Designing the Right Columbia River Bridge for the 21st Century

Jill Fuglister, Co-Director, Coalition for a Livable Future; Mel Rader, Co-Director, Upstream Public Health; Jon Isaacs, Executive Director, Oregon League of Conservation Voters; Rob Sadowsky, Executive Director, Bicycle Transportation Alliance; and Brock Howell, State Policy Advocate, Environment Oregon

Last week, the independent Columbia River Crossing review panel, appointed by Governor Kulongoski, published a critique of the CRC project. Their review calls into question several major elements of the current proposal, including the design, financial plan, and environmental impact of the project. Their findings echo the concerns of project opponents who worry that the project is overly expensive and is completely out of line with Oregon’s vision for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The study rightly emphasizes the project’s “speculative” financial plan. With a total estimated cost of nearly $4 billion, a megaproject like the CRC is unlikely to receive full state and federal funding. If it did, it would lock up state, federal, and other transportation funding sources for the next decade or more and leave the rest of Oregon’s transportation priorities with even fewer resources. Meanwhile, Oregon has cut $150 million from its education budget in 2009 and another $259 million budget cut this year.

Now, even as Oregon must cut jobs to fill budget gaps, proponents of the current CRC design are being forced to reexamine their proposed megaproject. The independent panel has made it clear that even the current proposal won’t be able to move forward without redoing much of the analysis that was done early in the project. We also know that the current proposal would create congestion in the Rose Quarter and I-205, increase global warming pollution from cars and trucks, worsen air quality, and decrease bicycle and pedestrian safety. These issues will ultimately cost us billions more to fix, and that money is not yet part of any proposed plan or budget.

The City of Portland commissioned URS, a construction and engineering firm, to analyze CRC data, designs, and strategies. The URS report shows that we can manage traffic, move freight, and reduce automobile trips while protecting our economy and the environment. Instead of borrowing billions of dollars we don’t have for an impractical project that won’t meet our area’s needs, we should be focused on designing the kind of project that the whole community can support.

This decision will be with us for a century or more. Rather than build the wrong project at great expense, we can develop a financially responsible solution that:

(1) includes only as many lanes as we will need and no more,

(2) uses aggressive policy strategies to manage congestion and thereby save billions in construction dollars,

(3) includes good options for public transit, walking and biking,

(4) positively impacts the health of residents, and

(5) is in line with the global warming reduction plans approved by Washington, Oregon and many local jurisdictions.

In order to achieve these principles, we urge the Project Sponsors Council to conduct a detailed study of all of the alternative recommendations in the Portland /URS report.

  • (Show?)

    Is the Portland/URS report online? If so, what's the link?

  • (Show?)

    You can access the final report from this City of Portland web page:

  • (Show?)
    ...includes only as many lanes as we will need and no more...

    You forgot to include the key criteria in that statement, which should be "over the lifetime of the bridge". That would be well over a 50 year horizon at a minimum. So you have to include as many lanes as we will need over the next 50 years, not just now or in the next decade or two.

    I also find it odd that language which implies that a large infrastructure project must somehow balanced against the issue of job cuts due to budget constraints brought on by the economic crisis.

    This is a false choice. The dollars spent on infrastructure projects are money that is spent on jobs and put back into the economy.

    The Hoover Dam would never have been built, and the tens of thousands of jobs in construction of it alone (much less the economic activity it has since) were the calculus based on if we were in an economically tight situation with pressures to cut jobs (it was designed and built at the height of the Great Depression).

  • (Show?)

    While there is much to be argued on both sides of this issue, too much of the arguments against the project are posed by people who rarely use the bridge and rarely have to deal with the day to day aspects of the current one.

    We the residents of Hayden Island, for whom the bridge is our only access to and from our homes, are quite familiar with the limitations and issues of the current bridge(s).

    Try actually taking a bicycle ride over them. Try walking across either of them. As much as I would enjoy doing either, one is a suicide mission, the other is 3/4 of a mile spent less than four feet from screaming traffic and exhaust fumes.

    Change costs money. Changing to a green infrastructure also costs money, as we will all find out when we buy our first electric cars, or make other changes toward a less energy wasteful world.

    We the residents of Hayden Island, have been at the center of working to design a less expensive, down scaled, environmentally conscious, bridge. If you look at the modifications that have occurred, mostly because of our protests, that is evident.

    We are grateful to other groups who have also worked to bring the bridge issues into the public consciousness, but if it it possible to build a new bridge in a manner that has the least environmental impact, then we hope that option will not be discarded.

    People have always had individual transportation. Before the automobile and trucks, it was horses and wagons. With impending issues relating to "Peak Oil", and the increasing cost of carbon based fuel, we will all be switching to something that is carbon neutral in the very near future.

    Lastly, the tolling on any new bridge will do more to reduce carbon emissions than any other single feature. Along with genuinely viable bicycle lanes (instead of the current four foot wide death traps) and the extension of light rail into Clark County, the new bridge will cut carbon emissions. It will also save hundreds of thousands of dollars (annually) in painting, propane cannons (every Spring to keep birds from nesting in the steel, their excrement being filled with acid that eats the steel), repairs to the lift mechanisms, etc.

    I invite anyone to come sit in my living room or on my front deck and watch the bridge (I can see the traffic on it as I write this) and see the reality of the current bridges. That will inform a lot of this debate, and perhaps shed some new facts on this conversation.

    Regards, Edward "Ed" Garren, MA, LMFT Co-Chair of the Hayden Island Plan Steering Committee Founding member of the Community & Environmental Justice Group of the CRC

  • (Show?)

    Ed, thanks for the Hayden Island perspective. What is your steering committee's position on the Bragdon/Adams proposal, if you have reached on yet?

  • (Show?)

    While I wholeheartedly support a scaled down version of the CRC, congestion tolling and mass transit before more lanes I find the reference to our state budget woes and education funding unnecessary and a pretty disingenuous and not worthy of the folks who penned this piece who I all have great respect for.

    As most informed commentators know the state coffers are not a huge single bank account through which we decide how to spend things.

    Infrastructure projects, road maintenance and bridge repairs are funded through both the gas tax and special bonds. Now I could be wrong on this, and I will be happy to put up my hand and say so, but I'm pretty sure whether or not we build a $4 billion dollar bridge or do nothing will have zero direct impact on the general fund allocation for public education.

    I point this out just because I think it is important to avoid false choices between important funding priorities. We can repair/build our infrastructure and fully fund schools. We can set aside funding for parks and salmon habitat and fully fund our schools.

    Arguing among ourselves about how the divy up the increasingly shrinking pie instead of focusing on why that pie is shrinking is exactly what the "other side" wants us to be doing.

    • (Show?)

      At the Federal level, we are paying for some highway and bridge projects with general fund dollars. See here, for example. All the recent Federal stimulus infrastructure projects were funded on general fund dollars (borrowed, I think it's fair to say, from Japan, China and others). And we are now building bridges and roads on Federal stimulus dollars while we lay off teachers.

      Our political system creates the funding categories and sets the priorities. If we don't like how they are playing out, we should change them. Some categories are created by special interests, both good and bad, to protect funding for, well, their special interest.

      We do not have enough public revenues to do all the good things we can imagine. We must set priorities. The CRC is definitely not one of mine.

  • (Show?)

    I know very little about this project and I know nothing about how such things are planned. I do think that whatever is built should have safe public transit, bike and pedestrian traffic options.

    Having said that, I have two questions that perhaps someone more in the know (or someone with an opinion) can answer:

    1. I understand why it would be difficult to predict the usage of the bridge over the next 50 years, but I've seen everything from 8 lanes to 14 proposed which seems like a huge difference. Is it just that everyone uses different data to support their wishes or do we actually have two reputable government studies that show very different results?

    2. I've heard much talk about how we need to make sure that the bridge is unique and something to behold. Some even say something about how a unique bridge would help drive our economy. I don't understand---while yes, it'd be nice to have something aesthetically pleasing, the purpose of a bridge is to get people from point A to point B safely and with minimal time travel. If you can do that AND have a pretty, unique bridge, great but if not---will a pretty bridge really bring more business to Portland than a boring one? It's going to be the only one in the area so people will use it regardless.

connect with blueoregon