The Columbia River Crossing Arises from the Dead: Light Rail to Vancouver Whether You Like It or Not


One of the downsides of being a professional know-it-all (like me) is the irritating urge to say, “I told you so!”  (You have to include the exclamation mark to demonstrate how aggravating it is.)  I am usually able to tamp down this urge but every now and then you just have to let it fly – and this is one of those instances.

In the latter part of 2013 I wrote the following column regarding the attempts to address the flow of traffic across the existing Interstate Bridge between Washington and Oregon:
The Columbia River Crossing Takes Another Blow
Early in comedian Steve Martin’s career, while he was still performing on Saturday Night Live, he created a bit that has become part of cultural history:
“You say, Steve, how can I be a millionaire and never pay taxes?”
Martin’s reply was to tell the taxman, “I forgot!”
That bit was applied to all sorts of life’s unpleasantries.  And apparently that’s what has happened with the attempt to address a traffic problem between Portland and Vancouver.
For over fifteen years, Oregon has faced a real need to deal with the traffic bottleneck on the Interstate Bridge on I-5 over the Columbia River.  The current bridge allows three lanes of traffic each way.  Its flow is restricted by four factors:
1. Vehicular traffic (cars and trucks) has increased dramatically since the construction of the second, identical bridge in 1958, which allowed one-way traffic to flow both north and south.  Since that date Oregon’s population has grown from 1.8 million to nearly 4 million and Washington’s population has grown from about 2.4 million to about 7.0 million.
2. It is a drawbridge that accommodates large, ocean going commercial vessels and, to a lesser degree, private sailboats.  When the drawbridge is open, traffic stops.
3. Commercial areas on both sides of the bridge have grown without concomitant improvements for entry/exit ramps.
4.  Interstate 5 narrows to two lanes as it approaches the heart of Portland near the Rose Quarter.
Approximately $185 Million has been spent to date on a variety of studies, designs and promotional campaigns to convince the legislatures of Washington and Oregon to construct the bridge.  So long has this process been going on that it has incorporated its own virtually permanent staff of 80 some people plus consultants, engineers, lobbyists and habitual do-gooders.  They have created their own romanticized project name – Columbia River Crossing.  It is has gone on so long that it is now abbreviated to CRC.  They have a logo, a website and there’s probably a jingle in there too.  (All of this stands in marked contrast to Minnesota which was able to replace the I-35W bridge spanning the Mississippi River with four lanes of traffic going each way in a time span of approximately two years (planning to construction completion) and a cost of $231 Million.)
And along the way, the fifteen years of effort and the $185 Million expended have resulted in several version of a new interstate bridge.  And they all share some commonality:
 They do not increase the lanes of traffic going either way.  So despite a doubling of the population on both sides of the river, the designs are stuck at three lanes going each way.  (Oh yes, there are additional lanes on each side but they are entry and exit lanes and still only three lanes actually span the river going each way.)
 The designs are too low to accommodate existing shipping traffic east of the bridge – a point overlooked in the designs and one that the advocates have steadfastly refused to alter for reasons wholly unrelated to vehicular or shipping traffic.
 Nothing is done to resolve the bottleneck south of the bridge and at the heart of Portland’s business district.
There is one other similarity that has created the design limitations, the delay in commencement and the waste of tens of millions of dollars – light rail.  For Portland’s uber left government, this has always been – has only been – about light rail.  The design of the bridge has been focused on accommodating light rail.  The height of the bridge has been about accommodating light rail and to a certain extent bicycles (another Portland touchstone).
Portland’s government is insistent upon imposing the waste of light rail on the citizens of Vancouver.  And Vancouver, at every opportunity, has steadfastly refused light rail.  But never mind; it is obvious that the “unenlightened” citizens of Vancouver don’t know what is best for them or how to best spend their funds for traffic movement.  They need Portland’s “really smart people” to help them with all of that.
And so, when Portland’s leftists failed to secure a vote in Washington’s legislature to participate in this waste of time and money, they decided that they could do it on their own – without the assistance of those Neanderthals in Olympia.  A project on the verge of collapse resurrected itself by coming up with a scheme to build the light rail bridge by making it a toll bridge.  Even though vehicular traffic was seldom considered during the design of the bridge, they realized that they needed somebody to pay the tolls.  And pay the tolls even though vehicular traffic would move no better than before.  Now, if they could just figure out a way to make all of those Vancouver commuters pay the tolls without setting up manned toll booths which would further diminish the flow of vehicular traffic.  To use electronic tolls (pictures of license plates followed by automatic billing) they needed the cooperation of Washington State and Vancouver city governments.  Well, it turns out that they are no more likely to get that cooperation to fund light rail to Vancouver indirectly by tolls than they were to get Washington to fund the light rail to Vancouver directly through the construction of the bridge.
So you might ask after fifteen years wasted, $185 Million spent, and vehicular traffic still snarled, what happened?  Apparently they forgot.  And the same can be said of the millions they wasted on a billing system for water and sewer in Portland, on the “Big Dig” sewer project in Portland, and the failed Obamacare generated Cover Oregon debacle.  But what the hell, it’s only money and none of it was theirs.
And, trust me, the Columbia River Crossing light rail project is not dead.  It may be dormant but liberals never let these white elephants die.
In the latter part of 2018 I wrote a column noting the announced closure of the efforts to secure CRC by reference to the Halloween series in which the homicidal Michael Meyers appears to die only to be resurrected for the next installment.
Well that time has arrived – I told you so!
 A June 12 article in the Portland Tribune announced the appointment of Gregory C. Johnson to lead the new effort to replace the existing bridge.  Mr. Johnson is a former officer in the environmental engineering firm of WSP Engineering out of Montreal, Quebec.  His previous assignments were in Maryland and Michigan.  It is unclear whether Mr. Johnson’s background included construction or advocacy for light rail but he will get a firehose full of it in short order given that the CRC project has never been about a new bridge and has always been about light rail. If he doesn’t toe the line on light rail he will be gone before Christmas.
In addition to hiring Mr. Johnson, the new (old) project is given a $100 Million budget.  One might wonder what has happened to the $185 Million previously spent over two decades on this boondoggle but that is irrelevant to the current crowd in charge – its OPM (other people’s money).  Little if any of this $100 Million will be used to study alternatives – like a westside bypass that may actually benefit the high tech corridor.  All of the topographical work has been done, all of the seismic work has been done, all of the environmental studies have been done, and all of the hydrology studies have been done – not just done but duplicated at least once if not multiple times.  There are even engineering plans.  No, the overwhelming majority of this money will be spent on light rail.  Actually you need to spend that kind of money to convince people of the value of something they neither need nor want.
The most important thing to note now is that the far left of the Democrat Party is in full charge of both the Washington and Oregon legislatures (with King County and Multnomah County respectively dominating their respective caucuses.) It means they have the votes and the key to the treasuries and there is nothing that will stop them from implementing pointless light rail to Vancouver unless Congress withholds funds.
So like Michael Meyers, like Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th) and like Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street), light rail across the Columbia River is revived and this time it will prevail.  Meanwhile, automobile traffic will continue to be snarled because the I-5 corridor is a bottleneck near the Rose Quarter.  And new taxes and tolls will be used to pay for its construction and operation forever.
I told you so!