It’s been over 40 years since the Freeway Revolts helped keep Portland from following other American cities into the tangled abyss of massive freeway infrastructures. In what may be the major turning point in Portland’s modern history, residents of Portland began to reject the plan put forward by the Godfather of freeways in America, Robert Moses. That plan had already led to the I-5, I-84, I-405 and Highway 26 freeways, the construction of which did major damage to several Portland neighborhoods, and separated residents from the river and each other.
Those freeways were arguably necessary for Portland’s growth, but the next wave of planned freeways was going to be far more devastating for the cities old neighborhoods. Imagine the “Laurelhurst Freeway”, the “Sellwood Freeway” and the “Mt. Hood Freeway” all slicing through SE Portland, and you get a sense of what could have been lost. Fortunately for Portland, the relatively easy fight in 1968 to demolish Harbor Drive (the old waterfront freeway alignment through downtown before the east side I-5 alignment was built) gave a lot of momentum to the anti-freeway movement. This momentum helped kill the other planned freeways, except for the I-205 freeway, which was reduced in size to allow for a future transit right-of-way and bike path (this turned out to be a good move, since the Green and Red line trains now utilize the transit right-of-way).
Since the completion of I-205 in 1983, there have been no major changes or additions to the Portland freeway landscape. The major concern is the Columbia River Crossing, currently the location of aging twin drawbridges and the only stoplight on I-5 between Canada and Mexico. Beyond this, there is little in the way of concrete planning (no pun intended) for the future of Portland’s road system. So, in the spirit of community, we offer a few ideas to move the freeway system forward in the 21st century.
1) Bury the Marquam Bridge
As we’ve said before, the Marquam Bridge (and, more importantly, its giant concrete approach ramps) is by far the biggest eyesore in Portland. Putting this crossing underground makes a lot of sense, not all of them aesthetic. The bridge and ramps take up an enormous amount of waterfront property. This is particularly important on the west side of the river, as the Marquam approaches and I-405 interchange take up valuable real estate (and form a substantial barrier) between downtown and the emerging South Waterfront district. Finding a way to tunnel I-5 under the Willamette and remove the above-ground approach ramps on both sides of the river would be a huge boon to the city.
2) Destroy the Eastside Freeway
Another way to get rid of the Marquam Bridge would be to decommission and destroy the entire Eastside Freeway alignment from the Marquam to the Fremont Bridge. This would make I-405 the main route for I-5 through the center city. The I-405 corridor and Fremont Bridge are under-utilized most of the time, and this would certainly change that. The downside is that the I-405 corridor doesn’t really lend itself to future expansion, so one key would be using signage to do a better a job of moving all through traffic to an improved and expanded I-205 corridor.
3) Capping I-405
Beloved mayor Vera Katz pushed this idea in the 1990s to help heal the wounds caused by the creation of I-405 through the western edge of downtown Portland. The plan was to build caps over the sunken interstate that would reconnect neighborhoods and add back 28 of the 36 blocks that were destroyed by building the freeway. An example of this idea in action is Seattle’s Freeway Park over I-5. Despite the cost, which would be substantial, I think few people would argue over the obvious benefits of a plan like this one. Plus, creative solutions could be found, for example, developers could finance the construction of the caps for rights to build on them once they are finished.
4) The 405 Grand Canal
I wish I had come up with this idea myself, but this one I borrowed from another source. While removing the I-405 is not high on anyone’s priority list, there may be a day when it is no longer needed. Due to the corridor being sunk below grade, and thanks to the drainage patterns of the West Hills, it might be possible to turn the I-405 into a Grand Canal through Portland. Imagine all the new waterfront property, not to mention improved water transportation options. I know I’d love to ride a gondola through the Pearl District some day.
5) The Nuclear Option
This is the big one, the pipe dream, where Portland declares itself (almost) completely freeway free. Over time, destroy both the I-5 and I-405 corridors, expand the I-205 corridor and Glenn Jackson Bridge to the maximum possible capacity and make that the only North/South freeway alignment. All of central and north Portland, including virtually all of the city’s historic neighborhoods, would be free of noisy traffic, divisive canyons and giant concrete eyesores. The cities neighborhoods could be reunified and the MAX and streetcar systems expanded to give clean, fast public transportation to every corner. Not too shabby…but it will likely never happen.