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About Willamette week. (Portland, Or.) 1974-current | View This Issue
STATE OFFICIALS SAY I-5 IN THE ROSE
QUARTER POSES A DEADLY DANGER.
POLICE REPORTS UNDERCUT THAT CLAIM.
STREETSCAPE: State officials are selling the $450 million
I-5 project at the Rose Quarter as a way to save lives. Police
reports suggest that won’t work.
BY R AC HE L M O N A HA N
r m on a h a n @ wwe e k.com
The proposal to widen Interstate 5 at the Rose Quarter
had hit a speed bump.
At two public hearings last month, a string of Portland
transportation and environmental advocates lined up to
argue the project was a waste of nearly half a billion dol-
Then, on Sept. 14, an Oregon Department of Trans-
portation official provided a rejoinder. Policy and devel-
opment manager Kelly Brooks testified that adding two
new lanes and wider shoulders to I-5 at the Rose Quarter
would address safety. And she told the City Council the
highway interchange was deadly.
“It’s unfair to say we don’t have any severe crashes,”
said Brooks. “Between 2010 and 2014, we had two fatali-
ties.” (She also mentioned seven serious injuries.)
In exchanges with the press, ODOT officials have
repeated Brooks’ line of argument—that the Rose Quar-
ter project is about safety. That’s a particularly compel-
ling argument because Portland City Hall has committed
itself to eliminating traffic deaths.
“The primary purpose of this project is to address a
critical safety need,” emails ODOT spokesman Don Ham-
But adding lanes to the highway would not have pre-
vented the two deaths cited by ODOT.
Both deaths were of homeless men who walked onto
the highway in the middle of the night, according to
police reports obtained by WW.
In the 2010 case, the mental health of the man who
walked onto the road may have been a factor, according
to a relative.
“He had a lot of mental health stuff that was going on,”
says the man’s sister-in-law. “We’re not sure if he was
taking a shortcut home or something else was going on.”
In the other case, in 2013, the man who died crossing
the highway registered a blood alcohol level of 0.294 per-
cent, according to a police report, more than three times
the legal limit for drivers.
In neither case were drivers faulted. Highway condi-
tions were dry, according to police reports, although in
2013, a street light was out.
“They’ve been trying to do the equivalent of green-
washing, but for safety,” says economist Joe Cortright,
Willamette Week OCTOBER 11, 2017 wweek.com
a longtime ODOT critic lobbying against the project.
“They’ve said crash, crash, crash all the time. This is actu-
ally one of the safest parts of the transportation system.
On average, [the interstate] is about five times safer than
the average arterial streets in the city.”
In selling the $450 million highway project—and
encountering predictable opposition in a car-unfriendly
town—ODOT and city officials haven’t been able to pres-
ent a justification that resonates with Portlanders.
State officials initially pitched the project as a way
to help move freight through Portland more efficiently,
but now their official talking points highlight safety. The
City Council, which approved the plan back in 2012, still
hasn’t decided whether it will move forward.
State funding for the I-5 project was approved this
spring as part of Gov. Kate Brown’s transportation pack-
age. It’s up for debate again as part of the city’s planning
process, specifically the Central City 2035 Plan. Four of
the five city commissioners have said they support the
project, with Commissioner Chloe Eudaly as a possible
The project represents a massive public investment—
larger than the $64 million the Portland gas tax is pro-
jected to bring in over four years, and larger than the
$268 million housing bond.
Yet ODOT has not settled on a coherent argument for
In a phone interview with WW, ODOT project man-
ager Megan Channell said the project could save com-
muters 2.5 million driving hours a year. Yet Channell also
says there are no firm answers whether it would simply
move a bottleneck up the road.
“We can’t give you a definitive yes or no,” she tells
WW, adding that an environmental review of the project
is underway to project traffic impacts during and after
completion of the project.
ODOT also hasn’t been able to show that I-5 at the
Rose Quarter is more lethal than other stretches of high-
way in the city.
ODOT says I-5 southbound through the Rose Quarter
scores in the top 5 percent of its highways for number
of crashes, but most of these are minor accidents—690
fender benders in five years. The agency believes the
project could cut crashes by up to 50 percent, but there’s
no evidence it would work to limit fatalities.
ODOT did not provide detailed information on the
causes of the serious crashes by deadline, and Channell
says she had no details on whether they could be pre-
vented by the project.
“There are no engineering elements that can prevent
people who want to get out on the highway from getting
out on the highway,” says Hamilton. “But there are things
that we can do to help reduce the number of problems.
Fender benders hurt people; they cost them a lot of
money. It sounds cute, but it’s actually a very serious
issue to reduce fender benders.”
There are other, state highways in the city where
pedestrians, cyclists and motorists have died in greater
numbers, including Southeast Powell Boulevard.
Nine people died in crashes on Powell from Southeast
7th Avenue to Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard in the decade
from 2005 to 2014. That stretch of state-run highway
hasn’t been fully funded for upgrades—work that would
cost a fraction of the I-5 Rose Quarter project.
In the same decade, the Rose Quarter stretch of I-5
saw three fatalities—the two documented by police
reports and a third death, in 2009, that was also of a
pedestrian on the highway, according to ODOT data.
The rate of crashes on the Rose Quarter stretch of
I-5, according to ODOT data published in June, is lower
than on nearly every stretch of Southeast Powell Boule-
vard, and of 82nd Avenue. Yesterday, the Portland Police
Bureau announced another traffic fatality—a person
crossing Northeast 82nd Avenue on foot—bringing the
total of such fatalities to 33, one more than at this time
“If this location justifies $450 million for safety, then
streets like 82nd and Barbur are owed billions,” says
Chris Smith, a member of the city planning commission
who opposes the project. “When residents of East Port-
land have twice the chance of dying just walking in their
neighborhoods than folks living west of I-205, how can
we justify this expenditure at the Rose Quarter?”
The two deaths cited by ODOT might also have been
prevented by different public investments. Life expec-
tancy for people living on the streets is low.
“For $450 million,” says Israel Bayer, executive direc-
tor of Street Roots, “we could be talking about getting
hundreds of people off the streets and into housing—
Willamette Week OCTOBER 11, 2017 wweek.com