Columbia River Crossing: Still a Democrat Boondoggle

On July 10, 2013, I published a column entitled “Rumors of the Demise of the Columbia River Crossing Project Are Premature.” The pertinent part of that column is contained in the opening paragraphs:

“The Oregonian carried a story on July 1 regarding the ‘demise’ of the Columbia River Crossing project:

‘Columbia River Crossing managers will begin closing the project today, ending assignments for 96 government workers and consultants in a Vancouver office.

‘Opponents are celebrating the demise of the plan to link Portland and Vancouver with a $3.4 Billion bridge, highway and light-rail complex on Interstate 5. 

‘Stunned CRC supporters are trying to pick up the pieces of the decadelong (sp) initiative that shattered Saturday in the Washington Legislature.’

“As I read the article and particularly the rejoicing of the opponents for having driven a stake through the heart of the biggest boondoggle in Oregon history, I kept having flashbacks to the Halloween series where each movie ends with the seemingly irrefutable death of the psychopathic killer Jason. And then as night follows day, Jason proves that rumors of his demise were premature and he returns to reek more death and destruction for the next movie. And it isn’t just once that Jason is resurrected, it is every time – he cannot be killed.

“And the same is true for light rail in the Portland metro area – it cannot be killed. Light rail has progressed uninhibited by the fact that at virtually every time a particular piece has been subject to a public referendum it has been rejected and never by a little but always by a lot. The latest instance is the Milwaukee branch that was rejected in a recent public referendum but ordered to proceed by the courts.

“Light rail is the liberal Democrats’ wet dream. It is an opportunity to spend huge amounts of someone else’s money on a project that the great unwashed (voters) could not possibly understand is in their best interest. It is an opportunity to reward their friends and increase the payroll for the Democrats financial arm, the public employees union. And finally, it is an opportunity to demonstrate the liberals ‘commitment’ to one of the holy grails of liberal thought – saving the environment by eliminating the cursed private carbon burning automobile in favor of the ‘pollution free, electrical mass transit system.’ It is the perfect trifecta.”

And completed in the concluding paragraphs:

“And if you doubt that, please remember the statement of state representative Jim Moeller (D-Vancouver) – as quoted in the Oregonian:

‘We need to start again.’ The next plan, he said, ‘has to engage the general public better, has to be more inspiring, less utilitarian, something that people want to leave behind. . . for their children, or for their children’s children.’

“In other words it has to be bigger, more expensive, with more inducements to support it.
“This is a project that is supported by the ruling political class. They have unlimited taxpayer dollars to pursue and promote the project. When there is a set back, or they screw it up, they simply regroup, grab additional taxpayer funds and continue on. Those opposing light rail have to fund their opposition from their own resources – the resources left over after having paid tax dollars to promote the very thing they are trying to stop.

“Now set against this backdrop, do you really think that the Portland/Vancouver light rail project is really over? Not by a long shot. Jason still has at least one more reign of terror to unleash on an unsuspecting public.”

Sure enough, the Democrats have taken control of the Washington legislature with the latest election and the light rail project from Portland to Vancouver is back on the front burner. (The Oregon legislature remains in the hands of the Democrats now with a super majority in both houses.) An article by Oregon Public Broadcasting on December 9 noted:

“Oregon lawmakers are ready to return to the table and restart discussions with Washington to replace the Interstate 5 bridge. In a press release sent out on Friday, Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said the meeting ‘signals a new level of collaboration between the two states.’”

The Columbia River Crossing has already spent approximately $185 Million without ever turning over a rock. It has encompassed nearly a decade of debate, planning and lobbying by government officials on other government officials. And little of it was spent dealing with locations, size or carrying capacity of a replacement bridge – in fact it will have the same number of lanes transiting the Columbia River as the current bridge. Its singular benefit is that it will eliminate the drawbridge span and thus eliminate traffic delays due to ships passing under the bridge. Well that would be true if the real purpose of this project was to benefit vehicular traffic – which we know it is NOT.

But the trouble is not so much the number of lanes of traffic passing over the Columbia River because the current design of Interstate 5 results in a bottle neck where the four lanes of traffic passing over the bridge are squeezed down to just two lanes near the Rose Quarter just as you pass into the downtown and approach the Interstate 84 interchange. That area is heavily industrialized with a sports center, shopping center, hotels, high rise office buildings, manufacturing plants and of course the Willamette River which means expansion of the highway to the West is virtually impossible and expansion to the East would be incredibly expensive in land acquisition costs alone. But then that really doesn’t matter because it has never been about increasing capacity or replacing a deteriorating structure – it’s all about light rail and, to a lesser extent, bike paths. And while they have spent more than a decade dealing with the Columbia River Crossing, to the best of my knowledge, there are no feasible plan to expand Interstate 5 in the area described above.

So wedded to the concept of bringing light rail to a reluctant Vancouver are the liberal/progressives of Portland, that the last plan required the span crossing the Columbia to be lowered in order to accommodate light rail and bike lanes – the necessary height to accommodate ships was too steep for light rail and bike lanes. When this was pointed out the solution was not to raise the height of the span but rather to pay ship owners to lower the superstructures of their ships to accommodate light rails limits – or in the alternative to pay shippers and manufacturers to relocate their facilities to the west side of the new structure. Really folks, you cannot make this form of idiocy up.

But even if the ideologues that manage Portland were to concede their cherished light rail, the question remains as to why you would want to bring the growing congestion of I-5 into downtown Portland and the bottleneck described above. The real solution to reduce congestion on the I-5 is to build an alternative route on the west side of Portland, through Sauvie Island and crossing the Columbia and rejoining up with I-5 just north of the current intersection of I-5 and I-205 thus letting it bypass both downtown Portland and Vancouver. Even an alternative route east of the existing I-205 would off load the increasing traffic into downtown Portland.  In either case, if Portland is insistent on charging tolls, the alternative routes for crossing the Columbia should remain toll free so as to induce the maximum use of the alternatives and mitigate the traffic on I-5 through downtown Portland.

However, this is never going to happen because first and foremost this whole process is about light rail. Even if the people of Vancouver resist, the liberal/progressives will shove it down their throats, secure in the knowledge that those “backward souls” simply don’t know what is best for them.

However, the administration of President Donald Trump may start pouring cold water on these light rail boondoggles and without federal funds neither Washington nor Oregon, or the two of them together can afford a new bridge that is simply an excuse for expanded light rail.

Jason is about to rise.