Bi-State Bridge Coalition: Real Solutions or more Special Interests?

third bridge

by Ron Swaren

Washington legislators very narrowly halted committing further state revenue to the troubled Columbia River Crossing project when, by one vote, the Washington Senate refused to pass authorization in the 2013 Session.In the meantime, two proposals have originated in Clark County to present a substitute concept. First, Clark County voters substantially approved in 2013 an advisory vote for an “East County Toll-Free Bridge” and cast a very close second for a “West County Toll Free Bridge.”

With only the East Bridge option on the 2014 ballot a second advisory vote was approved by Clark County voters last November. Since, Clark County commissioners have been slowly moving forward on that recommendation although it does not have identifiable support in Oregon. Supporters of this bridge think that it will provide an alternative to the I-205 bridge, and remove some traffic from I-5, by allowing one more option between Portland and Vancouver. They say it could be built in stages—first, bridge and later, interstate highway connections. And that it would be low enough in cost to not require tolls. FIGG Engineering of Florida held a public meeting one year ago to show how they would build this 10,000 foot long bridge with pre-cast concrete segments, typical to modern highway construction.

Also this past March three SW Washington legislators floated a proposal by a retired Vancouver, WA engineer for a “Flyover Bridge” adjacent to the I-5 Bridges carrying express traffic from Delta Park in North Portland to Mill Plain Bv. in Vancouver. It would bypass, but not remove, the existing bridges.

Other Washington legislators, and their Oregon colleagues, insist that the multi-modal Columbia River Crossing project, replacing the I-5 bridges, is still the only solution that will foster economic competitiveness in the long run. In Washington state CRC proponents point to rapid population growth in Clark Co. In Oregon transportation advocates insist that major public transit and “active transportation” ideas will be the only solutions that prevent suburban sprawl and dependence on single-occupancy vehicles, and resulting neighborhood impacts. There has even been marked opposition to an ODOT proposal to add new north and south lanes to I-5 in The Rose Quarter area where, now, four lanes carry the traffic. The CRC had bi-partisan support and some lawmakers insist that not moving forward with it is a disastrous choice in terms of solving traffic woes, preserving neighborhoods and garnering substantial federal money for transportation needs.

I think, however, that the pressing question that still must be met is: How does this area contend with the fast paced job growth of the Silicon Forest and the attraction that those jobs provide to a large and growing population in SW Washington? SW Washington—esp. Clark Co.–is enjoying a phenomenal growth streak on its own, encouraged by streamlined permitting procedures enacted by the county commissioners. Plus, I anticipate there will be a sizable spill over effect from the current apartment construction trend in Portland. New families will look somewhere to find a home and make a real estate investment, and opportunities in Portland, with a dearth of single-family parcels, will be very limited.

So, the bottom line? More commuting and freight movement between Portland and Vancouver–or between NW Oregon and SW Washington. Far more. And, exacerbated by freight moving up and down the West Coast, between rapidly growing urban regions in all three states. Specifically, the Portland area must deal with the fact that while on its’ east side freight movement and personal vehicles can avoid the urban core, on the west side there are few options. The I-5 is severely congested much of the day as it is. Imagine it without the I-205. There is one option in the SW area–Hwy 217–but none in the NW. The practical solution would be completion of the ring road—which I refer to as the Western Arterial Highway.

I don’t see how either of the most recent proposals from Clark Co. do much good, if any, in addressing this problem. The East County Bridge would be at 192nd Ave on the WA side, shifting over to NE 182nd in Oregon. This is ten miles east of I-5. An express bridge adjacent to I-5 doesn’t shorten the distance between Vancouver and the Silicon Forest, where the current route is approximately 20 miles. It might help the north Portland I-5 bottleneck now—-but since traffic will increase further, this solution would probably lose some benefit in the long run. The Western Arterial Highway should not be a lengthy, exo-urban, canyon-like controlled access freeway. There can be industrial area connectors that promote smooth traffic movement. The Western Arterial would connect four major areas, intersect with existing arterial routes and also take the “active transportation” (bicycling and walking) agenda across state boundaries. In the long run, promoting alternatives to auto use by promoting mass transit usage and automobile alternatives, should save A LOT on road construction. And the Western Arterial is not a lengthy, expensive route to begin with.

Killing the CRC project at bottom, took a big plum away from a number of special interest groups hoping to financially benefit from it. However, both businesses and individuals are losing economic earnings as movement on I-5 in Portland reaches the freezing point with tempers reaching closer to the boiling point. Oregon and Washington groups must get on the same page as to what we really want and need, before approaching the federal government once again, seeking federal funds to defray the costs. We have to also agree on transit objectives, probably in both states simultaneously, to qualify for federal transit money to help with the construction expense. CRC advocates charge that we have altogether missed federal cooperation by halting the CRC. However, US Congressional leaders were well informed of the controversy about that project, therefore I believe we can get them on board with a substitute project that makes sense. Yes, the application process for transit and highway projects is lengthy and time consuming.

Being in one of the most desirable urban regions is posing some big challenges. Some good ideas have come forward; but there may be no second and third chances to find the right solution. The Western Arterial Highway, a bi state industrial corridor, would be the most cost effective way to solve the big issues caused by our own success at fostering both job growth and sustainable neighborhoods. Please see an earlier article for specifics on the route.

(Ron is a resident of the Portland area, has been involved in transportation issues and participates in the UN World Urban Forum. As a commercial journeyman carpenter he has built some of the major structures in the Portland area and believes that costs on public works need to be dramatically reduced.)