ODOT seeks public comments on Rose Quarter, freeway tolls

The state transportation agency this week begins collecting public comments for two major freeway projects — one that could expand a Portland freeway in the name of reducing congestion, and one that could impose tolls on cars to do the same thing.

On Tuesday, the Oregon Department of Transportation began taking comments for a proposed expansion of Interstate 5 through Portland’s Rose Quarter after it released a new environmental assessment for the project this week.

That project, first proposed in 2017, would add auxiliary lanes to widen a 1.8-mile stretch of the freeway in central Portland, where three freeways meet and create some of the worst traffic in the state.

The agency will also take comments on its regional tolling proposal this Friday. It calls for variable rate tolling to reduce congestion on Interstates 5 and 205 in the Portland metro area.

ODOT will accept comments on both projects for 50 days, with the window closing in early January. Those interested in commenting on the Rose Quarter project can email ODOT at i5RoseQuarter@odot.oregon.gov leave a recorded voicemail at (503) 470-3127 or write a comment and mail it to the agency at Attn: Project Manager c/o I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project, 888 SW 5th Ave., Suite 600, Portland, OR 97204.

For the tolling project, commenters can email oregontolling@odot.oregon.gov, call (503) 837-3536 or mail written comment to Attn: Oregon Tolling Team – Scoping Comment123 NW Flanders Street, Portland, Oregon, 97209. They can also comment directly on this form.

The agency will also host online open houses and virtual public hearings for both topics. The virtual public hearing for the Rose Quarter project is Dec. 14 at 5 p.m. There will be virtual informational sessions for the regional tolling project on Nov. 29 at 11 a.m., and Nov. 30 at 4 p.m. Links to those sessions are available here.

Following the public comment period, the federal government could direct ODOT to do further environmental analysis, said Rose Quarter project Director Megan Channell.

The “supplemental” assessment is the agency’s second environmental examination of its Rose Quarter proposal. The biggest change the inclusion of freeway covers which would reconnect Lower Albina, a historically Black neighborhood that was partially razed in the 1950s to construct I-5.

The previous environmental assessment, conducted in 2019, included plans for a smaller and less extensive freeway cover. ODOT adopted a new design in late 2020 in response to objections from the city of Portland and the nonprofit Albina Vision Trust, which said the state agency’s plans for reconnecting the historic neighborhood weren’t adequate. The city returned to the project earlier this year after walking away.

The adoption of the new freeway covers led the Federal Highway Administration to rescind its approval of the project and direct ODOT to re-examine the impacts of the project on the surrounding areas.

Other significant changes to the environmental assessment include a reconfigured off-ramp from southbound I-5, which has been moved south and is now adjacent to another on-ramp to the highway.

And the new environmental assessment also was accompanied by a study of tolling in the area where the I-5 expansion is proposed.

The analysis showed that congestion would decrease and speeds on the freeway would increase if tolling was implemented — with or without the freeway expansion.

Channell said the agency conducted the tolling study in response to the requests from public commenters. But she said ODOT didn’t include the findings in its main report because tolling has not yet been implemented by regional governments.

“While we did the sensitivity analysis to understand how these two projects work together and interact with one another, they are two separate and distinct projects,” she said. She also noted that the study looked at tolling for one short stretch of freeway, while the upcoming public comment considers tolling for I-5 and I-205 throughout the Portland metro area.

House Bill 2017, a major transportation package from which ODOT will draw funds for the freeway project, directed the state agency to study tolls for traffic management.

Joe Cortright, an economist and member of the climate activist group No More Freeways, said the agency should study tolling as a full alternative to widening the freeweay.

“This analysis is presented essentially as an afterthought,” he said.

Climate activists also criticized the new environmental assessment’s findings that expanding the freeway wouldn’t lead to more emissions. The traffic analysis is based on numbers dating back to 2015, and Cortright said he’s concerned the study doesn’t fully consider the negative effects a wider freeway would have on the region.

Cortright and other members of No More Freeways said they’d like to see the state fund a project reconnect Lower Albina without widening the freeway, as well as safety improvements on other ODOT-owned highways where traffic and pedestrian crashes happen frequently.

The project faces legal and logistical hurdles. Several activist groups, including No More Freeways, have sued ODOT over its failure to conduct a complete Environmental Impact Statement — a more thorough look at the effects of the proposed project — and study other ways to ease congestion. The groups posit that building additional freeway lanes will induce more traffic that will cause more pollution, worsening climate change.

The agency also reported last year that it was short $500 million the $1.25 billion freeway project. Channell said Wednesday that the shortfall remains. She said the agency has sought $100 million in federal funding specifically toward building the freeway cover.

—Jayati Ramakrishnan; jramakrishnan@oregonian.com

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