ODOT and the Rose Quarter: Inequitable Policies and Leaders that Continue Them.

In the first week of April, two different committees – one elected (Metro Council) and one appointed (Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC)) — made decisions that will move forward the widening of a 1.5-mile section of I-5 Rose Quarter for nearly $1 billion through a community of color writhing from decades of abuse from city planning. This project is clearly antithetical to the priorities propounded by our city, state, and regional leaders — climate change, Vision Zero (no traffic deaths), and racial justice – the triple threat.

After 60 years of these highway projects, we know what the reasons and results are: $1B to placate the ruling class and business community, at the expense of a community of color, adding car trips and crashes to our streets while not solving congestion, and exhausting funds that could solve these problems rather than exacerbate them.

So, What Went Wrong?

I contend there are 3 major issues here:

  1. Institutional Intransigence: ODOT was developed under systemic racism for white flight, and has systemic racism built into every plan, performance measure, and design standard. It has had decades to build a legislative lobby and a sham public process to grow its authority and revenue without any agenda change.
  2. The Talk and Walk Disparity: We have important people at the state, regional, and local levels that can talk eloquently about equity, climate, and Vision Zero, but then vote against them.
  3. The Inequity Norm: Most of us believe our democratic and public process creates equity, but no; it maintains and exacerbates inequity and privilege. Business-as-usual maintains privilege.

Quotes that align nicely with the above issues:

“We know that as we built unjust social systems and unjust legal systems and unjust freeways and unsafe streets… we can unbuild them.” Rukaiyah Adams, 2019.

“Only the language was polite; the rejection was firm and unequivocal.” Martin Luther King.

“As we critique the racist power, we show our privilege and inaction by critiquing every effective strategy, ultimately justifying our inaction on the comfortable seat of privilege. “ Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist, p 214.

The Triple Threat:

Climate Change, Vision Zero, and Inequity are the real triple threat that need solved now. Our existing siloed and decision-making systems, which have created these problems, not only can’t seem to reverse them, but keep adding to them.   The I-5 Rose Quarter is a perfect example. If the power and agenda stay the same, things won’t change.

The Inequity Norm:

If you asked the People of Color in the Albina neighborhood, the youth who will live with Climate Change as it continues, or the larger minority, poor, and forward-thinking members of our community how they would spend this $1 billion, it would not be on this highway. You will need to go to the ruling class and corporations to find support for this. This is regressive, this is inequitable, this ignores historically oppressed voices and continues a ruling class privilege.

There is no doubt that the solution to the triple threat is to improve and prioritize transit, walking, biking, and subdue the demand for driving, while also generating housing. Both of these committees approved the plan in spite of the promise to solve the triple threat.

Were these decisions racist? Are these people racist? We generally think of racists as extreme flag-waving, epithet-spewing hate mongers, but we have to realize that decision-making people — often hired, lobbied, appointed by, and/or members of the ruling class – tend to move forward their, or their employer’s agenda. The ruling class’s agenda always lifts the Haves and often squelches the Have-less, often intentionally.  1950 to 2009

AntiRacist Power:

Those of us who want to improve equity and lift all boats have to behave as antiracists. Antiracists are simply people who seek power and policy that advances equity.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi in his book How to be an Antiracist, has broken down racism to its core parts: that it is borne not from ignorance and hate, but from self-interest. That racist ideas are used to generate and defend inequitable policies (e.g. redlining). That this self-interest craves the power to shape policy by any means necessary. That the antiracist community, which is not small, does not come at it with the same aggression, that they are commonly ideologues, too often bound by ideologies that are bound by failed strategies of change.

Seizing Power:

Dr. Kendi asks: what if we match the racist power? What if we assess the methods and leaders and organizations by their result of policy change and equity? That we become conscious of the specific people and methods used in covert institutions that continue racist policies, and we replace those people and policies. He points out that demonstrations and protests are ignored unless they seize power (e.g., strike, law suit). Then, he asks us to deploy antiracist power to remove the unsympathetic policymakers, monitor success, and keep trying strategies until they work.

Institutional Intransigence: ODOT

ODOT is the 800 lb gorilla with money and power. It has had 60+ years to set itself up with the legislature and with a public process to keep itself fat, happy, and on its same inequitable mission. To avoid mission shift, for example, ODOT’s highway plan is 21 years old — developed in 1999. Why has it not been updated? Because ODOT does not want that.

The Plan is very self-serving. It is highway heavy, requires lots of money, and places a lot of authority with ODOT over land, land-use, and municipal streets and plans. A rewrite would very likely reduce their fiefdom and modify their agenda significantly. I’ve seen this first hand in 2017 when an ODOT rep nixed a city connectivity plan that conflicted with a grandiose never-will-happen highway expansion still listed in the 1999 Plan.

Secondly, when ODOT is concerned that a project might get local pushback, it simply works with the legislature to hardcode the project into a bill (SB2017), as they did with the Rose Quarter, the I-205 bridge, and SR-217, all of which move the triple threat backwards, exhaust funds that could have been used to solve the triple threat, all while maintaining ODOT’s mission. I watched this same thing happened in Indiana as the governor handed out pet projects in key jurisdictions to get his pet project (I-69) approved. Those projects are becoming nationally infamous boondoggles (e.g. Louisville Bridges).

The Oregon Transportation Commission:

The OTC is currently a sham committee. It is not elected, it is appointed. It is set up to give the appearance of a benevolent public process, but it is fully organized to deflect the heat from ODOT, the legislature, and the governor while acting fully on their behalf. The committee was not even subtle. ODOT did the minimum environmental analysis – an Environmental Assessment (EA). It was woefully inadequate, as expressed by so many, including the professional staff at Metro.

Virtually every Portland leader and the governor asked them to rectify this flawed EA by completing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which would add a year to the approval. They attempted to slip the project approval quietly into an agenda in December, but were caught by advocacy groups, they created a sham list of additional analyses they would do that didn’t happen, then approved the project — with no EIS — unanimously in an online meeting during the frenetic peak of the COVID lockdown.

Action Needed:

THIS WILL NOT CHANGE WITHOUT A POWER MOVE. ODOT WILL STAY THE 800 lb APARTHEID BULLY UNTIL THE OTC IS TAKEN OVER BY THE PEOPLE, AND IT NEEDS TO BE PEOPLE WITH AN ANTIRACIST AGENDA.

There is an overwhelming need if we want ODOT to 1) change its mission, 2) change its archaic and inequitable standards, and 3) start funding projects that help the triple threat instead of hurt it. And, it can happen quickly.

The Talk and Walk Disparity: The Governor

Governor Kate Brown, who speaks incredibly sympathetically about the triple threat, has been a mixed blessing. The members of the OTC serve at the pleasure of the Governor (SB2017 Section 2). She has appointed all the members of this committee, told ODOT they are a climate change agency, wrote OTC a letter using some of the most insightful language, while also telling them how important the Rose Quarter project is. The end result was they eventually voted unanimously to move forward without an EIS.

This is a champion act of double-speak by the Governor. This is how the Left work their privilege-maintaining agenda. This is what MLK was talking about when he said the language was polite, but the rejection was firm and unequivocal.

Her Dark side:

She begins her letter to the OTC with a statement that the Rose Quarter would be an “improvement… of statewide significance”, and that it is a “safety hazard”, which it is neither! She claims it is critical to the “success… of the I-5 bridge replacement and congestion pricing.”

Her Enlightened side:

She asks OTC to table it “for a few months…to complete the items …requested for completion over 6 months ago, and ODOT has not yet completed them.” Four months later — so 10 months total — ODOT did not do them, or start them, and now will not ever need to do them.

Her letter goes on to brilliantly summarize: “We cannot build our way out of congestion by inducing greater demand on the system. We must manage demand to reduce congestion while also reducing emissions consistent with our state’s GHG goals.”

Talking from Both sides:

She ends with this statement that the project needs to “proceed in a manner that recognizes the past injustices to impacted communities. …aggressive usage of minority contracting…ODOT will need to be a significant partner …to address historical injustices.” These are empty words. Empty. This is cheap talk. To claim an increased use of minority contractors, which is in the law anyway, to then do damage to a minority community, exacerbate localized pollution, GHG emissions, and crashes is business-as-usual. This reeks of tokenism – hiring POCs to implement a white agenda – but then to advance an agenda that conspicuously damages the triple threat is a double-whammy.

Approval, then silence:

ODOT has successfully received its needed approval to move forward with nothing but polite offers for neighborhood concerns, and as usual, will take its apartheid standards and apply them to the Albina community as they have before. As noted, all five the OTC members serve at the pleasure of the Governor. If they did not do what she wanted, she could and should replace them. If she doesn’t replace them, maybe she got what she wanted. I believe she did. I found the timing ironic with her Climate Change Executive Order.

Planners:

Within the purpose of this blog is the role of the professional planner — to make sure our role is benevolent and not nefarious, particularly with regard to equity. ODOT planners are involved in these projects from the beginning, and have substantially parroted ODOT’s claims in the EA, which all technically-aware transportation planners know are false (i.e. claims of improved emissions, delay, safety).   Now that it is approved, ODOT planning staff move on to the role of placating the oppressed with the language of concern and cooperation while ODOT engineers build what they want with their apartheid standards. As an example, immediately after the OTC decision, ODOT planner Megan Channell is quoted, “…We are ready to undergo a robust and intentional community engagement process to help address historic harm to the Albina community and create a forward leaning project that will serve the community for the long-term.” Let the placating begin.

Summary and Conclusion:

If we want to make our world more equitable, the antiracist agenda will need power. Step 1 is to identify and acknowledge there are institutional problems, and as Dr. Kendi recommends, assess the methods and leaders and organizations and remove the unsympathetic policymakers. This article is an assessment of our Governor, ODOT, and the OTC with regard to the triple threat, and a further assessment of the Metro Council will be forthcoming.

We do have an unusually aware Governor, but her agenda is often to placate the ruling class and business community, and she has so carefully made that agenda happen while speaking the language of equity and climate advocacy. It is imperative that we actually reverse this decision on I-5. It is not a done deal. It can be reversed, and this money redirected to that which helps solve the triple threat rather than hurts it. ODOT is a major culprit, and OTC has the potential to adjust their mission and practices with the right membership.

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