Portland’s Climate-Denying Freeway Plans and ODOT’s Public Deception

Portland has been a national leader in transportation, and now it is about to become a national failure at a time of crisis. Portland will go backward, when it has the funds, the knowledge, and the wherewithal to move forward.

Portland’s Planning

For a city known for its environmentalism, urban planning, public transportation, public involvement, and progressive politicians, Portland is about to blasphemize the Sunrise Movement, the Albina Vision Plan, Portland Public Schools, and its national environmental reputation. ODOT, in cooperation with “Climate” Governor Kate Brown, Mayor Ted Wheeler, and Metro President Lynn Peterson are about to step aside and watch ODOT jam billions of dollars of freeway-widening projects down our proverbial throats with the claim that it’s good for the climate and has no effect on equity.  ODOT has produced a deceitful Rose Quarter Environmental Assessment (EA) that claims this, and has a new Director willing to propagate this fully-debunked myth.

These projects will result —  as all highway expansions do — in more VMT, more GHG emissions, more deaths, and less walking, biking, and transit use, while worsening social equity; exactly the opposite of what we need in this time of crisis.

Old-School ODOT

In my 20 years as a professional transportation planner,  5 years as INDOT’s travel demand modeler, I know DOTs are a relic that are still moving white flight forward and equity backward. This legacy is baked into their engineering standards, the educational institutions, and their state and federal funding mechanisms.

ODOT is doing what DOTs have always done – building more lanes where there’s congestion. Many DOTs are far more advanced having realized their focus on moving cars and trucks has had environmental and social consequences. But this effort by ODOT to maintain old-school policies has been especially egregious through its purposeful deception — to hide and deny the truth to the public (by public servants!) — which I find especially troublesome.

Road-Widening Truths

Transportation planners know building more car capacity causes more driving. Current and growing evidence shows the amount of miles driven (Vehicle Miles Traveled), not congestion, is the major factor in GHG emissions as well as vehicle crashes.

California has mandated VMT analyses for their environmental analyses and condemns congestion delay as an environmental measure. Along with a plethora of evidence, they have produced short videos explaining why congestion factors are not just inappropriate, but antithetical to GHG and crash reductions.

Behavioral effects of widening a congested road:

Short term:

  • (1) some drivers who avoided the congestion by using parallel roads will use it,
  • (2) some drivers who delayed their trip will no longer delay their trip, and
  • (3) some drivers who skipped their trip completely will now make the trip.

Long term:

  • (4) Some drivers will travel farther for trips or live farther away, and
  • (5) some cyclist, walkers, transit users will drive; some will need to buy a car.

Empirically proven results:

Road widening does not relieve congestion — it just increases VMT.

Transportation Modeling

In transportation planning, there are two major modeling tools, a macro model called a travel demand model, and a micro model called a simulation model. These are very different tools: the travel demand model looks at an entire travel region and can tell us what roads people will use, estimate each road segment’s traffic volume, and produce regional VMT estimates. A travel demand model will do well at effects (1) & (2), but will underestimate (3), (4), & (5), which are considered “induced travel.”

Simulation models look at particular road segments and how the traffic signals, lane configurations, and ramps might function to move traffic. Traffic volumes are inputs to these models, not outputs; the volumes must be acquired from a travel demand model.

ODOT’s Rose Quarter Environmental Assessment (EA)

I have many grievances with the analyses in the EA, but one is they do not provide enough information to explain how their GHG emission numbers were calculated. Secondly, they use unorthodox methods and results from a simulation model — not the travel demand model — to estimate GHG emissions and crash data, which is the wrong tool. They provide a previous 2015 traffic operations analysis that is literally proof of malfeasance where their speed and crash analyses assumed no change in traffic volumes on I-5 from constructing the Rose Quarter project (see p-16).  Not only do we know the volumes will increase on I-5, but induced VMT will exist throughout the regional travel network, causing new GHG emissions and crashes throughout the network.

The right modeling procedure, and every modeler knows this, is to run the regional travel demand model with and without the project, and the difference in VMT is the model’s VMT estimate induced by the project. We can assume this is an underestimation of induced VMT, as noted previously. This new VMT must also be considered in the regional crash analysis, which their analysis does not do, and it wrongly isolates the crash analysis to a very limited geography, and to crash-types caused by “emergency braking events.”

However, hiding in the bowels of the appendices is the [mostly] right data — regional VMT from the travel demand model for the “build” (with the project) and “no-build” (without the project) scenarios. I say “mostly” because this table only reported the induced VMT in a subarea of the region, but VMT will be induced beyond this subarea. The induced VMT caused by the construction of the Rose Quarter project is not small; the growth in the subarea is 2.4% in 2040 and 2.9% in 2045, or 5,770,395 annual Vehicle Miles just in this subarea in 2045.  Portland Map 2As noted, models inevitably underestimate induced travel, and there will be additional induced VMT outside this area.

Metro’s 7-page EA Comment letter to ODOT states these exact concerns (p-4, last bullet).

I can only conclude that the reason ODOT did not use this information, and instead used other non-standard methods, was because they did not want the public to know of the VMT growth caused by this project nor its GHG and crash consequences.

Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC)

On the political side, the OTC and ODOT have worked to make these projects happen. I find it amazing how hard legislators from the rest of the state have worked to make sure freeway bottlenecks in Portland are funded notwithstanding the evidence overwhelmingly shows these widenings exacerbate congestion, GHG emissions and crashes.

OTC will be the ultimate decider whether this project goes forward without a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and the project breaks ground. OTC is not made of elected politicians. It is made up of appointees who unfortunately have a lesser obligation to the public. Two years ago, the legislature pulled the power of appointing the new ODOT Director from the governor and gave it to the OTC, and the OTC just hired a VMT denier — one who believes in the alternative facts that (1) widening roads relieves congestion, and (2) widening roads is good for the climate and crash rates. The writing is on the wall.

To conclude, I am dumbfounded and heartbroken that our Portland leaders are not adamantly opposed to the Rose Quarter project. Mayor Ted Wheeler has been silent which results in support, and Metro President Lynn Peterson is in support, and our Climate Governor Kate Brown has been silent which results in support. I appreciate Commissioner Eudaly’s engagement, but disappointed in her reticence. At most, I am hearing leaders recommend a full EIS, but if they have the climate and equity conscience they claim, they should be adamantly opposed to the Rose Quarter project, the 217 widening, and any project that advance driving in this time of crisis. Period. And they should be firmly lobbying for our legislature to redirect those billions of dollars to bike, walk, and transit projects only, now and forever.  Their lack of noise is painful and disheartening.

Author: Buff

Middle-aged white guy with a few degrees and 20 years in the transportation planning industry in Midwest and Northwest US cities. Email Comments To: Transportationjusticeblog@gmail.com