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PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Despite favorable design upgrades, environmental advocates say the Oregon Department of Transportation’s plans to widen Interstate 5 in the Rose Quarter are inconsistent with the state’s own climate goals.

The proposed $1.4 billion Rose Quarter Improvement Project would widen shoulders and add auxiliary lanes to a stretch of I-5 in Portland’s Albina neighborhood. The latest project design also proposes to cover the freeway with a platform made of concrete and steel that can support new sidewalks and buildings up to three, and maybe even six, stories tall.

ODOT says the project will help move freight and passenger cars more efficiently and safely, while reducing traffic congestion in the area and improving local streets for cyclists and pedestrians. The project also promises to support the regional economy with construction jobs and streetscape improvements that can support new business, while reconnecting a historically Black neighborhood in Portland that was divided by the construction of I-5.

Main construction on the project is expected to start in 2026.

The transportation project has faced public blowback from climate activists, some local neighborhood groups and parents. Critics say expanding freeways isn’t the solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Some of the most vocal opponents haven’t even graduated from high school yet.

“Our planet is dying,” said Taylor Walker, 17, a student at Sunset High School in Beaverton and a member of several youth climate activist groups. “We are living in times where heat waves and fires are killing hundreds of Oregonians. I’m growing up in a world where getting to school means polluting the place I call home. … What good are wider freeways on a planet where ecosystems cannot sustain food?”

Teen organizers with Sunrise PDX greet people at an information table near the entrance of Harriet Tubman Middle School for a community meeting to record opposition to a planned expansion of I-5 in Portland’s Rose Quarter. Pictured, left to right: Ukiah Halloran-Steiner, Robin Sack and Taylor Walker. January 5, 2023 (Courtney Vaughn/Portland Tribune).

Walker noted that 40% of Oregon’s carbon emissions come from transportation.

“Even though elected officials know this, they’re not doing anything about it,” Walker said Tuesday, Jan. 3, during a community meeting organized by nonprofit climate advocacy organization No More Freeways.

The state’s climate goals call for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 75% below 1990 levels by 2050. In 1990, the state’s CO2 emissions hovered at just above 60 million metric tons, according to the Department of Environmental Quality.

To achieve its goals, Oregon would need to dramatically reduce vehicle emissions, through fewer cars on the road and/or fewer miles traveled.

No More Freeways insists that adding more vehicle capacity on I-5 won’t improve traffic congestion. Instead, the organization says it will make it worse, by allowing more cars and trucks on the road at once. The group also questions the project’s rising costs and seeming lack of current traffic projections.

Project opponents also want a more thorough environmental review of the Rose Quarter I-5 project.

No More Freeways, along with Neighbors For Clean Air and the Eliot Neighborhood Association, sued ODOT in 2021 over the proposed Rose Quarter Improvement Project. The complaint alleged the project’s environmental review was insufficient and failed to consider alternatives to widening the freeway. As a result, the Federal Highway Administration called for an additional analysis of the project’s impacts to the surrounding neighborhood. The latest environmental report lists environmental impacts as “temporary,” resulting primarily from the construction phases.

Aaron Brown, an organizer with No More Freeways, said he believes ODOT is trying to push the project through quickly, by skipping a full Environmental Impact Statement — a thorough study of a major project’s impacts on the surrounding human environment — in favor of a less rigorous environmental review.

“An EIS is typically conducted for any major infrastructure project, and it’s indicative of ODOT’s disinterest in the process that they haven’t conducted an EIS,” Brown said on behalf of No More Freeways.

The organization supports ODOT’s latest plan to add a freeway cover over I-5, noting the general community benefits to the Albina neighborhood, but said the agency should use its funding to improve public transit and biking options and restore Albina, rather than widening the freeway.

ODOT declined requests for an in-person public meeting on the latest design of the project.

Rose Gerber, a spokesperson for ODOT, noted a 50-day public comment period, as well as a virtual public hearing held by the agency on Dec. 14.

“We welcome comments on the Supplemental Environmental Assessment from the public as part of the review process required by the (Federal Highway Administration),” Gerber said. “That process is set up to gather public input and concerns regarding the findings of the SEA for review by the FHWA.”

The night before public comments on the project were due, about 40 Portlanders gathered in the cafeteria at Harriet Tubman Middle School. Postcards were signed and mailed to incoming Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, as well as U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. The school, which predates the construction of I-5 in Portland, is a stone’s throw from the freeway. In 2018, Portland Public Schools spent $20 million on an air filtration system at the campus to improve its indoor air quality before reopening it after decades of closure. Now, the school district says Harriet Tubman Middle School would need to be moved if I-5 gets widened.

Last year, Gov. Kate Brown requested $120 million in funding to help rebuild the school.

That doesn’t sit well with Joan Petit, a parent who lives in the neighborhood and opposes the freeway widening project.

“I was part of the group of parents that worked really hard to reopen this school,” Petit said, noting that moving the school could place it outside its current neighborhood. “There aren’t really a lot of robust (viable) sites in this neighborhood.”

Petit said the problem isn’t the school’s location, it’s the freeway.

Nakisha Nathan is director of strategic partnerships at Neighbors For Clean Air. The group was instrumental in getting the air filtration system at Tubman Middle School designed and implemented. Even after the indoor air was fixed, the air outside was still deemed hazardous to students.

Nakisha Nathan with Neighbors for Clean Air addresses concerns about the environmental and community impacts of the planned Rose Quarter Improvement Project in Portland. January 5, 2023 (Courtney Vaughn/Portland Tribune).

“Young activists from Harriet Tubman Middle School told legislators about the impacts of air pollution on their lives, and their testimony was key to the passage of HB 2007. This legislation made Oregon the second state in the nation to have any regulations on the operation of big trucks, to reduce diesel emissions,” Nathan said. “Their hard work, and the costly improvements to this school will, however, be compromised if this freeway is expanded.”