A May 31 peer review of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Environmental Assessment for the proposed expansion of Interstate 5 in Portland’s Rose Quarter district found the document to be technically sound, but lacking in public communication quality. 

Currently forecast to cost between $715 million and $795 million, the project addresses a notoriously congested 1.8-mile stretch of I-5 through Oregon’s largest city through the addition of auxiliary lanes and shoulders. The plan also includes redesigned “lids” over sections of the freeway to provide room for public spaces, and improvements to adjacent streets that would reconnect neighborhoods separated when the freeway was originally constructed in the 1950s.

The EA, published by ODOT in February 2019, estimated that the project would slightly reduce greenhouse gas emission compared with a no-build option, but would pose significant noise and air quality impacts from vehicles using neighborhood streets to avoid construction, and after the planned implementation of tolls on I-5 later in the decade. 

The recent peer review panel found that ODOT’s EA adequately addressed the noise, air quality and greenhouse gas issues. Mitigation measures were likewise found to be reasonable and technically correct. The panel offered its own recommendations for the design and construction phases, such as a requirement for contractors to use electric vehicles and low-emission construction equipment, changes to sound wall design and placement and consideration of noise-reducing pavements. 

But though the EA’s technical aspects passed muster, the panel said that the study information could have been better presented for a non-technical audience, potentially reducing confusion about findings and recommendations.

The EA’s original findings sparked both confusion and criticism about the thoroughness of the analysis among stakeholders and partner agencies, including the Portland Public School system, which owns property adjacent to I-5. Community groups likewise claimed that study’s mitigation proposal fell short in addressing longstanding environmental justice issues and neighborhood economic concerns. 

Compounding the criticism are concerns about the project’s cost, which is nearly double the original estimate issued in 2017, which could rise even higher should ODOT move ahead with a proposal to use the freeway lids for vertical construction.

Reluctant to conduct another environmental study and risk delaying the planned 2023 start of construction, the Oregon Transportation Commission and ODOT in January commissioned Grace Crunican, former General Manager of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District, to select and facilitate a panel of six transportation experts from across the country to conduct an environmental peer review of the document’s technical analyses of air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and noise. 

For each area, the panel assessed methodology applied, the appropriateness of the analysis, and whether the proposed conclusions and proposed mitigation measures adequately addressed the impacts identified in the analysis in compliance with FHWA best practices under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other relevant regulations and requirements. The panel also gathered input from ODOT, stakeholders and others on how the EA was conducted and presented.

“This work needs to be done immediately to address the issues with firm commitments and accountability to reestablish trust among all parties,” the panel said, noting that the transportation agencies appear to have already taken appropriate steps in that direction.

Noting that the communication issues may have cost ODOT a measure of trust with the public and its partner agencies, the panel called for a concerted, collaborative effort to address mitigation measures and other issues, including the Rose Quarter project, part of a seven-mile stretch of traffic-burdened I-5 set to be fully tolled using congestion pricing by the end of decade. Should federal transportation officials agree to the plan, I-5 in Portland would become one of the nation’s first freeway corridors not to have provisions for non-tolled general-purpose lanes. 

Brendan Finn, director of ODOT’s new Office of Urban Mobility and Mega Project Delivery, told reporters on a June 3 video conference that the agency is, “aggressively moving forward on the congestion pricing program on Interstate 5 to control that demand that gets created so we continue to meet and be consistent with our greenhouse gas emission climate goals.”

Finn also expects the tolling system to be operational when the Rose Quarter project is completed in 2027.

ODOT is also conducting environmental studies to begin tolling a portion of I-205 on metropolitan Portland’s south side. The stretch between Oregon City and West Lynn currently handles more than 100,000 vehicles on weekdays, and experiences more than five hours of congestion. Revenue from those tolls could help fund seismic strengthening for the route, including a Willamette River crossing.