Metro staff blast ODOT’s Rose Quarter I-5 plans

Civic Affairs

PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — In a scathing letter, high-ranking staff at Metro regional government slammed the state’s planning documents for an Interstate 5 project in Portland as “inadequate” and “potentially misleading.”

The seven-page letter sent to the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration claims that reworking the Rose Quarter segment of I-5 will indeed expand the highway — but the changes might do little to prevent serious crashes.

In both cases, ODOT had previously argued the opposite.

“(Claiming) that the project does not create new capacity or add substantial capacity to I-5… is not objectively true and is potentially misleading; auxiliary lanes clearly add capacity,” reports the letter, which was first obtained by BikePortland.

The document, signed by Metro’s director of planning, Elissa Gertler, lays out a laundry list of objections. But it isn’t complete wish fulfillment for the cadre of activists hoping to torpedo the $450-million project, which was included in lawmakers’ $5.3-billion transportation package passed in 2017.

The Portland Tribune is a media partner with KOIN 6 News

For one, the letter doesn’t explicitly call for the completion of an Environmental Impact Statement, a more stringent form of review than the Environmental Assessment published Feb. 15. The public comment period for the assessment ended 5 p.m. on April 1.

Here’s what the letter does say:

• The Rose Quarter Improvement Project would slow down commutes for TriMet bus and Portland Streetcar riders due to “signal phasing changes” where transit lines approach I-5, Metro says.

• While ODOT already stated that its proposed highway lids across I-5 would be too weak to support buildings, Metro says planners should explore tunnel-style caps in order to harmonize with Portland’s density goals and allow construction of two to 10-story structures over the interstate.

• ODOT says ending stop-and-go traffic in the narrow stretch of I-5 would decrease crashes by providing drivers with more space to merge and new shoulders to park disabled vehicles. Metro highlights that the primary factor for I-5 collisions is “driver behavior” such as inattentiveness or drunkenness. “It is not clear how the design solutions in the Build Alternative will address behavior,” the letter notes.

• Metro says the proposal to create five one-way traffic lanes on a portion of Broadway is “incompatible” with the mixed-use environment it prefers, and may even encourage poor driving.

• The regional planning agency is clearly peeved that the state’s technical reports were not shared with Metro for prior review, though Portland City Hall did get a peak.

The elected Metro council president, Lynn Peterson, sent her own diplomatically-worded two-page dispatch to ODOT as well, according to Bike Portland. The site’s publisher, Jonathan Maus, speculates that decision let Metro employees “do the dirty work and keeps her hands clean for 2020 [transportation] bond push.”

Activists are also concerned the new auxiliary lanes will cast shade over the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade, adding noise and pollution to the area.

In a response to KOIN 6 News, ODOT officials said:
We appreciate receiving the comments in all letters that were submitted to ODOT as part of the Environmental Assessment process for the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project.  We will be reviewing all comments on the EA (with the comment period closing today). We will work with our federal partners at FHWA to review all comments, including the creation of a record of public comment with responses that will be made publically available. The EA technical analysis and all public comment received will be considered in consultation with FHWA to determine the NEPA next steps and decision document.  The FHWA will inform us of the next steps in the process probably sometime later this spring. 

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