By Don MacGillivray
For years the Eastbank I-5 Freeway has annoyed many Portland residents with its congestion and pollution. One of the busiest stretches of freeway between Seattle and San Francisco, it sits on forty-three acres of very valuable land in Portland.
It hinders easy access to the Willamette River and should be used to fulfill the development dreams of the burgeoning Central Eastside Industrial District (CEID).
An urban river bank should be used by people, not automobiles and could become the twin to Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Previous plans have advocated for a public park on sixty percent of the area and the remaining forty percent used for smart, cutting- edge development.
Highway planning in Portland began early in the 20th century. The Olmsted Brothers suggested that Portland become a garden city with wide boulevards and many public parks.
Soon after was the Bennett Plan based on the experience of Chicago after the 1893 Worlds Fair.
The real father of Portland’s new roads however, was Robert Moses, New York City’s transportation czar, after making sweeping changes to that city.
Moses was invited to Portland for one week in 1943 and sketched out the future highway layout with transportation staff and local information about Portland.
His ideas were praised and what we have today is based on his work. I-5, I-84, I-205, and I-405 were built where he directed often using natural landscape features and by going through aging and blighted neighborhoods to locate large new roads often with little consideration given to the impact on the surrounding areas.
Today the Portland metropolitan area is more than double the size it was in the 1940s. Our roads do not have the capacity needed to carry the resulting traffic and it will increase further if our current growth trends are realized. This negatively affects automobiles as well as business and industrial users.
Other American cities have shown that we cannot relieve congestion by building more roads.
The I-5/I-405 freeway loop is suffering from its age. For many years transportation advocates have studied how Portland could function without the Eastbank section of I-5. It might be moved to the area around SE 6th Ave. or to the areas around SE 11th and 12th.
Putting the freeway in a tunnel has been studied as has just eliminating it and allowing I-405 to carry the total load.
The advocacy for removing the Eastbank freeway grew out of the work of “Riverfront for People” that began in the late 1960s, about five years after the completion of the Eastbank freeway.
“Riverfront for People” was successful in closing Harbor Drive and turning it into Tom McCall Waterfront Park in 1974. Simultaneous to this effort was the planning for the Mt. Hood Freeway. It’s demise was a successful advocacy effort that saved the destruction of many southeast neighborhoods and switched the funding to the Red Line Max and many incremental improvements to the existing street system all over Portland.
At the same time, a southbound freeway access ramp that connected with the juncture of the Eastbank Freeway and the Marquam Bridge called the Water Avenue Ramp was advocated for by the Central Eastside Industrial Council.
That would’ve been a ten million dollar loop extending over the east side of the Willamette River near the Hawthorne Bridge, but it never gained the support needed to provide for its funding.
In the late 1980s, Oregon State Highway department studied the freeway loop once again. With this study and others, city council meetings were held with a great number of people advocating for reclaiming the east bank of the Willamette River.
While the city council liked the idea in concept they could not justify the expense and the disruption it would cause, so the idea died only to surfaced again in the mid 1990s.
Again with the leadership of “Riverfront for People” the issue was discussed. There was no support for removing the freeway and the idea of building the Eastbank Esplanade was successfully initiated.
The Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade is a great improvement to downtown Portland, but it does not substitute for the space that would be available if the freeway were removed.
If begun today, removal would take fifteen years for its planning and construction so it is unlikely that it will happen in less than thirty years. The circumstances around auto usage and the importance of inner city freeways will need to change and when it happens, the East Side will see significant improvements.
The Eastbank I-5 Freeway continues to function as originally intended even though it is carrying twice as much traffic as it did in the 1960s.
With increased use, the Freeway Loop can only deteriorate as an efficient transportation link and continue to limit access to Portland’s “front yard”— the Willamette River.