assessments of the traffic impacts or safety impacts of this project. We know that ODOT is lying about the air pollution their freeway will cause, and that their claims that this project improves traffic safety are dubious. Our neighborhood remains concerned about the impacts the existing highway has on our lungs and are determined to fight any change to our road network that does not move us in a cleaner direction. We continue to demand that ODOT conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement that studies alternatives to freeway widening.”

    The Federal Highway Administration announced in January their decision to rescind the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the proposed Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion as part of a reevaluation of the project. This FONSI was the subject of a National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) lawsuit filed by No More Freeways, Neighbors for Clean Air and the Eliot Neighborhood Association last April. The lawsuit alleged that ODOT did not conduct a thorough study about the impacts this proposed freeway expansion would have to the neighborhood, and demanded that ODOT conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that considered alternatives that didn’t include widening the freeway. The agency legally cannot move forward with the proposed expansion without this specific federal declaration.
    In addition to the NEPA lawsuit, No More Freeways has also filed a lawsuit in Oregon Circuit Court, challenging ODOT’s asserted findings of compliance with Portland’s Comprehensive Plan. This case is actively continuing.

ODOT published a widely-critiqued draft Environmental Assessment (EA) for the proposed freeway expansion three years ago. Advocates uncovered that the agency hid from the public numerous crucial documents in their EA, including basic details about the width of the proposed freeway and the impacts to the air pollution at Tubman Middle School. The federal government issued the FONSI in November 2020 that was challenged by plaintiffs in April 2021. The lawsuit asserts that ODOT must conduct a full EIS, rather than a more truncated or shorthand EA, and that ODOT must fully evaluate alternatives to freeway expansion that will address traffic congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions. 

No More Freeways’ independent analysis of ODOT’s traffic projections found that ODOT included multiple egregious errors and outdated assumptions to try to prop up the agency’s dubious claims that this freeway expansion would improve congestion, air pollution or carbon emissions. Dozens of local elected officials and community leaders issued statements demanding ODOT conduct a full EIS for the proposed expansion, with over 91% of the thousands of comments submitted to ODOT expressing opposition to the project. Community leaders demanding a full EIS in March 2019 included then-Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, State Representative Karin Power, Metro, Audubon Society of Portland, Business for Better Portland, Oregon Walks, The Street Trust, Albina Vision Trust, the Eliot Neighborhood Association, the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committees, the Planning and Sustainability Commission, and many more. Metro’s letter calling for an EIS called ODOT’s claims that this project wasn’t a freeway expansion “not objectively true and is potentially misleading.” Subsequent calls for an Environmental Impact Statement were made later in 2019 by other leaders including then-House Speaker Tina Kotek, Representative Rob Nosse, Senator Michael Dembrow, and Mayor Ted Wheeler. 

Skepticism of the proposed freeway expansion continues to grow, even from institutions historically aligned with freeway construction. Without a current Record of Decision from the federal government, ODOT is legally unable to move forward with the project. As the Oregonian reported in January, the proposed freeway expansion also currently faces a $500 million shortfall, a number that has surely increased in recent months with rampant inflation. Oregon Transportation Commissioner Julie Browh expressed skepticism whether the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion and other road expansions truly represented a statewide priority at their March meeting held last week.

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