Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: Portland Prepares for the Freeway Fight of the Century

No two transportation projects are identical. But an investment in freeway infrastructure is, at the end of the day, an investment in freeway infrastructure—even if there’s a patch of grass on top.

Which means that Oregon has joined the growing list of states pushing highway expansion projects on rather disingenuous grounds. On Sunday, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler joined Oregon Public Broadcasting to voice his enthusiastic support for the I-5 Rose Quarter Project, a $450 million proposal to widen the freeway through the historically black neighborhood known as Albina. The project got a funding boost from the state’s newly passed transportation bill. (The same one that inexplicably taxed bikes.)

But the mayor touted the project as “an opportunity to restore one of our most historic, and not coincidentally, African-American neighborhoods.” That’s because, according to the mayor, this is no run-of-the-mill mega-expansion. “The part that no one talks about, and that frankly is most interesting, is capping I-5 and reconnecting the street grid,” he said. “It’s mostly a bike and pedestrian play.”

To be fair, this project not as terrible as, say, Houston’s record-ginormous expansion of the Katy Freeway. And no doubt, this I-5 corridor needs help. According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, this quarter-mile section of I-5 suffers the highest crash rate of any highway in the state—and it’s been rated one the most congested in the country. It’s just two lanes on each side, making it one of the narrower urban highways in North America, and merging can be a nerve-wracking experience. To remedy it, ODOT wants to build additional “auxiliary lanes” in each direction through Rose Quarter, which it promises will reduce crashes and—wait for it—cut congestion, according to the Portland Mercury.

The proposed corridor for Portland’s I-5 expansion. (Soren Walljasper/CityLab)

Wheeler didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that adding lanes never helps congestion, thanks to the principle of induced demand. Instead, what he emphasized about the project is its progressive window-dressing: its cap. A few blocks of the highway would be lowered below grade and planted with a bit of Chia fuzz, with a new bike-ped crossing on one of the sides. This is the grid “restoration” of which the mayor speaks—essentially, a minor diminishment of a roaring, stinking concrete channel that will roar and stink all the more with this added capacity.

Highway caps are an ever-more common feature of 21st century urban highway projects, and this project sounds a lot like some others we’ve heard of recently—namely, the Colorado DOT project that promises to triple I-70’s footprint through two of Denver’s last working-class neighborhoods and cover a small section with a park. The project has been mired in controversy for years, with lawsuits and pleas to the governor to halt it on environmental and social justice grounds.

Ironically, the 800 square-foot “cap park” proposed for the Denver boondoggle stemmed from early community advocates who pushed back against CDOT’s original plans to simply widen the existing elevated structure. The introduction of the cap a few years ago was heralded as a victory by some residents of the neighborhoods, which have been passed over for local investments for years. But the I-70 project, with its attractive grassy mask, has since been corralled into a suite of plans to redevelop huge swaths of the affected neighborhoods.

Now, the fear of displacement, underscored by the property-value increases that highway cap parks can bring, has driven many longtime Denverites to bitterly oppose the construction. “I just hope my kids will get to play there,” said one local mom who regretted ever advocating for the project, which a Denver public policy expert compared to “old-fashioned 1950s slum-clearance.”

In Portland, the neighborhood in question is the historically black Albina, where decades of “urban renewal” and redevelopment plans have created one of the starkest examples of housing displacement in the country. As Portland rents have soared along with the city’s popularity, its minority population has been squeezed further to the outskirts. As my Atlantic colleague Alana Semuels wrote last year:

There are around 38,000 African Americans in the city in Portland, according to Lisa K. Bates of Portland State University; in recent years, 10,000 of those 38,000 have had to move from the center city... The gentrification of the historically black neighborhood in central Portland, Albina, has led to conflicts between white Portlanders and longtime black residents over things like widening bicycle lanes and the construction of a new Trader Joe’s.

Widening highways is bad for property values in the short term—indeed, the construction of I-5 through Portland in the 1960s kicked out homeowners, depressed home values, and helped set the neighborhood up for decades of disinvestment. Over the longer term, however, there’s evidence that highway caps, just like any other “adaptive reuse” project (think: High Line), can and do help property values rise. In the absence of intentional policies to preserve affordable housing and opportunity—something that Portland has long failed to offer, though that may be slowly changing—there’s really nothing to guarantee that the “restoration” of Albina’s grid will serve the people who have lived there, and suffered the disconnecting presence of I-5, the longest. And that’s on top of the environmental harm that more lanes and more cars are likely to bring.

If Portland wants to reconnect neighborhood grids and provide transit and biking infrastructure, why not just do that? Rather than pour half a billion dollars (a cost that is all but sure to rise) into what is, at the end of the day, a wider freeway, the city and state might first try taming traffic with tolls or congestion fees, as New York City is again contemplating. That’s a solution that might help Portland live up to its ultra-progressive reputation. Finally.

Housing and transportation policy, displacement for mobility’s sake—these are forces that have always gone together. Fortunately for Portland, the city has a rich history of successful highway dissent, and the stage is being set now for a serious showdown over the Rose Quarter project. This battle over a grassy highway covering—a bit of green garnish on an old, bad, idea—will not be the last the U.S. will see. And Portland’s has barely begun.

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