Controversial Portland Columbia River Crossing Under Pressure to Move Forward, Despite Flaws

» Bridge connecting Oregon and Washington planned for construction start in 2012, with light rail link included. But its new road capacity isn’t needed.

In most cities, this debate would have ended years ago, and the results would have been far less pretty. The governors of both states involved are highly supportive of the freeway project, and they’ve unearthed enough financing to pay for it. With state departments of transportation pledging their involvement and money, there wouldn’t been much of margin for substantial change.

Yet the Interstate 5 Columbia River Crossing has been plagued by delays primarily because Portland prides itself on being one of the most ecologically aware North American cities, and therefore one of the least inclined support increased freeway capacity. Something had to be done — the existing bridge is structurally unsound and congested at rush hours — but in this region, the only way to garner support was to ensure the inclusion of a public transit component and reduce the number of traffic lanes.

So the $3.6 billion bridge currently being advocated by both governors and the local trade unions will include ten lanes of traffic (rather than 12) and a new light rail line (rather than buses, as originally suggested) when it opens for service in 2018. It would be a trade-off transit activists in most cities would accept as a grand compromise.

The Columbia River Crossing replacement project has been in planning for decades as an essential reinforcement of the primary road link between Portland and Vancouver. The $829 million light rail project is part of Portland’s planned large transit network expansion and recently received a “medium” rating from the Federal Transit Administration, allowing it to move ahead with federal funding. There has recently been a dramatic change of heart in favor of rail on the part of Vancouver’s leadership, who represent a population that defeated a transit extension from Portland in a referendum fifteen years ago.

But much of the Portland region’s citizenry remains concerned about the construction and future effects of the new bridge, and rightly so. Does the I-5 corridor need more road capacity? How can the cities be sure that the project will reduce congestion, rather than induce more demand?

Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt sent a letter last month to their respective governors asking for the project to be run by local authorities, rather than by the state highway department. Each has asked for fundamental changes to the project, which may include reducing the number of traffic lanes and eliminating planned toll lanes to be used to pay back the cost of the bridge over the long term. They want to prevent the project from becoming a financial nightmare — a possibility considering the debt each state will take on to pay for the scheme.

On the other hand, neither municipal leader is a full-on bridge opponent, nor is either interested in restarting the project entirely.

But grassroots opposition continues unabated. A number of local groups have demonstrated some of the principal flaws of the proposal: It will increase sprawl by encouraging faster and longer commutes into downtown Portland; it will reduce congestion for a period of just 12 years, after which traffic will slow down again because more people will choose to drive at rush hours because of increased capacity; it will enable a 34% increase in automobile traffic, exactly the opposite of what a self-proclaimed environmentally friendly region would want; and, if it’s tolled, as planned, it will simply encourage the greater use and eventual congestion of I-205, which runs parallel to I-5 just up down the river.

The Crossing’s environmental impact study claims that overall traffic on the corridor would actually fall with the completion of the bigger bridge — a bizarre outcome predicted by an evidently skewed traffic forecasting model. Experience across the United States over a period of decades has demonstrated concretely that more highways almost universally produce more roadway use.

The expansion of the Columbia River Crossing also fails to address traffic choke points elsewhere along I-5, meaning that congestion will simply move to other parts of the roadway, not actually solving many existing problems with the highway’s capacity.

A series of excellent videos produced several months ago by Nick Falbo promote a series of alternatives to the multi-billion dollar project. By ramping up transit options and enforcing congestion pricing on the existing bridge, the states could limit traffic while also encouraging a modal split to transit. A bigger, faster-flowing highway as currently envisioned would actually be a disincentive to the use of transit, no matter how nice the light rail line is. The bridge, though currently structurally deficient, could be reinforced and last decades more without a problem — at a far cheaper price.

What no one seems to be taking seriously enough is the potential for transit to take a higher modal share of existing traffic using the bridge.

The planners at the Columbia River Crossing project conducted a study of the origins and destinations of drivers using the corridor last year, and the results are compelling — if anyone chose to take advantage of them.

Based on my understanding of the data, of the 70% of drivers using the bridge for local purposes (30% of trips are through-trips, according to the environmental impact study), a full 25% of southbound automobilists are headed downtown, where there is already excellent transit available, and to which light rail from Vancouver would run directly. Meanwhile, 27% of driver destinations are within the zip code covered by the Yellow Line light rail, the same corridor that would head into Washington state. A full 15% more are headed to destinations just east of downtown, where the Red and Blue Lines light rail corridors provide easy access.

If you were to assume that the new bridge was not built and that instead congestion pricing and the light rail extension were implemented on their own, the current 3,300 weekday transit trips over the bridge could expand exponentially. Many of the current congestion woes could be alleviated simply by transferring downtown and near-downtown-bound drivers to a different mode of transportation. If the transit component of the bridge is a given, shouldn’t it be designed to work well? How can it attract the maximum number of riders when the highway bridge just adjacent has been expanded massively?

Building a new light rail line even as you’re expanding the highway next door is no rarity in the U.S., where the road and public transportation lobbies are mutually dependent. Sadly, policies that encourage transit even as road construction continues apace do little to affect commuting habits, as has been demonstrated by Portland over the years. The city has seen little increase in transit mode share despite huge investments in new light rail lines.

Nonetheless, even if the existing plan were implemented, Portland would still be getting a far more generous project than typically results from road expansion. The degree to which a pro-transit mentality in the city has encouraged the inclusion of light rail in the project should be replicated elsewhere — road projects like this should be required to incorporate a major transit component, and that’s exactly what Oregon and Washington’s highway planners have agreed to do here. When compared to state department of transportation elsewhere, that’s something to celebrate.

Image above: Potential look of bridge, from Columbia River Crossing

27 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Brandon

    Yonah –

    While I enjoy reading your material, I’d like to take issue with your perspective on projects. Not all movements of people make sense with transit. I’m a whitewater kayaker and rafter. I can’t take my gear anywhere using transit – we can’t even take our boats as airline cargo anymore. Also, I can’t take a bus to the wilderness. And when I get there, what might be gently described as a “road” will leave a Prius spewing battery acid down a mountainside. In short, while I like having light rail systems, they don’t solve everything. Also, not every trip stays in town.

    Therefore, my only real choice in vehicles is a 4×4 pickup than can haul me, my friends and our gear to nearly anywhere in the mountains. It’s the archetype of what you advocate, but it is the only thing that works for me. I’ll throw you one small bone, however: I chose not to get a full size truck because it was just a little too much. I’m proud when it gets 20 mpg. But it also does that while hauling five people and a bed full of gear. Curiously, this is the same number that the Saab I had before got.

    The point of the last two paragraphs is to illustrate that there is more than the cities of Portland and Vancouver that depend on that bridge. I live in Beaverton, just west of Portland, but many of my favorite rivers are in SW Washington. To get there, I drove down one decrepit road, Sunset, to another, I-5. Over the bridges that are scary even with perfect weather, and deep into the woods near Mt. St. Helens. Make a right about 20 miles up, then drive another 30 miles into the hills. Wave to Tonya Harding – I’m serious – then put in 8 miles after the pavement ends. Mind the flying bullets as you pass the impromptu shooting range.

    Throughout that story, I depend on I-5 and the Columbia bridge to access the beauty of the West. But because I live two miles to the west of Portland, no one has asked my opinion. Yet that bridge is critical to my employment, as we routinely truck things to the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle. It is critical to the functioning of the region, not just the cities of Portland and Vancouver. There is a lot more in this game than just those two. There is one big river and very few places to cross it for interstate commerce.

    In short, look past your comfy coffee shop on the Upper East Side. Look past Alberta St. in NE Portland. Look up and see the beauty of the wild beyond, where there are things and places that will blow your mind. Places to live in the here and now, free from the noise and light of the city. Portland is surrounded by these places, but what’s the point of looking at the mountain without being able to get there?

    • Brandon -

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not suggesting that transit is the cure-all to the commuting problems of everyone, but rather that huge road expansions are often not the best way to go about solving congestion issues. That’s specifically why, for instance, I focused in on the 20-60% of drivers today who are using the bridge to get into downtown Portland. These aren’t people, I’m sure you’ll agree, who are using the bridge to go kayaking.

      In fact, they are people who could move rather easily into transit and clear the way on the Crossing for you and your friends to go outdoorsing.

      More seriously, there are a number of seriously problematic effects of the bridge’s expansion, including increased vehicular usage and expanded sprawl.

      How do you expect to continue enjoying the “beauty of the West” when it’s been eaten up by property development? It’s a rhetorical question, but you get my point.

      • Nathanael

        Indeed. Some counterproposals to the CRC have included a new *arterial* bridge for traffic to the island (allowing the elimination of many entry and exit ramps which complicate the CRC), the MAX extension (picking up a large number of passengers), and a new freeway bridge the *same size* as the existing one, or with an extra pair of HOV-only lanes.

        Plus, perhaps, improvements to the BNSF bridge for long-distance rail service and for *freight* service; freight movement should not be by truck except over short distances, and pulling all the long-distance truck traffic onto the rails is desirable.

        In contrast, the 12-lane monstrosity is a fright; the 10-lane monstrosity is still a fright. Perhaps an 8-lane monstrosity would be an acceptable compromise. In actual fact, more than two lanes each way never makes sense on a freeway, though you may need a third lane to accomodate entry and exit ramps — the current bridge size is more than adequate for a freeway, and the needs are elsewhere (local arterial connection, transit connection, freight rail connection).

  • EngineerScotty

    One minor correction–the Glenn Jackson bridge, on which I-205 runs, is located upriver from the Interstate Bridge (and proposed CRC), not downriver. As this bridge is a full five miles or so upriver, use of I-205 as a detour would likely have a major impact on not only 205, but on I-84 and WA-14, the east-west freeways on either side of the river.

    There has been some discussion of tolling the I-205 crossing as well (I-5 and I-205 are the only places in the Portland metro area where motorists may cross the Columbia); though this is of questionable legality–and its drawn a fair bit of outrage from Vancouver residents wondering why they alone have to pay congestion charges. (There have been a few suggestions, including a reporte by a local libertarian think tank, for implementing tolling or congestion pricing throughout the metro area, not just on the Columbia River bridges).

    You mention chokepoints in Portland–I-5 narrows to three lanes in each direction between the southern end of Delta Park, and Portland Avenue. (Right now there are actually only two southbound lanes over a particular stretch, but this section is being widened to three lanes as we speak). South of the I-5/I-405 split, I-5 is two lanes in each direction through the Rose Quarter neighborhood. North of the bridge, I-5 is four lanes in each direction through much of Vancouver, so a likely affect would be to move congestion south were the bridge to be built as currently planned.

    One other issue–the Yellow Line is fairly slow (it averages about 18MPH along its Interstate Avenue alignment between the Expo Center–its current terminus–and Rose Quarter TC, where it merges with the rest of the MAX system and enters downtown). This isn’t as much of a problem given its current nature–providing local transit service to North Portland–but s hslf-hour ride between downtown Vancouver and downtown Portland (a distance of less than ten miles) may prove unpopular.

  • EngineerScotty

    Brandon–you boast about taking your rig up dirt roads in the mountains, where sedans and subcompacts simply cannot go–and in the same post complain that Portland’s urban freeways are “decrepit”? You’re a whitewater rafter, but are terrified by crossing the Fremont Bridge? There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance in that post.

    ODOT and WSDOT don’t seem to have asked ANYBODY’S opinion, so you’re not alone. Vancouver and Portland have a larger stake in this matter than does Beaverton, by virtue of the obvious fact that the proposed bridge’s landings are in these two cities. But the proposed bridge would cause a lot of issues in North Portland by virtue of increased traffic there. There have been proposals for ways to route traffic through West Delta Park to a new Willamette crossing north of downtown, possibly tunneling under the West Hills to Washington County–but building this bridge won’t solve congestion. It will just move it elsewhere–and likely attract more of it.

    I’m entirely sympathetic to the need to have reliable freight movements–though I’m skeptical of the suggestion that the Interstate Bridge is the worst bottleneck in the system, and/or that there aren’t more cost effective ways to spend $3-4 billion. Many alternate proposals, including ways of keeping local traffic off the freeway (such as an arterial bridge), weren’t given very serious consideration by the CRC committee–though the project’s purpose and need statement appears to have been written in such a way that a mammoth freeway bridge is the only solution planners could logically arrive at. (Much of the debate with the cities of Portland and Vancouver is around this defect of process).

    Shipments between Portland and Seattle are just as likely to get stuck in Tacoma traffic, or in Chehalis or Centralia every spring when the river floods and I-5 is closed, as they are crossing the Interstate.

    Obviously, something needs to be done to replace (or augment) the Interstate Bridge (or bridges, as it is two independent spans), as the current crossing is inadequate. But the proposed solution seems to be massive overkill, and a proposal which will have many negative impacts to the city of Portland.

  • OceanRailroader

    Maybe they should build a smaller two lane or four lane bridge with light rail or streetcar somewhere else so that all the traffic is not funneled on to one giant river crossing but two or three smaller ones.

    It looks like that on one of the history websites there was a streetcar line that ran over first old bridge between the cities so at least that is coming back.

  • Looking ahead, 10 lanes of traffic is quite forward looking. When the serious oil price shocks hit (after the preliminary tremor we had in 2008), that can be cut that down to three lanes of general traffic each way and add a rapid streetcar and busway in the former inside traffic lanes, and the light rail line can be upgraded to a heavy rail line.

    Better to build it three general traffic lanes, dedicated busways, rapid streetcar lines, and heavy rail lines at the outset, but at least the free Interstate real estate will be there to be taken advantage of.

  • poncho

    Yonah, where are you getting this that the current bridges are structural unsound?

    Brandon, you do realize that this new bridge would have 10 highway lanes (vs. the existing 6)?

    Leave the existing highway bridges alone and build a new 2-4 lane arterial bridge to the west of the highway bridge for local traffic. Plus two dedicated transit-only lanes for LRT and bus. Plus a top notch multi-use path on this bridge. Right now you have seperate street networks in downtown Vancouver, Hayden Island/Jantzen Beach, and North Portland. They are only connected by this Mexican border to Canadian border interstate I-5 bridge. It is ridiculous to have local trips going one stop on I-5, is it any wonder traffic is bad?

    Given the tax structure in this corridor, Vancouverites/Clark County residents live in a state with no state income tax and shop in a state with no sales tax. Jantzen Beach is a huge retail wonderland just over the border much in the vein of huge casino wonderlands just over the Nevada border catering to Californians. It is the Vancouver residents who generate the majority of traffic in this corridor by playing a tax avoidance game. Now both states are having to spend huge sums of money to support this game played by residents of Clark County so that they do not slow commerce along a 1500 mile interstate.

    • Poncho, you assume that Clark County residents who work in Portland don’t have to pay Oregon income tax, presumably because that would make sense. However, you’re wrong. In fact, Clark County is the 8th largest contributor to Oregon’s income taxes, because Washington residents who work in Oregon are liable for Washington’s relatively higher property taxes, Washington’s sales taxes and Oregon’s highest-in-the-nation income taxes.

      I don’t disagree with your other analyses. But this is a very common mistake Oregonians make, and it’s unjustly poisoned the debate about the bridge.

  • OceanRailroader

    That’s what I noice to about freeway crosses there are very little local streets that cross over the major rivers it seems to be a rule that it has to be a freeway and not a bike way. Washingtion DC suffers from this very same thing were all the river crosses are few and far between. It might be cheaper in the long run with a local built bridge for local traffic so slow moving cars and pedestrains along with streetcars could get a chance to cross the river.

  • sam

    “How can it attract the maximum number of riders when the highway bridge just adjacent has been expanded massively?”

    You’re right about that. People aren’t going to take light rail when there’s a wide-open freeway. If it takes 45 minutes to drive to Portland, people will take the train. If it takes 10, they’ll keep driving. (Note: The light rail line would go on the new bridge, not adjacent to it.)

  • Ron

    An analogy can be made with the Port mann Bridge being built between Surrey, BC and Coquitlam, BC on the Trans-Canada Highway outside of Vancouver, BC. Much of the traffic (40%) on the Port Mann Bridge is local traffic between Coquitlam and Surrey, but the freeway bridge is the only crossing in the area.

    The new Port Mann Bridge is currently being constructed and is divided into express and collector/distributor lanes. It is a 10 lane crossing, with 6 lanes comprising through lanes (1 HOV and 2 express lanes each way) and 4 lanes comprising collector/distributor lanes. The collector distributor lanes split “outside” (east and west) of the two interchanges that flank the bridge – so that the collector/distributor lanes will serve local traffic and act as an arterial road bridge while the express lanes serve the freeway and proceed without merging and dodging cased by the local interchanges.
    In essence it is two bridges in one structure.
    (That’s easier than finding local funding for an arterial road bridge)

  • Jonathan Parker

    Engineer Scotty and Poncho have a good grasp of the issues. Particularly the tax structure, along with the very different growth management policies of both states are a huge factor in the creation of the problem.

    Given the constraints of the freeway network in inner Portland, building this new bridge at the scale proposed would simply move the problem downstream. Doesn’t seem like a smart use of billions of dollars, does it?

    The CRC would seem to be an ideal application for congestion pricing. This would encourage travelers in Vancouver destined for downtown Portland to use a high frequency MAX connection, particularly during peak periods where the tolls would be most expensive. Tolls would help cover a portion of the capital cost. Drivers who now make short, discretionary auto trips across the bridge (thereby, clogging the highway for longer haul travelers and freight traffic) would experience a strong price signal to adjust their trip making patterns. If the price were set to continually manage demand on the bridge at all hours, the resulting bridge could likely be reduced significantly in scope, thereby saving taxpayer dollars, and of course time not stuck in congestion. And still, commuters could opt to drive and pay the toll at any time or take the attractive MAX option into downtown Portland for jobs and entertainment, which supports the investments that the Portland region has been making for several decades.

    Is there any indication that a congestion pricing strategy might be considered, perhaps in tandem with the 205 bridge, especially given Portland’s long term sustainability goals and the USDOT/EPA/HUD emphasis on livability? A challenging, multi-modal, bi-state issue such as this is exactly why we desperately need a visionary new national transportation policy with that lays out a vision, with principles, goals, and metrics that would help ensure that smarter decisions are made on projects like the CRC. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for that…

  • DBX

    As long as this bizarre juxtaposition of tax rates remains between Oregon and Washington — the only place in the US where you have this arrangement within a metropolitan area, by the way, with the others being locations like Montana-Wyoming in the middle of the high plains or Oregon-Nevada in the middle of the desert — there’s really no reasonable alternative to putting tolls on all the Columbia river crossings. That would appropriately cover the cost of these investments and discourage tax avoidance games by people in the suburbs on the north side of the Columbia.

    • Andy K

      Yeah, that tax situation is crazy. Makes me want to relocate to the area.

      • It is inaccurate to say that people who live in Washington are dodging taxes. It’s just the opposite; in my experience, people who live in Clark County do so because the schools are better and property is relatively cheaper. In fact, Clark County is the 8th largest contributor to Oregon’s income taxes, because Washington residents who work in Oregon are liable for Washington’s relatively higher property taxes, Washington’s sales taxes and Oregon’s highest-in-the-nation income taxes.

        I live in Portland, where I moved from Clark County because I prefer higher taxes and urban life. But I’m just sayin’.

  • JP

    Wouldn’t Portland be a great city if only it were more like LA? (sarcasm).

  • This analysis is generally top-notch, Yonah, but the biggest flaw is your assumption that light rail use is underestimating trips to downtown. That job is done very well now by C-Tran, the Clark County transit agency, which runs a fleet of very fast and popular express buses straight to downtown from several transit hubs in Clark County. A 40-minute light rail ride across the bridge would be ridiculous to many downtown workers as long as the buses are available. The virtue of a rail extension, therefore, would be for non-commute trips and shorter trips to jobs and homes outside Portland’s downtown core.

  • Drewski

    HOV lanes or no, those existing express buses will hit the same jam-up as all the other traffic…unless someone had the bright idea of building elevated HOV lanes to the Rose Quarter, or just running on surface streets. ALL traffic will be gummed up, because this bridge is planned to cross the river with ten lanes, then suddenly and magically merge both through and downtown-bound traffic to move at the same speed on only six lanes in northern Portland. Also, Tri-Met is like nearly every other transit operator–it’s not going to be willing to see bus service directly parallel to a rail line, unless there’s a very compelling argument. As this project stands now, I wonder if it wouldn’t force C-Tran to focus more on connections over the 205 bridge. Over $3 billion for something that creates a new set of problems? That’s irresponsible. The local/express concept is sounding better, so long as those local lanes are steered as far as possible from the 5 corridor as soon as the Columbia is crossed.

  • I spent most of my driving years in LA. This same principle is used out n many of the overpass. The problem isn’t the connections, the problem is when all the traffic converge from the many lanes on the overpass. Good luck Portland. Your not solving a problem, you’re creating a larger problem and trafic jam closer to your city.

  • Yea, I’m from LA too and definitely agree with Matt M. I also travel quite a bit and you see this same problem all over the country. It’s never the number of lanes, it’s when the number of lanes changes that cause the problems. Kind of like airspace. It’s not the lack of airspace, It’s the lack of runways (I think that’s a good analogy?)

  • If only us poor fools in Florida could have “ecologically aware” Governors. Rick Scott just vetoed years of work, and billions in Federal monies to build a high speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. Sam Adams, can you please consider moving to Florida and running in the next Governors race?

  • Many Portland commuters defiantly avoid rush our since the lanes are so bottle necked. I have found many alternative routes to address some issue with traffic. But many are unavoidable like the I-5 north or south.

    3.6 billion seems like a lot to spend for the tax payers right now considering the economic conditions. Plus not to mention if all the ecological data has not been presented in favor of both sides the we have to as Oregonians look at this issue deeper. The light rail is a whole separate issue they are mixing together unnecessarily. I cant image that many will choose this method unless you work downtown and cant afford parking.

  • success and modernization comes with a price such as this one or else there will be traffic jam left and right, if that happens business will die, its better to accept some negative impacts in environment rather than living back to stone-age like

  • @ John. Stone age? This is Portland. We’ve always been in the forefront of protecting against negative impact in our environment. This is just going to cause more problems in that direct area. I’m not just talking about road rage. Imagine what the traffic in that immediate area will to to our environment.

  • Obviously Alaska is not the only area with enough lobby “pull” to get “bridges to nowhere” approved.

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