Joe Cortright is a Strong Towns member who runs the think tank and blog City Observatory. This piece is part of City Observatory’s ongoing coverage of a proposed freeway expansion project in Portland, Oregon. It is republished here with permission.


In theory, an environmental impact statement is supposed to be a disclosure document. The idea behind the National Environmental Policy Act was to force thoughtful consideration of potentially environmentally harmful projects and policies, and, by providing the public and decision-makers with clear information, enable better choices.

In practice, the environmental review process has simply become a way to manipulate opinion and manufacture consent, or more accurately, the simulacrum of consent. The preparation of environmental impact statements is left to the agencies that are sponsoring projects, and who have a vested interest in a particular outcome.

When it comes to the proposed half billion dollar I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project, the Environmental Assessment is less of a honest and objective disclosure, and much more a carefully edited and thinly veiled sales brochure. The hucksterism starts with the name of the project, proceeds through its “communication plan,” and is executed in technical documents that have been carefully edited to remove the most salient information.

It’s not a freeway widening, it’s an “improvement” project.

Let’s start with what it’s called. The project’s carefully chosen moniker is the “Rose Quarter Improvement Project”—nothing about freeways, or pollution or widening.  Just “improvement.” Who can be against that? The trouble of course, is that the word improvement, in this context is argumentative, to the point of being Orwellian.

The trouble is, that’s exactly the slanted tactic that is regularly used to sell road widening projects, without accurately explaining their nature, purpose and effects.  It’s so well understood that even Washington State’s Department of Transportation is specifically educating its staff not to use this deceptive approach. WashDOT’s Barb Chamberlain gave a presentation, “Words Matter:  Recognizing and addressing modal assumptions to shift transportation culture”, at Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center on February 22, 2019. She specifically spoke out against unqualified claims that a project “improves” a neighborhood.

“Improvement” is loaded. “Improvement” says it’s qualitatively better, but then you have to ask, “For whom?” Some of the measures might be better for some, and worse for some, and you may need to be able to measure that, and you just need to say that so people understands what’s happening. . . .  “What do you mean improved?” Explain to this woman what you are doing to her street, don’t just tell her you’re improving it.

Image: Barb Chamberlain

Chamberlain’s advice is clear and unambiguous:  Don’t just say improvement. Improvement is a loaded word.  The Oregon Department of Transportation knows that. It’s undoubtedly exactly why they’ve chosen the name “Rose Quarter Improvement Project” for their $500 million freeway-widening effort.  If they only could have, we’re pretty sure that they would have called it the “Rose Quarter Double-Plus Good Project.”

Improvement for whom?

The problem, of course, is that the word improvement not only conceals what will happen, but it begs the question of who the improvement is for. In order to really understand whether a wider highway constitutes an improvement, we have to know both what will happen and who will win and who will lose.  When that question is asked and answered honestly, the public can make a reasoned decision as to whether a project makes sense. That’s exactly what happened in Portland in the 1970s.

When he rallied public opinion against the Mt. Hood Freeway in the early 1970s, Mayor Neil Goldschmidt famously challenged the fairness of wrecking the city to benefit suburban commuters. Willamette Week, in a retrospective, “Highway to Hell,” published in 2005, wrote:

Buoyed by a cadre of campaigners, a new coalition on the City Council, a fresh urban-planning ethic and a positive solution, Goldschmidt hammered away at the central question: Who pays and who benefits? The answer was clear. City residents would pay, sacrificing their neighborhoods, schools and tax base. Suburban commuters would reap the benefits with a slightly shorter commute. What an injustice, argued the evangelical Goldschmidt. His reasoning even appealed to conservatives. 

As we’ve shown before at City Observatory, there are stark differences in income, race and ethnicity between those who will benefit from the project–chiefly higher income, drive-alone peak hour commuters, many from suburban Clark County–and those who will bear its costs, such as coping with additional traffic and pollution—who tend to have lower incomes, and are much more likely to be people of color.

Wholly Moses

Click to view larger.

There’s actually an even longer history here.  Branding big transportation projects as “improvements” stretches back seven decades in Portland, and touches the most famous freeway builder of all:  Robert Moses.  During World War II, Portland’s town fathers commissioned the power broker and a select team of his “Moses Men,” to come to Portland, to write a plan for the city’s future.  Moses sketched out a grid of freeways that ultimately led to the construction of Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter.  This was the same Moses who, as his biographer Robert Caro related, felt that in planning in a big city, you “you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” (Quoted in Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and Fall of New York,(1974), p. 849)  Which is exactly what he proposed in New York and Portland.

But even the great builder was a little sensitive to what you called his projects. In Portland, he devoted two paragraphs to rebranding his highway-oriented development scheme for the city. He worried that “public works” wasn’t a sufficiently promotional moniker for the program he proposed, and instead specifically insisted it be called “Portland Improvement.”

Magritte the Highway Engineer

One of the most famous images of early 20th-century art is Rene Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe). Magritte’s point, of course, is that his painting is not actually a pipe itself, but is an image of a pipe, which makes the caption seem like an ironic and incorrect statement.

Who would have thought that highway engineers had so much in common with surrealist painters? Talk to anyone associated with the “improvement project,” and they’ll go to great pains to tell you they’re not adding any lanes to the freeway. Well, at least not “real” freeway lanes.  Instead, what’s being added are “auxiliary” lanes. ODOT even has a video extolling the virtues of the special “auxiliary” lanes. Calling them “auxiliary” lanes means, somehow, that they don’t actually count. We’re told that an auxiliary lane carries traffic between intersections, facilitating merging and exiting, and isn’t carrying “through” traffic, and so we should disregard it. But, as we’ve pointed out before at City Observatory, if that’s true, then the current freeway consists of just one through lane and one auxiliary lane in each direction, because one of the current lanes functions effectively as an auxiliary lane. In this case, going from one auxiliary lane and one through lane to one auxiliary lane and two through lanes still represents an increase of one through lane.

Words matter.... Attaching the adjective “auxiliary” to the added freeway lanes you build doesn’t mean that the freeway isn’t wider and doesn’t generate more traffic, pollution, and ultimately congestion.

Washington Department of Transportation’s Barb Chamberlain is right:  Words matter.  Whether this, or any other project is an “improvement” should be a a subject of inquiry and analysis, not a pre-determined outcome.  In this case, it’s questionable whether and for whom this is an “improvement.” Attaching the adjective “auxiliary” to the added freeway lanes you build doesn’t mean that the freeway isn’t wider and doesn’t generate more traffic, pollution, and ultimately congestion. ODOT owes the citizens of the state a clear and honest explanation of what it’s up to:  What we have so far is fraught with deception. It’s tragic that a process that was legislated to provide information and inform discussion has instead been twisted to promote a single, predetermined outcome.