ODOT May Nix Tubman Pollution Wall

By Daniel Forbes

In a recent meeting, two senior Oregon Department of Transportation engineers informed Portland Public Schools that any pollution-mitigation wall the school district might build below Harriet Tubman School to try to block some portion of the toxic emissions coming off Interstate-5 may not survive the highway’s proposed Rose Quarter expansion.

The widening of the overcrowded road between the Fremont Bridge and the I-84 interchange is tentatively scheduled to commence in 2023. That’s five years after Tubman’s scheduled opening this August.

PPS Chief Operating Officer Jerry Vincent told a meeting of the district’s Board of Education Finance, Audit and Operations (FAO) Committee Thursday that the ODOT engineers informed him and Tubman Project Manager Steve Simonson that the district is welcome to build a wall on the hill below Tubman, which is ODOT property. But when I-5’s proposed expansion kicks in, Vincent said, “ODOT says they’re going to rip out the wall.”

In a separate phone interview, Simonson summarized the statements made December 13 by ODOT Senior Preliminary Design Engineer Mark D. Johnson and ODOT engineer Thomas E. Braibish this way: “If you put this wall in, we can’t guarantee it won’t be damaged or have to be removed and redone.”

While the pollution-cutting impact of a tall wall – similar to the “noise walls” seen alongside highways – is uncertain, PPS sees it as the best potential bet to shield students outside the Tubman building from roadway emissions. Pending input from an environmental consultant, the district is also considering adding trees to the mix to boost the pollution-cutting effect. A wall would cost around $750,000; trees another approximately $250,000, Vincent said.

It’s unclear if the district would spend that money for measures that may last only five years. (And the trees don’t do all that much good till several years after being transplanted to the site.) But school board member Mike Rosen said that if the data indicate that a wall will help, it’s quite possible that the district will spend the money even with no guarantee of its permanence. What’s more, in Rosen’s view, despite the fact that ODOT owns the land beneath the wall’s likely location, he declared, “ODOT doesn’t have carte blanche to do what they want.”

Tubman’s western wall and the fence marking its property line

He added, “Sure, we’ll want to discuss it further, but I even wonder how certain the highway expansion is.”

That view is echoed by fellow board member Paul Anthony, who notes all the money spent on planning and politicking for a new Columbia River bridge that never came to fruition.

Anthony points to the potential additive effect of any trees planted by the wall, and that they take a few years to grow outward close enough to provide an effective barrier. Plus, there’s the cost in addition to that caveat. Asked if the district might build a wall only to have it soon torn down, he said, “Not unless there is dramatic evidence from the consultant’s wind-tunnel studies on a wall’s effectiveness. Barring that, I wouldn’t see this investment of time, money and resources if it’s going to be torn down.”

The other two board members on the FAO committee who heard Vincent on Thursday could not be reached for comment on how these ODOT statements further cloud the school board’s ultimate decision regarding Tubman. Members await the outdoor air-quality assessment slated for delivery later this spring.

Along with the issue of whether students outdoors on campus (as well as the soccer and baseball players in the city park just north of the school) will have their health impacted by close proximity to one of the busiest highway bottlenecks in Oregon, there’s the matter of money beyond any wall or trees.

Vincent told the FAO Committee that, given the tight deadline of Tubman’s planned August opening, spending on the project will occur like an elevator shooting skyward rather than a normal project’s bell curve of a gradual increase, peak-spending, then a decrease in the rate of spending. In fact, given the compressed time-frame, approximately $5-million of the Tubman project’s eventual $10 to $12-million will be spent – or at least committed – before the full environmental assessment is completed. As Vincent noted, the district is doing due diligence during rather than before the project.

(More testing is planned for the fall, including indoor air monitoring after the building’s new roof and HVAC system is completed.)

Building on the district’s own statements on the matter, Anthony notes the imminent need for at least a new roof to prevent the Tubman building suffering real deterioration from what is described as the leakiest roof in the district. “As owners, we have the responsibility to take care of that building as a public asset,” he said.

Under ODOT’s current plan, this little hill will become two additional lanes of traffic

Given that an anti-pollution wall is now somewhat uncertain, it’s unclear whether Tubman students venturing outdoors from the relative safety of their enclosed building for physical ed – or simply to get outside – will be afforded any protection from the pollutants wafting up from the road below such as ultrafine particles of iron and zinc scraped from car and truck brake linings during normal use. (See prior story on Tubman’s environmental challenges here.)

What does seem clear, at least according to an ODOT map Vincent shared with Cascadia Times, is that ODOT’s plan as of now is to eat away at the little hill separating the road from the school, the two lanes of expansion – the newly poured concrete, in effect – occupying land east of the existing highway. I-5’s median would then be shifted so as to provide one new lane both Northbound and Southbound on a stretch of road that ODOT estimates is congested up to 12 hours a day.

According to the ODOT map given to PPS, I-5’s expansion would extend the road eastward at this location basically to the Tubman property line. The hill, which is currently the tiniest of buffers, essentially disappears.

Vincent says ODOT’s preliminary plans include a 30-foot retaining wall at the site. ODOT’s nascent plan may or may not see fruition. But as it was presented to PPS, two additional lanes east of the existing highway, plus the ODOT retaining wall, all of it jammed into a very narrow site, leave little or no room for any prior PPS wall and accompanying trees. Thus the ODOT engineers’ statement to PPS that any wall it builds may go up in smoke.

Paul Anthony notes that the ODOT retaining wall requires anchoring with piling that extends many feet under the Tubman building. No fan of increased road capacity, he wondered if that could be accomplished over the course of a single summer since he wouldn’t want students in the building while such construction took place.

Another wrinkle in a very uncertain fabric is the effect of the two potential highway covers that ODOT projects as part of the I-5 expansion, as shown on this web page: http://i5rosequarter.org/project-impacts/

The two covers, in pink in the ODOT map, lie south of Tubman. But one opens up not all that distant from Tubman’s front entrance. Might pollution get trapped and concentrated under that cover, and then projected forth by roadway turbulence out towards Tubman? Something else for the board and the mechanical engineer it hires to consider.

ODOT declined to make Johnson or Braibish available for comment. But spokesperson Don Hamilton pointed out that any ODOT construction is several years out, and that planning is in a very preliminary stage. He noted that PPS is moving on a different time frame than ODOT, but that when all is said and done, “We’ll work with them to make sure their needs are met … and that they’re happy with the pollution controls” that result.

One option might be to build atop ODOT’s 30-foot retaining wall, adding another dozen feet or more. That depends, though, on a fluid-dynamics, wind-tunnel study of the mitigation afforded by a wall and/or trees. That study will occur over the next couple of months. Depending on the results, PPS may decide the wall’s pollution-cutting isn’t worth it. (Vincent and colleagues intend to decide in the next few days between professors at Portland State University and California’s for-profit Sonoma Technology, Inc. to do the air-quality testing, wind-tunnel modeling and the like.)

Depending on the wind-tunnel study’s outcome, PPS’s consultant may conclude that a pollution wall might just kick the hazardous soot and particles up and over the building to land in front of Tubman on N. Flint Avenue. At best, published research indicates, a wall and trees cut pollution only in half. That is, should some accommodation be worked out with ODOT to have a wall on its property at all once the I-5 expansion is completed. Another issue is the level of pollution during the projected four years of construction, heavy-duty equipment lumbering about.

The potential highway expansion further mucks up an already uncertain scenario bedeviling the citizen-volunteers on the board. Potential Tubman parents might take some solace from member Mike Rosen’s statement that, should a wall and/or trees be deemed effective, the board might go ahead regardless of ODOT and how temporary the measure might prove. It’s only money; on the other side of the equation lies kids’ health.

Know something I don’t? Reach me at ddanforbes@aol.com. My 20-article series in The Portland Mercury on air toxics from glass factories is here. My novel (see here): Derail this Train Wreck.

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