When it comes to the Oregon Department of Transportation’s $800 million plan to widen Interstate 5 at the Rose Quarter, the city of Portland is currently in “hear no evil” mode, pretending if it ignores the controversial project, it will go away.
The Portland City Council, including Portland Bureau of Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, issued a “stop-work order” on the Rose Quarter project June 30, after Albina Vision Trust, an influential Black social justice group, withdrew support for it.
That means bureaucrats aren’t supposed to do any work on it, but the city imposed an unusual gag order on a former City Hall staffer and now top ODOT official at a Sept. 3 meeting of PBOT’s Freight Advisory Committee.
The volunteer citizen committee invited Brendan Finn, director of ODOT’s Office of Urban Mobility, to present a briefing on three of the department’s biggest transportation projects in the city: I-205, the Interstate Bridge, and the Rose Quarter.
But Finn wasn’t allowed to say a word about the Rose Quarter project—an odd stance for Portland city government to take as it seeks stakeholder input through the freight committee.
Emails obtained by WW show there was internal dissension at PBOT leading up to the meeting.
When Bob Hillier, PBOT’s freight planning coordinator and its liaison to the freight committee, notified Shoshana Cohen, the bureau’s intergovernmental affairs manager, that Finn had been invited to update the committee on all three freeway projects, Cohen pushed back.
Cohen reminded Hillier of the stop-work order.
“I don’t see providing a city advisory committee with an update on this or other state projects in the Portland region as an issue since the Rose Quarter is in the city’s adopted [transportation spending plan] and part of [House Bill] 2017 approved by the governor and is still moving forward,” Hillier wrote to Cohen on Aug. 27. “This is just an informational item for committee members and no action will be taken.”
Cohen disagreed. “I understand this is an informal conversation,” she responded, “but on a project where City Council has such a clear position right now I think even informal feedback is potentially a problem.”
So Finn presented updates at the Sept. 3 meeting about the other two projects.
That irked advocates of the I-5 project. Jana Jarvis, president of the Oregon Trucking Associations and freight committee chair, says truckers agreed to a hefty tax increase to reduce Rose Quarter congestion.
“It was disappointing to me that PBOT staff and city officials don’t want to have a discussion about the Rose Quarter,” Jarvis says, “because the impact of that project will be positive for all of Oregon.”
Finn, who worked as an aide to former Commissioner Dan Saltzman for 19 years, says he also found being silenced disappointing. “I respected their request and complied with it,” he says, “but it was a missed opportunity.”
“We have a historic opportunity to build a project that meets our shared values around equity and climate, connecting communities that were divided by the construction of I-5,” Finn adds. “We hope to rekindle our dialogue.”
PBOT spokesman John Brady confirms Eudaly ordered that Finn not address the Rose Quarter. “Mr. Finn was asked to not speak about the project in order to respect the decision of Portland City Council to no longer support the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project,” Brady says. “It is absolutely false to characterize this as ‘gagging a public official.'”