Gov. Kate Brown’s newfound interest in the expansion of Interstate 5 at the Rose Quarter could provide a long-term benefit to Portland’s Black community, as well as needed support for the concept of congestion pricing on the state’s busiest freeway.
On Aug. 3, Brown announced that she’d brokered a compromise on the project, bringing social justice group Albina Vision Trust back to the table with a promise of greatly expanded caps over the freeway—adding nearly 8 acres of developable land above the submerged freeway.
The central city real estate created by the caps would be extremely valuable and the three local officials involved in the process—Metro Council President Lynn Peterson, City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pedersen—want to make sure the value of that land creation accrues to Portland’s Black community, which saw its neighborhood center demolished in the early 1960s for the construction of I-5.
In an Aug. 5 letter, the three officials urged Brown to make sure the new land doesn’t end up in the Oregon Department of Transportation’s inventory.
“To ensure that the new developable land created by the Rose Quarter project will support the Black community’s desire for self-determination; and structure the project so the Black Community can build it, own it, and benefit from it into the future, ODOT needs to transfer governance of development on the covers,” the three officials wrote.
They also laid out other demands, seemingly sensing an opportunity in Brown’s newfound interest in the project.
Although Brown appoints the five-member Oregon Transportation Commission, which holds decision-making authority over major ODOT projects such as the Rose Quarter, the governor has largely taken a hands-off approach to what would be the largest expenditure in House Bill 2017, the landmark transportation bill that stands as one of Brown’s largest achievements.
That bill contemplated the use of congestion pricing on metro-area highways as a means to both generate revenue and reduce congestion by charging motorists variable fees. But four years after HB 2017 passed, congestion pricing remains more of a concept than a reality.
The three officials want Brown to put her foot down. “The state of Oregon has a unique opportunity to use congestion pricing, also known as tolling, as a tool to manage traffic and reduce greenhouse gases in the region,” they wrote. “We urge you to expedite the tolling program, while reducing impacts to low-income users. ODOT stated that congestion pricing on I-5 in the Rose Quarter will be implemented, but it has not provided any details on how the program will be designed.”
ODOT spokeswoman Tia Williams said the agency is on board.
“We stand in strong agreement that an equitable congestion pricing program is a vital component in the future of the region’s transportation system,” said Williams. “It will provide critical funding for infrastructure improvements, as well as play an important role in reducing congestion and making progress on the state’s climate goals.”
Williams added that no state highway department has implemented congestion pricing to an existing interstate, so there will be lots of challenges. “We are moving expeditiously to implement a congestion pricing program, and are committed to ensuring implementation is completed before construction wraps on the I-5 Rose Quarter project,” she said.
Brown spokeswoman Liz Merah said the governor welcomes the input from the local agencies and wants to move forward.
“The governor’s goals for the I-5 Rose Quarter project are to revitalize, repair and restore the Albina community while creating a national model for restorative justice, sustainable transportation, and good job creation,” Merah said.
Brown has directed ODOT to move forward with intergovernmental agreements that Merah said “will address the items listed in the letter from our local and regional governmental partners, and the governor looks forward to working with project and community partners as we finalize this part of the process.”