What is the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion?

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is proposing to expand Interstate 5 with an additional lane of freeway between the Fremont Bridge and the Interstate 84 interchange in North/Northeast Portland. In the process of widening the freeway, ODOT will have to rebuild several bridges (and in the case of N. Flint Avenue, remove) to make room for the proposed expanded lanes and shoulder. ODOT is also proposing a “freeway cap” over parts of Interstate 5 and promises to “provide opportunities for additional pedestrian and bicycle improvements on local streets.” ODOT’s official website of the project is here.

What will it cost? 

As of December 2019, ODOT claims the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion will cost $800 million. This sum of money is eleven times as much money as Portland raised through the Fixing Our Streets Gas Tax campaign, and twice as much as the recent affordable housing bond passed in November 2016. It’s the largest, most-expensive transportation project currently proposed in Portland’s Center City Plan.

Who will pay for it?

The project expects significant funding from the revenue raised by HB 2017, the Statewide Transportation Bill passed by the Oregon Legislature in July 2017.

Why is ODOT proposing this freeway?

ODOT writes extensively on their project website that this freeway expansion project will mitigate existing automobile congestion during peak rush hour trips and improve “traffic safety.” However, Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability staff acknowledge this $800 million freeway expansion will have no long-lasting impact on automobile congestion during rush hour, and this stretch of highway is comparatively safe/free of serious collision compared to many other dangerous stretches of streets and highways in East Portland.

Why does the No More Freeways coalition oppose this project?

Congestion in the Portland Metro area is absolutely miserable, and we need to make investments in policies and infrastructure that have a proven track record of keeping our region moving. We also building infrastructure that doesn’t harm local air quality, supports our climate emission reduction goals, improves public health and traffic safety, and ensures equitable opportunity for mobility for every community in the region.

As currently proposed, the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion does absolutely nothing to help any of the above goals, and in many cases makes things worse. ODOT’s own consultants admitted this, in an article published by the Portland Mercury in 2018. There isn’t a single city in North America that has solved traffic congestion through freeway expansion.

Furthermore, 40% of Oregon’s carbon emissions come from transportation. It’s the largest source of emissions in Oregon’s economy, and there’s simply no way to lower these emissions without dramatically reducing the number of vehicle miles travelled (VMT). The $800 million ODOT is proposing to spend on this freeway could instead be spent on improving public transportation frequency, investing in a down payment on High Speed Rail, or building more walkable communities. This freeway expansion is fossil fuel infrastructure, plain and simple, and the urgency of the climate crisis as expressed in the IPCC report demands that Oregon fundamentally invest our scarce transportation dollars differently.

This expansion is also proposed to widen I-5 and move it closer to Harriet Tubman Middle School. Tubman, which is 60% nonwhite, already has some of the most polluted air in the entire state, and a 2018 study by Portland State University suggested that students should forgo outdoor recess due to the air pollution from the freeway. Every attempt by advocates and PPS to get more information about the expansion has been met with indifference from ODOT.

In recent years, ODOT has been trying to paint this proposed freeway expansion as “restorative justice” for the Albina Neighborhood. However, organizations including the Albina Vision Trust abruptly walked away from the project after the murder of George Floyd in June 2020 inspired a reckoning on racial justice and white supremacy. As Ka’sha Bernard noted, ODOT is deliberately hoping to pit environmental justice and labor interests against each other to push forward on this project.

Isn’t this stretch of freeway dangerous? How does this project fit into Portland’s “Vision Zero” Goals?  

The stretch of Interstate 5 ODOT is proposing to widen hasn’t had a single traffic fatality in the past decade. While there are a considerable number of fender-benders and minor collisions through the corridor, it’s simply not categorically “unsafe” compared to many other busier, more dangerous streets, especially the dangerous arterials ODOT owns and manages including TV Highway, 82nd Avenue, Barbur and McLoughlin Boulevard.

In response to community advocate concerns about traffic violence, the City of Portland unanimously voted in 2015 to adopt a Goal of Vision Zero to eliminate traffic fatalities within the City of Portland within ten years. The “data-driven” approach to traffic safety promised by the policy promised to prioritize investments and policy changes to improve dangerous streets, many of which run through low income neighborhoods in East Portland. ODOT facilities including Outer SE Powell, 82nd Avenue, and SW Barbur are among the City’s “High Crash Corridors,” the thirty streets that account for more than half of the traffic fatalities in city limits. Despite adoption of Vision Zero, Portland witnessed over 50 traffic fatalities in 2020, the most in over a decade. In 2016, ODOT was sued by Disability Rights Oregon for their inability to sufficiently invest in safety improvements for Oregonians in mobility devices on these and other facilities; why not prioritize building these investments first?

How would you approach the problem?

Portland’s traffic congestion is undeniably miserable; every indication suggests throwing money at a disproven policy solution will only make it worse. The only successful solutions to congestion have been based on pricing. There isn’t a single city in North America that has solved the problem of recurring traffic congestion through building more lanes of freeway. Traffic engineers use the term “induced demand” to describe how freeway expansion counterintuitively exacerbates traffic jams and makes congestion worse for everyone, and study after study of freeway projects has shown this to be true. In a review of over sixty studies of traffic remediation, a Portland State University PhD Graduate concluded that congestion pricing was the most effective solution at eliminating traffic congestion and local air pollution. Motorists were mortified to learn a $1.4 billion freeway expansion in Los Angeles actually increased commute times. Well-meaning politicians invest in bigger freeways to relieve bottlenecks and then find themselves with the same — or even worse — congestion problem as motorists eagerly fill the new lanes.

Isn’t “decongestion pricing” inequitable/regressive/harmful to low-income commuters without a choice?

Studies suggest no! The majority of motorists who would most likely be paying decongestion tolls while driving during rush hour in Portland are more likely to have a higher median household average than transit/biking/walking commuters. Revenue raised from congestion pricing could be funneled into improvements for biking, walking and congestion-free transit options to ensure that every community in the region is provided a congestion-free commute opportunity via improved transit, streamlined freeways or biking and walking trails.

Our letters to ODOT’s Value Pricing Committee have specifically asked for numerous remediation policies to ensure that decongestion pricing works as a benefit and not a burden to low-income communities. You can read the full letters here and here; we think that, among other policies, the establishment of a low-income toll exemption and making sure revenue is directed towards transit expansion (and not freeway construction) can ensure decongestion pricing works for everyone in the region.

Besides, House Bill 2017 asked ODOT to study and implement congestion pricing on the I-5 and I-205 corridors throughout the Portland Metro region. It’d be foolish to implement congestion pricing *after* freeway expansion; wouldn’t we want to know if congestion pricing could solve our traffic problems at a fraction the cost of freeway expansion? At that point, we’d spend half a billion dollars on a freeway expansion, robbing the region of funds that could be used on more efficient transit options, and we’d be instituting tolls ensuring that everyone in the region is stuck in gridlock on the expanded freeway together. And to be clear, our current policies for funding road improvements, such as flat-fee vehicle registrations, are undeniably regressive as well.

Our letters to ODOT’s Value Pricing Committee highlight our recommendations on how to alleviate the concerns of tax regressivity; check them out here.

But what about the improved bike/pedestrian projects?

The Oregon Department of Transportation insists that the improvements through this corridor will improve conditions for walking and biking in the area. However, closer scrutiny to the specifics of the schematic plans suggest that for many Portlanders wishing to bike and walk through the neighborhood, the final project will be less-safe and less pleasant for commuters. The Freeway Expansion will permanently remove the N Flint Avenue overpass bridge, which is currently one of the busiest (and safest) bicycle commute routes in the city, the proposed replacement bicycle overpass bridges on NE Clackamas and Hancock will have very steep ramps that won’t be easy or comfortable for bike commuters to use. Make no mistake; the bicycle/pedestrian “improvements” being proposed are merely ODOT’s attempts at hiding the fact that these blocks will be significantly torn up to make way for the expanded freeway and lengthened freeway onramps. Citing these design concerns and the general opposition to the necessity of freeway expansion, active transportation advocates including Oregon Walks, Community Cycling Center, BikeLoudPDX, Irvington Community Association, Eliot Neighborhood Association, the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, and the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committees have expressed opposition to the proposal. (You can read their explicit letters on the record in opposition submitted to ODOT here)

Can I hear all of this information spoken to me, preferably in the format of a community media interview?

Absolutely! Check out our interview with the Populist Dialogues, thanks to the fine folks at Open Signal, from October 2017:

How about listening to this, preferably in an interview conducted by Oregon Public Broadcasting?

We got you! We were on OPB’s Think Out Loud in July 2019.

How can I get involved?

Sign up to join our mailing list. We promise not to burden you with too many emails; we’ll keep you in the loop as to whatever we’re up to as we advocate for sustainable, cost-effective, congestion-solving transportation investments in Portland.