Mailbag: What’s the Big Deal About Widening I-5?

We wrote last week about ODOT’s plan to widen I-5 through the Rose Quarter and the backlash it’s facing from neighbors and activists.

Here’s what we heard from readers, plus responses from our director Ben DeJarnette.  

Reader Julie S. said it’s misleading to say that the current comment period could result in the project being cancelled.

“You seem to have a misunderstanding about the status of the I-5 widening project. This is a project that was approved by the 2017 Legislature as part of a transportation funding package that allocated some money specifically for this and other projects. In other words, barring some big political upheaval, it’s happening. The comment period that is open now is not, as you stated, a “debate over whether to expand I-5,” and it’s incorrect to say that “ODOT hopes to gain support” when they don’t actually need any public approval to move forward. The scope of the project could change, but the project is not likely to be cancelled altogether.” —Julie S.

From Ben: You’re right that ODOT holds almost all the cards here, and it would take some serious upheaval to dramatically change the project, let alone kill it. But there is precedent for that happening in Portland. Public backlash helped kill the Mount Hood Freeway project in the 1970s, and some activists today think they can make lightning strike twice. Still, the odds are extremely long, and we should have been clear about that. Thanks for the catch!

Reader Josh B. said expanding I-5 might not deliver on ODOT’s promise to improve safety.

“The I-5 expansion may not even reduce crashes. They expanded I-5 between Lombard and Victory Boulevard about a decade ago, and it increased crashes. 😮Joe Cortright has written about it a couple of times.” —Josh B.

From Ben: Joe makes a good point that adding lanes and widening shoulders doesn’t necessarily make freeways safer — but it does seem plausible in this case. As anyone who’s driven that stretch of I-5 knows, navigating the tangle of interchanges and merging vehicles is uniquely hair-raising, and it’s not hard to imagine how the new design could make that road safer. The bigger question is whether that benefit is worth $500 million and a (likely) increase in carbon emissions. In a city like Portland, that’s a tough sell.

Reader Ric Z. said he doesn’t think people who are against the widening are seeing the bigger picture.

“Traffic makes interstate and intrastate commerce take needlessly longer, and we all are paying for that with higher prices for the goods those trucks transport. The Rose Quarter section and the I-5 bridges are the worst choke points from LA to Seattle. I dare say the demographic of the anti-wideners is made up of non-car owners who have no dog in the fight.” Ric Z.

From Ben: This is a $500 million publicly funded project, so any Oregonian who pays taxes clearly has a stake in it. But it’s not just an issue for taxpayers. Take the students at Harriet Tubman Middle School. They’re not even old enough to drive yet, but they’re old enough to know that wider highways mean more cars and more cars mean more exhaust fumes in their backyard. That seems like a pretty big dog in the fight to me.