» 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