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The Defeat of the Mt. Hood Freeway (Portland, Ore.)

In Oregon, a battle raged for nearly twenty years over the construction of a highway project known as the Mt. Hood Freeway. If approved, the Freeway would have removed more than 1% of all housing stock in Portland. In the mid 1970s, after the proposal's defeat, the city opted to build a mass transit infrastructure. The result is a more pedestrian-friendly and livable city.

TOPP videographer, Clarence Eckerson Jr., takes us to Portland to see the results and posits that his own neighborhood in Brooklyn might have benefited from similar forethought during the planning phase of the Robert Moses-designed Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

[intro music]

Clarence Eckerson Jr.: [00:10] Behind me is the BQE, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, a Robert Moses creation ran through Brooklyn neighbourhoods in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. It cut off neighbourhoods from each other and Brooklyn from its waterfront. Things which nearly 60 years later, some parts of Brooklyn still haven’t recovered from. I’ve lived adjacent to this highway for 15 years. Every morning I wake up, I see it, I smell it, I hear it and I often wonder what if a highway like this wasn’t built? What would have this section of Brooklyn possibly look like? Well in Portland, Oregon, in the 1970’s, residents there were facing a similar challenge. A massive highway project, also proposed by Moses, called the Mt. Hood Freeway, was being pushed on its citizens. It was defeated and it radically altered the city forever, and provides us with a window to see just how different things might have been here without the BQE. So I figured, let’s check it out, let’s hop on a plane and let’s go to Portland.


Richard Ross: [01:24] And we’re standing here this afternoon where the Mt. Hood Freeway was supposed to be. The Mt. Hood Freeway was a mega plan of the 1960’s that never came to pass. And the story of how the freeway was defeated and then traded in for the beginnings of Portland light rail system is a pretty important one for Portland and, I think, for other cities.

Steve Dotterrer: [01:49] Mt. Hood Freeway was one of a number of freeways that were part of a 1955 Highway Plan, where it was to go through a neighbourhood in South East Portland, and it would have taken out about 1% of all the housing units in city.

Greg Raisman: [02:01] Robert Moses had come to town and planned a dense grid of freeways that would go through Portland, destroying a lot of homes and businesses and parks.

Shawn Granton: [02:10] And Portland brought out Moses and paid him to do a study. Moses was sort of the grandfather like the nation’s freeway system and sort of got the whole wheels in progress of like building divided highways and limited access. They brought him out and he did his usual shtick of mapping out and saying we should build a highway here, here and here.

Steve Dotterrer: [02:29] He did this plan. Parts of it were built by the State Highway Division in the city and then after the war. That plan was renewed by the Highway Department in the 1950’s, and so that was the 1955 plan that proposed really a network of freeways over the whole metropolitan area. Pretty much like every three or four miles there was another freeway proposed.

Blaine Merker: [02:50] So standing over the BQE, this actually, you know, it looks a lot like the condition that the Mt. Hood Freeway would have been. Obviously the, you know, the urban fabric is different around us but you would have had the same sort of situation where you would have had a depressed freeway, down about 40 feet underground.

Richard Ross: [03:09] The plan had the blessings of everyone, everybody that was important, the State Highway Department, the City Council, the County Commission. It was for a 15 mile freeway that was coming from inner city Portland out to the Eastern suburbs, and so the plan was a done deal.

Greg Raisman: [03:28] Neighbourhoods really, as they started to see that plan implemented, started to decide that was a bad idea and started really pushed the political leadership to say that as a city, a community, we have a different vision for ourselves as to how we want to grow and move into the future. They saw what was happening to the other neighbourhoods in the city and other cities around the country, and were figuring out that this highway wasn’t going to help out the inner city at all, it was going to kill the inner city at the benefit of the suburbs.

Richard Ross: [03:56] A number of things happened. Probably one of the most important ones is the National Environmental Protection Act which came in the early ‘70’s. All of a sudden citizen groups decided they might sue, that this freeway plan needed an environmental impact statement. The courts found yes, an environmental impact statement applied to this proposal for using Federal funds. So that was pretty important, but at the same time there was a shift politically to leaders that would question why this was a good idea for communities.

Greg Raisman: [04:30] Communities was able to get political leadership changes that led to the city and the county and the state pulling their concurrence with the plan.

Richard Ross: [04:40] The Highway Department in the late ‘60’s or early ‘70’s was beginning to acquire houses right around the New Seasons Market where we’re standing here today. And they were not only acquiring them, in some cases they were tearing them down.

Shawn Granton: [04:55] We’re standing right now in Piccolo Park in South East Portland. This is where the Mt. Hood Freeway would be if it was built. The neighbourhood and the city got together and proposed putting a neighbourhood park in here and got the land back and put in all the different, like playground amenities and green space. So what was once possibly like four or five empty housing lots is now a city park.

Blaine Merker: [05:19] The neighbourhood in South East right now is… it’s a walkable neighbourhood, people bike, it’s a slow… it has a slow pace. It’d be a completely different place if this structure were right next to all those houses.

Steve Dotterrer: [05:34] There are ramps at the end of the Markham Bridge today that were supposed to be the ramps that connected to this freeway that have never been used.

Shawn Granton: [05:42] This is ramp that’s just sort of dead-end. It like just ends. It just, you know, it’s a ramp that goes nowhere, a ghost ramp. And it goes to where the Mt. Hood Freeway would have connected, but since it never got built, there’s no use for it. It’s just sort of a useless appendage to the bridge.

Steve Dotterrer: [05:57] There are other ghost ramps I guess I would say in the area. One of them is a ramp that is… leads from the Hawthorne Bridge to the Robert Moses planned waterfront expressway, it was called the Harbour Drive Expressway. It was built in the late ‘40’s and it was taken out in the early ‘70’s and replaced with a park. And it had ramps from… that connected to the bridges. So when it was replaced with the park that you see on this drawing, these ramps, these ghost ramps, were left. There was a ramp that came from the Hawthorne Bridge down onto that expressway. The ramp was saved and used as a bike route to get down into the park. And there was big fears about removing that Harbour Drive which, I mean there were some problems, but they weren’t huge problems. It’s worked out over time.

Greg Raisman: [06:41] I see the Mt. Hood Freeway as the moment in time that Portland experienced a paradigm shift. Portland made the case that instead of using the money for the freeways, we should use the money to build a light rail system that would enhance our regional transportation system, provide for the level of mobility that our city needs, while still letting for access where people can walk and bike and take transit, as real comfortable and safe modes moving around the city and throughout the region.

Blaine Merker: [07:09] The defeat of the freeway led to just a lot of changes in the way that Portland looked at transportation because, well first off there were a bunch of other freeways in line behind the Mt. Hood Freeway. So after it got built they were going to build a bunch more. Another thing is pulling out a whole bunch of money to do other stuff, like the light rail. And put money into a whole bunch of other smaller transportation projects across the city, and that money has only just finished being spent in the last few years. It lasted that long. It means so you can kind of like spend all your money and get this, or you could spend all your money and get a whole bunch of other stuff. And of course that money didn’t just… it didn’t pay for all the light rail of course cos Portland how now a bunch of lines, but it started light rail.

Speaker: [07:54] The decision to cash in the freeway was a real watershed for Portland as a city, it’s more than just transportation. The city began to pay much more attention to the liveability of its inner city neighbourhoods rather than just seeing them as a place to get from one place to another quickly.

Steve Dotterrer: [08:12] Traffic calming became a really important principle in this work. When I… when we first started working for the community, you know, it was like, okay, we’re going to make these streets the through streets and these aren’t, you know, and after a couple of years of this they came back and said, well, it’s great you’re making the through streets, but what are you doing to calm the traffic? You… we… and it was the community that said, you know, it was a good idea to say that this would happen automatically, but it won’t happen automatically. So now you need to start inventing programmes for us that will actually solve this problem. At first we borrowed from other places, pretty heavily from Seattle. But after a while the speed bumps and a lot of the things that the traffic engineers here developed were pretty innovative original solutions to these problems. And once you turn their minds towards solving those problems, they’re very, very creative people.

Speaker: [09:01] It led to some really defining things about Portland, like the fact that we took a freeway and turned it into a park, or the fact that we said no to a Downtown parking garage and instead built Pioneer Courthouse Square, one of the top ten best public places in the country.

Steve Dotterrer: [09:16] We’re certainly have some experience with traffic, the volumes changing when you make these changes. The biggest one for us is when we put in our bus model or our transit model and took the traffic away there.

Speaker: [09:26] We have an outstanding transit system for buses. The bus malls really are the spine of that. I know that I can walk to the bus mall and I can get almost anywhere in this city, pretty much go anywhere in this city, from one of those two streets.

Shawn Granton: [09:40] It was sort of that different way of thinking, let’s think about other things other than like accommodate cars. And I think that… I think that’s one of the key things, if not the key thing, about cities nowadays to make a liveable city is you have to think… you can’t think of cars first.

Speaker: [09:55] The region has a regional transportation plan that tries to put all modes on a level playing field, which means that investments in transit, pedestrian friendly streets, and all of those things are looked at at the regional level, and then local communities get to carry those things out. But local community plans are required by the State of Oregon to be multimodal. That I think is the critical thing 30 years afterwards that has come out of this evolution.

Steve Dotterrer: [10:26] The whole time we were investing in transit we were investing in all modes, but we were investing in modes like the car and the truck, but we’re trying to do it in a way that it fits into an urban environment where people want to live. I mean it’s… you’re trying to create a place, and then people have to move around in that place, but you want them to do it in a way that respects the place and the other people who are there. Once you make that decision and then you begin to start building that system to serve that purpose, I think then you’re on your way to success.


Shawn Granton: [11:01] There was another guy in city government, Francis Ivancie, who was a perennial City Commissioner and he ran against Goldschmidt at the next election cycle in 1976. He was pro Mt. Hood Freeway, and he put up these billboards all around town saying, if Ivancie was Mayor you’d be home by now, indicating that he was pro the freeway. Of course the thing that everybody said afterwards is that Ivancie sort of forgot that most of the people that were pro the freeway weren’t want Portland voters cos they lived in the suburbs. And he lost that election.



Clarence Eckerson Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • pb

    Excellent video!

  • Dave

    What a scam, it's full of as many lies as the other side. I was hoping to see something honest, not one that misconstrues nearly every point it tries to make.

    Harbor Drive Freeway was removed because of I-405's completion, nothing more, nothing less.

  • kitten

    Not true Dave. I-405 was intended to complement Harbor Drive, not replace it. It was the decision to move the freeway to the east bank of the river which facilitated the removal of the drive.


    Dave is poorly misinformed but it's ok we love him anyway. =)

  • TJ

    Not only does this site look great, it feels like the future ... finally moving out of the concrete prison cells of IBM-think into the liberated air of a new millenium.

    Wish I'd found it sooner!

  • Duro

    Just came across one of theses "ghost ramps" and was wondering....glad to have surfed across this site on accident...to have my curiosity satisfied. I live in Ladd's Addition...would be noisy here if this had gone through. Now it's walk-able, bike-able.

  • Haze

    Oh, the debauchery of Portland's history. I remember when Neil was campaigning for Mayor in St. Johns. One of his main premises, at the informal rally, was built upon NOT building the Mt. Hood freeway. This topic was passionately and intelligently discussed among my elementary peers, at school, in the classroom...we were totally against it, even as children. I guess our teacher was a rather progressive thinker for that time. She commuted from Vancouver, Washington for work via I5, and I remember her bringing up issues of transportation and challenging us to brainstorm some environmentally friendly solutions. She'd be complaining about 1974 rush hour traffic, what a joke. Anyway, Neil won the election, and he did some good things for Portland--he did some naughty things, too-- again, we were just kids(so was she, Neil) and had no concept of all the political ramifications involved. Stump Town has always had its darker sides--ie: political corruption and organized crime. Trouble in River City. Portland, oh Portland. I love your deviant past. My Grandmother "waited" tables in strip clubs in Old Town during WWII. It seems China Town was happenin'! I was told that unsuspecting men would get shanghaied from the underground opium dens, where she and her Asian mobster boyfriends would sometimes get chased by Portland's finest. Poor guy would wake up at sea, and in a position of servitude. Can you imagine? "Dude, now you're a sailor." Anyway, it sure was a mess down there, when they tore up Waterfront and made the park, but it was well worth it,(especially for Bill Naito!). It cleaned up the seedy, unsavory neighborhood it had become. The City of Roses is growing. Living in the valley, I miss everything about it, and will always adore its sordid past.

  • Jeffrey Jensen

    Great video guys! You captured the essence of how Portland's citizenry cut their teeth and were able to define themselves. You ever though about following this passion and becoming civil engineers? You have the curiosity and have done a good job showing the second, and third order effects. I say go for it. Fix Brooklyn, it is possible.

  • http://www.islandtransformations.org Lloyd Skaalen

    Thank you Portland, Gerry Fox and others, for providing so much leadership in the transition from an autocentric society to a far more livable future! We are using this video and your experiences to try to influence our politicians to approve similar infrastructure changes in Victoria, BC. We might get there by 2020.

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  • Deborah

    As always, loved the video. Thanks for the great piece Street Films! It's really nice to get some history on why Portland has become such a great place to live. Of course it's not perfect yet, but with active voters hopefully we'll get closer every year!

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  • janetlackey

    thank you for this video. I live in Buckman and it's hard for me to imagine what it would be like here if the Mt Hood Freeway existed. I am so happy it didn't. this was really informative.

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  • Clarence Eckerson

    You are quite welcome! Thanks for watching. There are over 500 more to choose from! :)

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  • Denise Hiter

    Thanks for the info. I was wondering why that was there. Moved here 13 years ago and missed that tidbit.