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Portland throws support behind new I-5 Bridge, Rose Quarter freeway project

The city council signaled a willingness to move forward with development of the two major freeway projects, both of which have long and controversial histories.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland City Council renewed its support for two of the region’s biggest planned freeway transportation projects Wednesday morning, voting to endorse the Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) Program’s proposed design for a new I-5 crossing over the Columbia River and to sign back on to the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project.

The IBR team unveiled its proposed design in May, presenting an updated version of the preliminary Columbia River Crossing design. Because it adapts an earlier design that already received federal approval, the modified plan will be able to go through a more limited “supplemental” federal environmental review rather than the full process.

The team has spent the past few weeks shopping the plan around to various local government councils and agency boards, with the goal of getting a thumbs up from each group ahead of next week’s meeting of the bi-state legislative committee that oversees the project.

Portland’s endorsement follows recent green lights from Tri-Met, C-Tran, the Port of Vancouver and the Vancouver City Council. Three more agencies are set to vote this week: Metro, the Port of Portland and the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council. If the bi-state committee signs off, the project will enter the federal supplemental environmental review process.

The Portland City Council’s approval came with a lengthy list of conditions for the project, ranging from broad concepts like greenhouse gas reduction to specific design choices like the inclusion of bike and pedestrian resting zones with seating and lookout points.

RELATED: Interstate Bridge Replacement program recommends 8-lane crossing

Bridge height concerns

The preliminary design proposal drew a mix of praise and concern from Mayor Ted Wheeler and multiple city commissioners, and mostly negative feedback from the people who signed up to give public testimony.

Wheeler expressed concern about how the bridge’s proposed height would satisfy competing interests, particularly if multiple federal agencies end up at odds over the design. Program administrator Greg Johnson replied that the U.S. Coast Guard is ultimately the permitting authority, but other federal agencies would also have a say.

The Coast Guard recently rejected the IBR team’s preliminary proposal for a bridge with 116 feet of river clearance (compared with 178 feet on the current bridge with lift span raised), but Johnson said that was a preliminary judgement that didn’t account for mitigation measures the project could employ. The CRC eventually got a Coast Guard permit for 116 feet before the project was scrapped, he noted.

Johnson also said the IBR team won’t be seeking a final Coast Guard permit until 2025 or 2026, near the end of the design phase. Wheeler pressed him about what would happen if the Coast Guard and Federal Aviation Administration disagreed, or if the Coast Guard mandated a height that would make the bridge too steep for light rail.

"Conversations would then probably go to the political arena," Johnson replied, adding that the dispute would likely be worked out at the federal level.

The program’s current cost estimates are still based on the totals calculated for the CRC, adjusted for inflation. In response to a question from commissioner Carmen Rubio, Johnson said the IBR would release a more detailed financial plan and cost estimate in November or December.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty touted several aspects of the preliminary design, such as the inclusion of light rail and the reduction to one set of auxiliary lanes instead of the two that had been proposed for the CRC, for a total of eight lanes instead of 10.

She urged her colleagues to approve the preliminary design as a starting point. The vote doesn’t commit the council to supporting a single specific design, she said, and there will be more opportunities for input during the rest of the design process.

"There are a lot of ways that this could go off the rail, but it certainly shouldn’t go off the rail for the first vote," she said.

RELATED: City of Portland plans to revisit I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project

Back on board with the Rose Quarter project

The council also voted at Wednesday’s meeting to enter into an agreement with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to assist with the Rose Quarter Improvement Project. The city’s involvement is relatively small, but the agreement is symbolically significant because, as noted in the impact statement, it represents "the beginning of re-engagement" with the project.

The council ordered city bureaus to suspend all work on the project in July 2020 after the nonprofit Albina Vision Trust accused ODOT of failing to meaningfully engage with the group’s suggestions to make sure the project would repair the harms caused by the original construction of the Rose Quarter segment of I-5, which tore through the historically Black Albina neighborhood.

Gov. Kate Brown convened a series of meetings with stakeholders and community groups last summer to find a way to get the project back on track, and the groups recommended a new design called "Hybrid 3" that expands and strengthens the project’s proposed freeway caps through the Rose Quarter, reconnecting more of the neighborhood and allowing new construction on top of the caps.

"Buildable highway covers were not part of ODOT’s original plan," Hardesty said on Wednesday. "They had proposed three-and-a-half acres of bits and pieces over I-5. With Hybrid 3, we have gained eight acres that will do more than just cover I-5. These acres provide the kind of city street grid that other Portland neighborhoods take for granted."

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