Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Columbia River Crossing, and the role of state DOTs

[Image courtesy of CRC]

This blog, so far, has avoided serious comment about one of the most controversial projects being considered for the Portland metro area--the Columbia River Crossing.  Recently, I wrote about a blog comment concerning the advisability of adding MAX service to the project, in order to make a point in the bus/rail debate, but I haven't blogged about the CRC itself.  Now, it's time to correct that oversight.

The CRC project organization, which is jointly run by the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation (ODOT and WSDOT), recently published a proposed design for a replacement of the Interstate Bridge (an ancient pair of drawbridges which carry Interstate 5 over the Columbia River).  The price tag for the proposed design:  over US$4 billion.  Hardly anybody on either side of the river likes the proposed design, especially in the two cities (Portland, OR, and Vancouver, WA) which are directly affected by the project. 

The proposed design

The proposed design includes the following features:
  • Rebuilding I-5 to modern design standards for about 5 miles--essentially from the Interstate Ave. interchange in Oregon, up to SR500 in Washington; this requires construction of quite a few C/D lanes and braided ramps and such.
  • Three "through" auto lanes, and three "auxiliary" lanes, in each direction across the main span.  The auxiliary lanes are lanes which sooner or later you'll have to exit if you use them (though the freeway is always 8 lanes wide through the project area, except at the ends), while the "through" lanes are continuous.  On the main span of the bridge, all six lanes in each direction are on a single carriageway; there is no segregation into highway and C/D lanes.  (A recent revision to the proposal includes only 2 auxiliary lanes per direction rather than three, but keeps some of the other controversial features of the project)
  • Below the highway lanes will be a facility for pedestrians and bicycles, and two "transit lanes", which will contain light rail.  (AFAIK, it will be trains only; not a combined rail/bus facility like the Caruthers bridge which is part of the Milwaukie MAX project).
  • The impacts on Hayden Island, an island in the Columbia (part of Oregon, as it is south of the main channel) will be particularly server.  The I-5 interchange on the Island will be kept, but significantly redesigned.   Rather than the treacherous "trumpet" interchange (with short ramps) that currently sits there, a braided ramp confiuration will be added, which will also include ramp structures crossing the Columbia Slough for accessing Marine Drive and OR99E.  The effective footprint on Hayden Island will be 22 lanes.  As is the case today, road access to Hayden Island will require use of I-5. (The picture at the top of this post is an illustration of what this might look like--it appears that a giant aircraft carrier was parked in the middle of the island).
What's wrong?

Most people in the community recognize the need to do something.  The Interstate Bridge is functionally obsolete.  It's a major bottleneck for traffic, especially during the afternoon commute.  The connecting ramps are dangerous, particularly the onramps from Hayden Island onto I-5 north, and from SR14 onto I-5 south.  The pedestrian facilities on the existing are downright scary; there's no dedicated transit infrastructure at all, and the bridge must occasionally lift for river traffic.   And the combination of the drawspans of the Interstate Bridge, and the BNSF rail bridge a short distance downstream, make river navigation difficult for large vessels.  There's also some structural concerns:  although the bridges are not yet structurally obsolete, extensive work would be needed to bring them to modern structural standards.  There's a large consensus that the status quo is not acceptable.

But there's little agreement among local stakeholders (even ignoring the DOTs for now) on what needs to be done.  There is rampant sticker shock at the $4 billion pricetag on both sides of the river; and calls to scale back the design--but the sticking point is just what ought to be removed.

We don't need no stinking freeway

Many in Portland's transit and urbanist communities view the Interstate Bridge as an important chokepoint with which to discourage automobile use, and don't want to see any highway capacity added, other than what's absolutely necessary for safety.  Portland's urbanistas, while disliking suburbia in general, hold special disdain for the community across the river which is often derisively called "Vantucky" (and worse), and viewed as a gaping loophole in Oregon's land use laws (and Metro's implementation thereof).  Expanding freeway capacity into The Couv (what Vancouverites often call their city--a term which has the added benefit of only referring to Vancouver, WA and not Vancouver, BC; a persistently annoying ambiguity in the Pacific Northwest) would only encourage more urban sprawl across the river, they say, and the sort of capital flight that has devastated many cities elsewhere in the country.  (More than a few would be happy if the Interstate Bridge were to fall down into the river).

Another concern that Oregonians have, and one less politically sensitive, is the concern that widening the bridge will simply move the southbound bottleneck on I-5 a few miles further south, into downtown Portland--necessitating a costly rebuild of Portland's downtown core.  (In the Rose Quarter area, I-5 reduces to only two lanes in each direction).   And the eastbank freeway, as I-5 is known in downtown, is highly unpopular, and a favorite target of urbanists who would prefer to see it buried (or removed altogether).

We don't need no stinking tolls

Across the river, many in Vancouver naturally resent being viewed as Portland's Oakland.  Vancouverites, like many suburban-dwellers, don't consider their chosen lifestyle to be illegitimate in the least.  Many consider the problems of cities to be the problems of cities--not their concern.  And many in Vancouver are openly skeptical about Portland's famously liberal political consensus (and recently, famously dysfunctional city politics).   They aren't terribly interested in Portland's transit system or enviro-urbanist agenda--and are primarily concerned about the cost of the project.  This is especially important on the Washington side since tolls are a significant part of the proposed funding package.  Vancouver residents enjoy an advantageous tax situation, in that Washington has no state income tax (and very low property taxes), financing government primarily through sales taxes; whereas Oregon has no sales tax.  Thus many Vancouverites cross the river to shop in Oregon.  (Many also work in the Beaver State; though those who do are subject to Oregon state income tax).  Tolling is seen as an unfair surcharge on those who live on the north side of the river; and thus many Vancouverites see reducing the scope of the project--and thus the cost--as a key priority.  (The recent mayoral election in Vancouver turned on the question of bridge tolls; with the incumbent mayor losing re-election to a candidate who focuses on the issue of tolling).

The prospect of tolls also brings about concerns that traffic would be simply shifted to the Glenn Jackson bridge instead; particularly N/S through traffic, and traffic from the E. Vancouver area.    Tolling I-205 was proposed as a solution to this issue (the Glenn Jackson bridge, about seven miles upstream, is not part of the project); however it seems to be the opinion that this is not legally permissible.   This state of affairs in Clackamas County, to Portland's south, worried.

The result of this is that many in Portland want to see the highway features of the design reduced in scope.  A popular alternate proposal is for a seismic retrofit of the existing bridges, removal of many of the interchanges (including the dangerous Hayden Island ramps), and construction of a "supplemental bridge" which would connect Vancouver's downtown street network with Hayden Island and Portland streets such as MLK and Interstate, and provide transit, pedestrian, and bicycle facilities.  Many in Vancouver, OTOH, want the highway capacity, and would just as soon jettison the light rail lines--noting that the tracks would only go a short distance into Vancouver.

The devil's in the DOTails

If the issue were merely a disagreement between two cities (located in two different states) on urban vision, that would be one thing.  But the two state DOTs, who are responsible for maintaining I-5 and have been managing the project, seem determined to build a big megafreeway.  A common allegation is that the acceptance criteria set forth in the purpose and need statement were carefully crafted to exclude any solution other than a big megafreeway, and as a result--a big megafreeway is what the engineers came up with.   And now, the DOTs are (allegedly) playing "chicken" with the project--claiming that it's too late to make any material changes, lest the funding window for federal dollars close (the project is slated to receive funding from USDOT's Corridors of the Future program).  The city of Portland, in particular, is calling that bluff; and actually hired its own engineering firm to review the project.  Metro has been challenging the state DOTs in unusually blunt language as well, with outgoing Metro president David Bragdon suggesting that the CRC project team "get real". 

The project's design is severely constrained by several other factors:  the need to maintain a Columbia River shipping channel compatible with the BNSF rail bridge a short distance downstream, and the need to not affect the flight paths going in and out of Pearson Airpark in Vancouver (and to a lesser extent, PDX).   Until recently, Portland mayor Sam Adams also stressed the need for a "signature design" (a demand that the bridge be architecturally significant), a position that struck many as self-aggrandizement and placement of form over function--especially given the height restrictions which prevent the construction of towering arches or suspension systems.  (The proposed design, with box/girder construction, has also been criticized for being ugly).  As Adams has been politically weakened by a sex scandal, this concern has faded to the background, but still lingers.

A major issue with having state DOTs maintaining urban infrastructure, is that many of them are institutionally programmed to the "mobility" side of the mobility-access continuum.  Despite the multi-modal nature suggested by the name "department of transportation"; the primary responsibility for DOTs in most US states is building, maintaining, and regulating highways, often focused on smooth and timely passage of freight.  Other modes of regional or long-haul transportation--aviation, railroads, and navigation (whether on inland waterways or at sea) have long been primarily overseen by the Federal government, as are interstate motor carriers.  Local transportation links (including transit), on the other hand are generally handled by local communities.  Building highways is what DOTs are best at; and this role emphasizes throughput and mobility over local concerns such as access and community integration.  A big problem with freeways, generally, is that many of them don't really serve the communities they pass through; instead they simply disrupt them. 

It should be noted that this state of affairs exists despite having relatively transit-friendly administrations in Salem and Olympia.  Democrats occupy the governor's office in both Oregon and Washington, and control the legislatures of both states as well.  While both states have bicameral legislatures (the norm in the United States); both the upper and lower legislative houses in the two states are allocated based on population, not political subdivision.  (Many state Senates, as well as the US Senate;The US Senate assigns equal representation to political subdivisions regardless of population; a state of affairs which allows rural interests to dominate; for example, Alaska and New York each have the same number of US Senators--two). 

The good news

This project is a classic case of the paralysis that can result when state-level entities such as DOTs manage urban infrastructure projects.  The CRC is a particularly complex case, involving DOTs, MPOs, transit authorities, counties, and cities from two states and not just one.  Given that the project crosses a navigable waterway, is in close proximity to two airports, and even lies adjacent to a national park facility (Fort Vancouver); there are numerous Federal agencies involved as well, including several beyond the usual suspects.  There are many different players, all with different goals for the project, all playing hardball, and no supervising organization with the capability (or the authority) to solve the political conflicts necessary to generate reasonable requirements that are acceptable.   (Kind of reminds me of healthcare reform, actually).  Right now, many of the parties are perfectly happy to not cooperate, and to threaten to block any proposal which doesn't meet their specific needs.  (An ODOT official was actually quoted stating that Portland wouldn't be permitted to expand light rail across the Columbia unless as part of a larger highway project; and of course many in Portland hold the same attitude in reverse towards freeway expansion).

Whether this circle can be successfully squared remains to be seen.  The good news is that the DOTs are starting to get the message, so there's hope that a reasonable design can be produced.  OTOH, even if the DOTs let the two cities and their respective MPOs take the lead, there's bound to be friction given the apparent clash in values.

[Edited for correction as noted in comments]


  1. "Many state Senates, . . . assign equal representation to political subdivisions regardless of population; a state of affairs which allows rural interests to dominate;"

    Actually, this was the case through the 1970s. Since the "one-man-one-vote" ruling by the US Supreme Court, states (and subdivisions) have to assign representation based on equal population. The ruling doesn't apply to the US Senate, and gerrymandering can create results similar to the old system even while creating districts with equal population.

    Good article otherwise.

  2. Ed speaks of the Supreme Court's 1964 decision in Reynolds v. Sims, which as he notes, requires state legislatures to be allocated based on population. The US Senate is obviously exempt from the ruling, as its form is decreed by the US Constitution itself.

    Good catch!

  3. So they won't toll I-205 because you can't toll an interstate unless it's for capacity improvement. Paradoxically, they will need capacity improvement if they don't impose tolls.

  4. So they won't toll I-205 because you can't toll an interstate unless it's for capacity improvement. Paradoxically, they will need capacity improvement if they don't impose tolls.

    Pretty much.

    Given that Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council has decided on BRT for Clack County, including "enhanced bus" service along I-205 from Hazel Dell to the Parkrose Red Line station--perhaps a "capacity improvement" project on the Glenn Jackson bridge--to add a transitway--might be in order? :)

    Or does capacity improvement mean only for cars?

  5. This looks like a synopsis of tolling programs, towards the bottom is a section on federal policy. I didn't see an explicit mention of rail, but it looks likes there are tolling options for HOV lanes.

  6. Nice breakdown thus far of the situation! In order to get a solid project conducted, a common design goal needs to be created.

    DOTers want mobility w/o regard for its impact, and Portlanders and community groups want livability.

    Within that common and agreeable goal that all are beholden to, both groups can actually come to a solid design decision because they are designing towards that goal and not so much to their given field or area of concern.

    My personal opinion of the entire project is there are plenty of better highway related projects to work on other than CRC, especially in Portland like the I-5 Rose Garden area as you mentioned.

    I also do not feel sorry for someone who works in Portland metro area but willingly chooses to live across a body of water (natural choke point) and live in Vancouver instead.

    I also don't understand the point from a personal budget sense, either. You save a few dollars on your property tax which just gets burned up from transportation costs.

  7. I'm an outsider here: all I know about this area is what I learned on Mapquest. That said, it seems this is an incredibly stupid place for a bridge. It has to cross the shipping channel in a place that is right next to one airport and in the flight path of another.

    The solution seems simple (though I admit if I were more knowledgeable about the area I would see why this is a stupid idea):
    Route I5 over to I205 and blow up the old I5 Bridge. Over by the BNSF bridge, build a bridge to handle local traffic, with lanes for pedestrians, bicycles, transit, and those BNSF trains.

  8. @SpyOne: The bridge has been there since 1918--of course, Pearson Airfield--the oldest operating airport in the US--has been there since 1905. Back then, obviously, there was no FAA regulating this sort of thing. Given all the existing infrastructure that centers on the present location, there aren't many other good places to put the bridge. Some have suggested a third bridge further west, but that would have all sorts of complications.

    As noted above, there would be fierce resistance (by Clackamas County, in particular), to the idea of encouraging most traffic to the I-205 bridge. While ODOT signs encourage through traffic to use I-205, it's about 10 miles longer to go that way; and the traffic usually isn't any better.

    @Wes--not everyone who live in Vancouver is living there for tax reasons. The schools there are generally regarded as better; while some of that may be avoidance of inner-city poverty (a big issue with suburban flight in general), part of that is also that the State of Washington better provides for public schools than does Oregon.

  9. @Scotty

    I was referring to the 60k plus commuters who come to Portland area from Vancouver. They're not there for any tax reasons because they pay Oregon income taxes.

    And even if schools were their first choice, it's debatable that Vancouver's public schools are better than Beaverton, Lake Oswego, West Linn, or even some of Portland's high schools.


    Yeah, Portland has a few bad apples for schools, but they also have some really good ones that don't get much attention because they're doing all of the right things like Cleveland, Grant, and Lincoln.

  10. Scotty,

    Count this Vancouver resident as one strongly in favor of tolling both bridges even just as they are without new construction.

    I realize that means my house would lose value: maybe as much as 30 to 40%. But the truth is that Vancouver has lost its ability to support itself. All our local tech employment has gone to Asia, and the city really has no economic vitality except as a "bedroom community".

    Sadly (for Vancouver especially), it just does not work to have cities that cross state lines. It's hard enough to run Metro governments within a single state; urban/suburban jealousies and conflicts of interest are deep running and inevitably lead to the evisceration of the central city. They are almost impossible interstate because of interfering state governments.

    The one exception that works is New York/North Jersey, because the northern part of the state controls the state legislature of New Jersey and FORCES the state bureaucracy to work with New York's. In the same state Philadelphia/Camden fails miserably in comparison as do St. Louis/East St. Louis and Boston's relationship with southeast New Hampshire.

    So Vancouver needs to shrink as a proportion of the SMSA, not grow. Tolling the bridges will help ensure that. It's unfortunate that Federal law prohibits the use of toll facilities on Interstate highways from subsidizing transit usage, because otherwise a $3 peak hour toll providing transit usage like the GGT in Marin County would be very successful.

    There are really only five major employment loci in Portland: the CBD, the Rose Quarter, OHSU, the Max/Tech corridor and Wilsonville. C-Tran already serves three of them directly and could add express service to the Sunset TC to serve the tech corridor. Wilsonville is small enough and far enough away from Clark County that it doesn't matter.

  11. @Anandakos

    I'm actually a bit surprised at the decline in Vancouver's tech industry; while much of it was production work that is now outsourced, there were quite a few R&D facilities as well. Vancouver has some tax advantages vs the Oregon side (for businesses), esp. post Measures 66/67--that said, there are plenty of places even more tax-friendly than Washington State.

    That said, some of your comments regarding Vancouver could also be made with regards to bedroom communities on the Oregon side. For instance, should we toll the two bridges across the Clackamas to put Oregon City--a bedroom community and former mill town with no separate economic vitality since the timber industry went kaput--out of business? What about other suburbs where geography doesn't provide a bottleneck by which commerce and movement can be throttled? The main difference with Vancouver is that it lies outside the jurisdiction of Metro--Oregon City can't sprawl all the way to Mulino, whereas the Couv can.

  12. Scotty,

    Your point about Metro is exactly the reason why Vancouver should bear a greater burden of restriction by the rest of the region (besides the obviously much higher cost to cross the Columbia than the Clackamas....).

    It is that Vancouver does not have a meaningful urban growth boundary. Yes, it does HAVE a UGB, but it's violated with impunity by the Republican County Council. There's no "edge" to Vancouver. Like most American cities it just trickles off to sprawl nothingness over a ten mile wide band that's constantly moving outward.

    Compare the land between North Plains and Hillsboro versus that between Vancouver and Battleground. There is actual productive agriculture around North Plains, but the only significant farming on the very similar soil and topography of the Brush Prairie area is a few blueberry farms. The rest of what could be productive land has run to weeds awaiting the sprawldozer.

  13. Here are two additional significant aspects of this project that you don't mention in your fine review.

    First is the adamant refusal to engage in "least cost planning" which is the method by which electric utilities realize that conservation (efficient use of existing capacity) is usually the most cost-effective way to serve future needs. This is like a homeowner fixing a roof leak with a new roof, without at least finding out whether repair is possible or cost-effective.

    Second is the failure to set a goal demanding significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions per dollar spent. Whether this project spends $2 billion or $4 billion, it doesn't do anything for sustainability. The light rail merely balances out the increased auto use.

  14. The recent conversation between Mayor Sam and various Washington politicians is telling. But a big problem is inertia. Many people in the Couv only have cars, live in neighborhoods where everyone drives a car and if they're lucky, a bus rumbles by a half-mile away every half hour. The suggestion that they drive to a park-and-ride and take MAX or C-Tran into Portland, Does Not Compute.

  15. Scotty,

    Your link to the Mercury article about the URS study points out another big problem with this project. It is based on "projected demand" which is about as fictitious as next years housing prices, which we have seen in recent years to be highly speculative.

    It is laughable to think that 37% (or whatever %) of the trips across the I-5 crossing will be by transit if we never get around to building a decent transit alternative. It is that very implausibility that is used by the project supporters to move the project forward in the minds of the politicians and the public.

    Yet we know that if nothing is done, that projected "demand" will never materialize. We have a variety of politically viable choices that the CRC advocates don't want to see discussed, none of which would result in the bizarre all-day gridlock seemingly implied by the "projected demand" numbers.

    It will be interesting to see how this all evolves, but I am betting that fiscal conservatism will have a big influence on what happens.

  16. @Anon... did you see this post?

    At any rate, the argument between Adams and the woman from WSDOT underlies a prevalent cultural attitude: That one mode of transportation (the auto) is the normal, default mode--and that any others are suspect. Transit has to prove it isn't some commie pinko plot, whereas new auto capacity is presumed to be desirable unless shown otherwise (and even then...). Obviously, we won't get near 37% transit across the bridge without a new bridge.

    The primary technical justification for not increasing roadway capacity (8 lines I'm OK with, though I'd prefer to have access to Hayden Island via a supplemental bridge, even if only crosses the south channel into Oregon, not the main channel into Vancouver) is the limitations of I-5 closer to town. The bridge acts as a funnel in both directions--collecting traffic from I-5, SR14, and SR500 on one side and dispersing it onto Interstate, Marine, MLK, and I-5 on the other, so having the additional lane makes sense. But building out to 10 or 12 lines will just move the problem south.

    Of course, the same issue is present for MAX--37& of bridge traffic won't be able to shift to MAX if the Yellow Line is only running 4 trains an hour (even if full, that's only ~1300 passengers per hour)--and running more trains ALSO leads to downstream capacity issues. That said, adding another Willamette Bridge crossing for MAX is probably a lot easier than widening I-5, let alone doing a Portland version of the Big Dig like some have proposed.


Keep it clean, please