Third bridge over the Columbia is better alternative than CRC

by Ron Swaren

The proponents of the Columbia River Crossing have put blinders on and have force fed us their narrow vision, using $130 million of our own money. Besides providing some secure career opportunities to a clique of planners, engineers and support staff, this money–our money–also advanced the ill-informed “progressive” vision that has characterized urban and blue state politics. This vision facilitates, even encourages:

1. Rapid, almost uncontrolled, population growth in the region
2. A permanent demand for large scale “planning” activities and a planning bureaucracy
3. Forcing people into narrow lifestyle choices that fit the “new urbanist” model
4. Overly expensive public works that return an economic benefit to a relatively small group

It is appropriate for government bodies to cautiously approach projects and anticipate design flaws that could expose citizens (taxpayers) to financial liability. That is an unfortunate reality of the litigious age we live in and governments are wise to not fail in the duty to foresee contingencies.  However, hysteria has been gripping many people in this area who now have developed an unreasonable fear of cataclysmic occurrences.  Portland, while within the larger Pacific Rim, actually lies in a fairly placid niche of it. And if ever did experience the infrequent yet dreaded Cascadian subduction quake, there are plenty of other vital—and more vulnerable—-components of our transportation infrastructure at risk.

The Interstate 5 bridges, actually some of the most solid, well-built structures in our area, have been derided as old and antiquated and vulnerable in a major Pacific Rim type earthquake.  Many critics draw analogies to the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis which collapsed, and argue that all of our structures should be scrutinized. What they don’t know is that the I-35 was expanded to twice the capacity that it was originally designed for. Generally speaking, the Interstate 5 bridges from Portland to Vancouver are very well designed and accomplish their purposes quite well. With nominal regulation in the U.S. Congress, the aggravating bridge lifts can be reduced and relegated to off-peak times. And one important fact has escaped the hundreds of pages of analysis that the CRC Sponsor Council has invested in: for evening traffic, there is no congestion on the bridge at all. The congestion occurs before the bridge and resolves by the time traffic actually reaches the bridge itself. Knowledgeable Portland planners have offered low-cost solutions to this preliminary congestion.

Replacing the Interstate Bridges has been mainly pushed by those who would derive pecuniary economic benefit–such as construction unions— by transit agencies, and by advocates of a metropolitan-wide light rail system.  The Vancouver side of the Columbia River has been rather lukewarm to that notion.

The remarkable thing is that the actual light rail component actually in Vancouver city limits would be barely 1.5 miles long.  This, then, is the highly coveted result of a $4 billion venture: a token line, with just a few stops.  And it would still require some other means for passengers to actually get to their stop or park-and-ride.

The real need is to look at this problem as an inadequacy in the planning process.  Portland is a vital link in a corridor that goes from border-to-border in our country. If Portland never added another resident, we would still be impacted by growth in other cities in the I-5 system. While I value Portland’s legacy of questioning certain strategies—such as Robert Moses’ 1990 Transportation Plan—- constraining our local growth and interstate traffic to only two North-South routes is absurd. That is why many of us favor a third Columbia crossing.

Just as the I-205 was needed to handle growth in East Portland—and is no longer questioned as an essential element— we need something to handle projected growth in Washington County; specifically to the employment centers of the Beaverton/Hillsboro area. We must also reckon with more people moving into Clark County, Washington and seeking jobs in Oregon. This can be more than just another planning woe: Clark Co. commuters are bringing in roughly $150 million to Oregon Revenue—a figure which should go higher with economic recovery. Despite environmental hurdles, the time is right for a third route from SW Washington to the Portland Metropolitan area that facilitates our economic vitality and improves connection to other transportation routes.

We have a proposal for a route that would actually significantly reduce distance and time between Vancouver and the Beaverton/Hillsboro area; making it a winner even for alternative forms of transportation.

The CRC project is looking less viable every day.  Yet we need people to unite behind an alternative and better plan. Something should be done soon, because I-5 congestion is at an intolerable level.  Please visit this website and join us in this exciting option:

Let your policymakers know that this region deserves adequate, versatile infrastructure and not proposals with such a narrow scope and ill-disguised payback as the CRC.

(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.)