My heart sank when Governor Kitzhaber told The Oregonian: “To me, there’s no question whether we do it or not.” It’s a matter, he said, of making sure [the Columbia River Crossing is] the right size and will improve freight traffic. There's some wiggle room in what "it" can be, but the underlying message seems clear.
Throughout the heated discussion about the proposed Columbia River Crossing MegaBridge – the largest public works project in the region’s history – people seem to be talking past each other. Those in support of a MegaBridge argue that doing nothing is not an option. That's not only false – indeed, studying doing nothing is required by federal law – but it's not a course of action anyone I hear calling for. Meanwhile, while those against the MegaBridge point out the holes in the argument for the bridge, we have yet to all unite behind a single clear alternative (though we have offered many alternatives, including a supplemental bridge).
Despite the ongoing pressure to build the behemoth, there’s always been the problem of cost – a problem made somewhat larger at the federal level by the recent election, which took away key posts from Oregon’s delegation and added several anti-spending, anti-transit members of Congress. It is uncertain whether or when the disparate huge pots of money will appear for the bridge – I have yet to hear anyone make a convincing case that all the key pieces have support.
A key question – opportunity cost – is rarely discussed. Is spending $4,000 to $10,000 million – roughly $12,000 per household in the region – on a new I-5 bridge the most cost-effective way to meet our goals? If the main goal is to improve freight movement, should we spend so many of our limited resources on a single bridge and nearby ramps and realignments? Will the projected traffic – a key piece of funding is tolling – actually show up, or will the state and region be saddled with big gaps in the funding scheme, forced to raid other projects to make up hundreds of millions of dollars in missing revenue? Plaid Pantry recently commissioned a study from Impressa Consulting that raises some of these issues - noting the huge financial risks and that financing costs, etc. could lead us to pay $10,000 million over the project’s life. Whether the price is $4,000 or $10,000 million, it's a lot of money we could use for other priorities (though the specific pots of money aren't directly fungible, I'd argue the political capital is).
There are also significant debates on the project’s effectiveness. Will the project shift I-5 congestion to the Alberta area, as some studies suggest? Is it consistent with our commitment to take our climate change responsibilities seriously? And in a couple decades, will traffic movement be better than it is today? Lurking in the corner is a critical question: is the proposed project consistent with federal and state laws?
We need a smarter vision. Luckily,
Portlandthe Portland region is chock-full of people who make their living creating new visions for cities and transportation networks. There’s little in the basic CRC proposal that indicates a broader vision for the region’s growth and land use patterns.
At a recent forum convened by Metro Councilor Robert Liberty, a panel saw a dozen different visions, looking for an alternative to the MegaBridge that the region could unite behind. The proposals address some or all of the underlying challenges we face, most at pennies on the dollar compared to the MegaBridge. This builds on previous work. Since the project’s momentum started, a group called Smarter Bridge has worked to look at alternatives. The Coalition for a Livable Future has pushed for a Climate Smart CRC. And Spencer Boomhower recently created the engaging short video (above) that raises important questions.
In defining what "it" is that we will do, I urge the Governor to look at MegaBridge alternatives with an open mind, and to help us find a solution we all can support. There’s a November 15 City Club forum on the issue at 6 pm at Jimmy Mak’s. At the end of the day, it’s hard to see how we can afford the MegaBridge, or even if we could, how it’s the best deal for the region we call home.