High level talks next month will decide fate of I-5 Rose Quarter project

ODOT says even if they did do an EIS it wouldn’t stop the project from moving forward.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

What’s really going on with the controversial I-5 Rose Quarter project?

“I think the governments here are realizing we need to pay more attention to what the community is saying.”
— Paul Slyman, Chief of Staff to Metro President Lynn Peterson

The activist group No More Freeways was quick to call it a “win for the good guys,” after Willamette Week reported Tuesday that the Oregon Department of Transportation would be required to complete a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project as part of their obligation to fulfill National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements.

This was considered major news because ODOT has said all along that — despite strong disagreement from environmental groups — their less-rigorous Environmental Assessment (EA, completed in February) was adequate. The news was also a big deal because doing an EIS would significantly delay ODOT’s march forward and give critics more time to organize and poke even more holes in the already embattled project.

But it’s important to note: No formal decisions have been made about what type of environmental analysis will be required. The Federal Highway Administration (who controls the NEPA process) has not made any final determination about the EA versus EIS question.

As reported by Willamette Week, Chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission (the governor-appointed body that oversees ODOT) Robert Van Brocklin said, “conversations” regarding “the question of what kind of environmental review to pursue” will begin in September.

Earlier this week ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton told me he wasn’t sure what form those conversations would take, but they’re likely to happen at the September 18th OTC meeting in The Dalles.

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Aaron Brown from No More Freeways called this week’s news “a win for the good guys.”

One person following these conversations closely will be Metro Council President Lynn Peterson. Back in April Metro’s senior planner said ODOT’s EA was “inadequate” and “potentially misleading” but Peterson was far more diplomatic in her statement. When I spoke to her Chief of Staff Paul Slyman on Wednesday, I asked if Peterson would advocate for a full EIS. “I think we would say it appears to us that all signs are indicating that a full EIS is probably the way to go,” Slyman replied. He said their office hasn’t emphatically called for the EIS because they’re “open to being educated” that the EA is sufficient.

Given that the NEPA process usually follows a standard script that only includes the DOT and the FHWA, I asked both Slyman and Hamilton whether or not it was unusual for the OTC and other interested parties to be having high-level conversations about environmental analysis at this stage of the project.

Slyman said the fact that OTC commissioners are weighing in means what’s happening with the Rose Quarter project isn’t normal. “This does not seem like how these projects typically move forward,” he added. “I think the governments here are realizing we need to pay more attention to what the community is saying… the discourse has clearly been elevated… The commissioners are saying, ‘We need to get involved because what we’re hearing is that the agency might be out of step with what the community is telling us.’”

As for ODOT, Hamilton said the OTC’s involvement “Is not unusual at all.”

Hamilton, who acknowledges an EIS could very well be the next step, said despite the questions about environmental analysis, the project will continue to move forward. As per recently passed House Bill 2017, ODOT will receive $30 million per year in bond proceeds earmarked for this project (estimated to cost $450 million) starting in 2022. Their current timeline is to begin construction in 2023 and an ODOT rep told us this week they’re already at 5-10% design.

“We’re not going to stop everything and wait for this,” Hamilton said. “We’ve won broad approval from many areas and we’ll do what we need to do to make it happen.”

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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