The Oregon Transportation Commission granted conditional approval on Thursday for a path forward to renovate and widen Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter corridor, as well as cap the freeway and allow for redevelopment of the former Albina district.
The commission’s unanimous decision follows the recommendation of Gov. Kate Brown last month that the Oregon Department of Transportation pursues “hybrid option 3.” That plan would essentially tunnel the freeway and provide economic opportunity for the region’s Black community in an effort to reclaim the Albina district.
Members of ODOT committees such as the Historic Albina Advisory Board and other stakeholder groups have consistently voiced their opinion favoring a project that focuses on restorative justice. Supporters say the idea behind this project model is to remediate historic harm caused by the freeway’s original construction and displacement of community members.
Approval of the hybrid 3 model is contingent upon ODOT providing a thorough analysis of the project’s cost structure and funding sources by December. It would also require ODOT and its contractors to update its diversity and subcontracting plans, as well as to reevaluate the project’s initial environmental impact study.
The commission’s decision followed a brief update on the project’s progress and regional planning work by ODOT’s staff including Rose Quarter Improvement Project Manager Megan Channell.
Channell delved into the specific details of how hybrid 3 varies from the original concepts of the I-5 Rose Quarter expansion.
The largest difference is that the new model would produce a singular cap over the freeway instead of two separate caps proposed in the initial concept. Construction would be pushed back to begin in late 2023 with minor preparation work beginning earlier.
The cap would create a freeway tunnel through the Rose Quarter, relocate ramps to accommodate the cap and restore the street grid above. It would also remove some current pedestrian and bike links across the freeway and shift them to other streets.
The proposed cap would allow for light development on top of the freeway capable of holding buildings of up to three stories. It could be strengthened to accommodate up to six-story buildings.
“We heard that a successful highway cover design really is defined as one that brings investment into and provides long-term benefits to the Historic Albina community,” Channell said. “Also that access and safety would be provided for people walking, biking, driving and using transit for within and through the project area.”
The project’s cost has risen significantly from its initial price tag of between $715-795 million to upwards of $1.18 billion.
Jimmy Chen, a professor and program chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University Urban and Regional Studies and Planning program who attended ConnectRVA 2045 public meetings this summer, said the Richmond region is car dependent due to many people traveling for work, as well as the lack of other reliable travel options.
“You cannot rely on the [Greater Richmond Transit Company] bus to get 100% access to destinations,” Chen said. “Right now the population is so dispersed .. and job and housing is unbalanced.”
Chen said while driving provides “unprecedented mobility” for travel, it emits more pollutants than other modes of transportation, so it is important to eliminate unnecessary car trips and support sustainable travel.
“[The plan] mainly focused on supply side, how do we improve the intersection, how do we widen freeways,” Chen said. “but we also need to make sure that travel demand should be reduced … we need to encourage more transit-oriented development.”
However, Chen said it’s an overall great plan, adding the plan is not permanent and will be adjusted in the coming years — the plan is updated every four years.
“This blueprint is great,” Chen said. “This year they’ve had a lot of meetings and made a lot of progress.”
The projects list is in a public review and comment period for air quality testing from July 9-24, which examines projects to see their potential for ozone emissions. If a projects emissions are high, the board could reconsider whether toinclude it, Parsons said.
When it comes to building big transportation projects on time and on budget, the Bay Area has a miserable track record.
In 1998, Caltrans estimated that a new eastern span of the Bay Bridge would cost $1.4 billion and take four years to build. The actual cost was $6.4 billion; plagued by design controversies, brittle steel rods and more, the project lasted 11 years.
The Transbay Transit Center in downtown San Francisco cost nearly twice as much as its initial budget and opened two years behind schedule — then had to close for another nine months to repair cracked steel beams that were not built to code.
Construction has not yet begun on the project extending BART service through downtown San Jose, but its price tag has risen twice over the last three years, to $6.9 billion, while its projected opening date has slipped by three to four years.
And earlier this month, Caltrain officials announced their work to electrify the railroad’s Peninsula corridor would take two years longer than expected at an extra cost of more than $300 million.
Now, with lawmakers in Washington announcing a deal for a huge increase in federal infrastructure spending, and officials in the Bay Area eyeing the next big round of “mega-projects” — including a second transbay BART tube, the extension of Caltrain service into downtown San Francisco and a long list of other plans that by one estimate could total $100 billion — there is mounting pressure to get our act together.
“We cannot afford to build $100 billion worth of new mega-projects without doing something differently,” said Laura Tolkoff, transportation policy director for the urban planning think tank SPUR.
SPUR and the Bay Area Council, a business group, have each released proposals in recent months that aim to speed up construction and present a more accurate sense of what projects will cost. Gwen Litvak, the council’s senior vice president of public policy, said reforms will be necessary if Bay Area leaders want the public to support future projects.
“Voters are smart — they remember if you said this was going to get done in five years and it’s taken 15,” Litvak said.
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