portland: a local alternative to the columbia river crossing

Many cities have eternal debates about a Massive Transportation Project, debates that can go on for so long that the debate itself feels like a piece of infrastructure.   In Portland, it's the Columbia River Crossing, a $4b proposal to build a massive new bridge and freeway expansion to replace the old, narrow and congested I-5 bridge at the state line.  Most sustainable transport advocates that I know hate the plan with a passion, and it's increasingly an issue in the current mayoral race.  A number of small-government types are equally unhappy about the $4b pricetag.

The issue with the CRC is that the interstate freeway is really the only way of getting across the river, for any mode except freight rail, for miles around.  Since both sides of the river are urbanized, that's obviously a recipe for congestion.  If you define the problem as freeway congestion, of course you'll think of a freeway solution.  But what if you focus on the challenge of providing alternatives so that local traffic doesn't need to use the bridge, and so that transit competes effectively with cars to reduce future traffic growth?

That's the premise of a "Common Sense Alternative":

The basic idea of getting local traffic (including local freight) out of the bridge congestion, and creating transit alternatives, makes all kinds of sense. It's also a set of small projects that can happen in phases instead of one massive one.   Smaller budgets are demanding incremental solutions, not massive do-or-die projects.  Given the opposition to the CRC from both ends of the spectrum, I wouldn't be surprised if the answer doesn't end up being something like this. 

5 Responses to portland: a local alternative to the columbia river crossing

  1. EngineerScotty September 18, 2012 at 10:50 am #

    I wish I share your optimism, Jarrett, but the powers that be are determined to build the bridge just the way it is planned, and have no desire whatsoever to be bothered with any of the excellent alternate proposals out there.
    If I have complaint about your article, is that you vastly understate what a massive clusterfuck (apologies for the profanity, but no other word will do) the CRC project has been.
    Part of the problem is that the thing–as designed–has had its Final Environmental Impact Statement completed and signed off. Many politicians in Salem (the capital of the state of Oregon), Olympia (Washington State’s capital), and Washington DC are eager to get this thing built–both for the transportation benefits (freight has a legitimate complaint), and as a way of goosing the local economy. While the public process was largely a sham–the purpose and need statement was jerry-rigged to essentially exclude any alternatives other than a Big New Freeway Bridge (with LRT and ped/bike elements thrown in for greenwashing purposes), the powers that be now tell us it’s Too Late To Change Anything.
    Except for the fact that–the bridge, as designed, only offers 90′ river clearance at high water, which is insufficient for some downstream shippers, including the US Corps of Engineers. Right now, the US Coast Guard is declining to sign off on the bridge. The existence of river users needing a higher clearance is NOT a secret or something recently discovered; it has been known (or should have been known) to the project committee for years.
    The utter incompetence on this project is astounding.
    At the present time, the bridge is still unfunded–despite 9 figures already being spent on planning activities. To deal with the height issue, there’s been talk about adding a drawspan–something which would require a fundamental re-design of the bridge, would give Portland two dual-deck drawbridges (we already have the Steel Bridge), and would make a mockery of the stated reason for doing the thing in the first place–getting a lift span off of an Interstate highway.
    But despite all this, the project was recently “expedited” by the Obama Administration.
    The CRC reminds me of two similar clusterfucks in the East Coast: One is the Tappan Zee bridge, which Cap’n Transit writes eloquently about, also still in the planning phases. The other is the now-completed Woodrow Wilson (I-95) Bridge across the Potomac River south of DC.

  2. Nicholas Barnard September 19, 2012 at 1:14 am #

    i wonder if they’ve investigated if this will put less stress on the local road infrastructure. If an area has to funnel traffic through one bridge it becomes a choke point, and the roads leading upto it need more capacity.
    Its essentially the “downtown transfer” problem with cars. Not every car wants to go over I5 in that spot, they simply need to get from point A to point B, and A & B don’t really necessitate the I5 bridge, except that its the only bridge over the river.

  3. Lance Berelowitz September 20, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    The CSA is an interesting proposal. But since when did commonsense get in the way of a big transportation spending boondoggle? I am reminded of the Millennium SkyTrain Line here in Greater Vancouver (BC) that connects the earlier Expo Line to the, um, Expo Line via Burnaby, one of the then provincial government’s labour union power bases. Guess where most of the jobs went for the new line and rolling stock…? Or more recently, it makes me think of the new Port Mann Bridge over the Fraser River, which is just about to open, but without the rapid transit service that was promised at the time the project was approved. Oops. Oh well, plus ça change, plus rien change.

  4. Pacnwjay September 22, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

    Engineer Scotty has it absolutely correct. Politicians on both sides of the fence are bound and determined to build a massive bridge. Even sadder: most of this project ISN’T the bridge… it’s 5 miles of interstate work and interchanges north of the bridge.
    Other than one candidate for Portland mayor, I really can’t think of any OR or WA politicians who have openly recognized the existence or the CSA.

  5. Scott October 16, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    This proposal seems great and I follow a lot of the arguments. The first thing that jumped out at me was these bridges didn’t seem to have enough lanes (1 in each direction, no shoulder, etc.). I assume that is more of a not-to-scale, illustrative purposes only kind of thing. Second, the cost seemed really low. I know different estimates include different soft costs and whatnot. If this project can really be delivered for the cost presented then it seems it provides excellent redundancy. The phasing seems well thought out only it seems to me that the cable stayed bridge should be built before working on the existing rail bridge to minimize service impacts.