Finding a Smarter Vision

Evan Manvel

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.

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    how nice of you to consider the current situation, which involves not only myself and my partner, but hundreds of thousands of other folks who live and work in SW Washington, currently at the mercy of an, on average, 1 hour commute merely from Delta Park to SR 14 (and vice versa) during rush hour - not to mention the ongoing throughout-the-day bridge lifts to allow for barge traffic on the Columbia River.

    While I agree we should be smarter about this (for instance, re-doing the rail drawbridge downstream would prevent 2/3 of current I-5 openings), doing NOTHING is NOT the answer - neither for Portland nor Vancouver.

    I urge you to come north of the river and see the benefits a rebuilt truss bridge with light rail, lifted safely over river traffic, can have for both sides of the Columbia.

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      I too live in Vancouver (have for about a year now), but have a very different experience than Shea's, even when driving in rush hour. The 1 hour average commute between Delta Park and SR14 isn't remotely accurate. Yes, things slow down, but not like the real gridlock I've experienced in other cities (try the Bay Area or LA).

      The megabridge will be a colossal waste of the region's money and we need to find a smart more cost-effective solution.

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    Two point, Evan.

    First, it's not clear that the switch from Democratic to Republican control will hurt the funding situation. I see a newly elected Republican member on the other side of the river, a newly empowered Greg Walden, and a barely re-elected WA senator who ran on her ability to score federal funding. Seems like a marriage made in heaven.

    Second, with all due respect, this is a multi-state, multi-jurisdiction, regional project. Portland may be "chock-full of people who make their living creating new visions for cities and transportation networks." but that doesn't mean the regional leaders are going to want this to be a project devised out of Portland.

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    The more idiotic opposition rhetoric about building a "mega-bridge behemoth" Like this and others post, the more I am in favor of the project (and a larger bridge).

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        In constant dollars, the CRC isn't close to the largest public works project in the region's history. Not even close.

        Furthermore, the bridge needs to be replaced, we need light-rail across the Columbia, as well as foot and bike capacity. And it needs to be of scope to accommodate differing scenarios of utilization for more than half a century onward.

        basic economies of scale point to a unified project that serves those multiple needs.

        Explore the best and most efficient design? All for it.

        Since we are investing a sizable amount of money into it, should it also be a signature bridge? Yes indeed.

        You want me to listen to the alternative ideas, drop the creative name slinging to the CRC issue.

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          "the bridge needs to be replaced"

          Who says?

          "we need light-rail across the Columbia"

          Clark County disagrees.

          "And it needs to be of scope to accommodate differing scenarios of utilization for more than half a century onward."

          Building primarily for automobiles does not fit those scenarios.

          "a unified project that serves those multiple needs."

          Since when does "unified project" mean one bridge?

          "Explore the best and most efficient design? All for it."

          Then why are you supporting a design that contradicts that?

          Your points here, Mitch, show a lack of real thought about this project and a significantly shallow perception of its consequences.

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    A region, or a state, or a city, that has the resources to build a $3 to $10 billion dollar bridge, but cannot find the resources or political will to to increase foreign language, especially Mandarin, and study abroad programs, IMHO, does not have a future in the global economy.

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      This is obviously too simplistic of an analysis, as if revenue and expenditures come through one single entity or person. But even so, I think there are plenty of things that are more important than Mandarin classes.

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    does anyone believe Kitz is going to be stupid about this bridge? a fix is needed for freight & public transportation; he knows that. we all know that. notice he's putting the onus on the feds for the money; he also knows fed money will be tied to mass transit, esp light rail, and to affordability. a 10- or 12-lane bridge isn't in the cards. which member of the House do we think can convince the new W&M Chair or Transportation Chair to give (blue) Oregon $3-4 million for this bridge?

    rather than hyperventilate everytime a Dem leader says something that isn't according to a specific interest group's dogman, how about stopping to look at the big picture and figure out what might actually being going on? we spend more time in panic mode over things that might be maybe possibly something that maybe might.... and not nearly enough on making sure what's doable, gets done. that's one of the reasons we get our lunch handed to us so soften: not because our leaders fail us, but because we fail them.

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      Yes, to the Kitzhaber question. He has lot of pressure on him to do something "stupid about this bridge."

      Beyond that, the more energy and attention he puts into the CRC, the less energy and attention he has for other priorities - like creating more jobs through more exports.

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    Where's the money, folks? Public debts is off the charts. They're talking about cutting Social Security, and we can't afford to keep schools open a full academic year or keep them adequately staffed, and multibillion dollar bridges are on the table??

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    From my perspective, the majority of opposition to the CRC I have seen are people who appear to be car-haters. That is over-simplifying, but there is a lot of people, like Earl Blumenauer, who believe that making car traffic as unpleasant as possible is the answer to getting people onto bicycles and mass-transit. However, the entire structure of mass-transit is completely dependent on the gas tax.

    In the original authorization period of SAFETEA-LU (2004-2008 FY), 32% of the highway trust fund money from gas/fuel tax was diverted to purposes other than construction and maintenance of roads and bridges (GAO-09-729R, 2009). Primarily this was bicycle / pedestrian paths and mass-transit.

    So much of the money currently dedicated to highways is not being used for that purpose. Mass transit should be part of the CRC, but it should also carry more of its own weight.

    However, that money by itself isn’t enough for this project, so there will have to be some general fund money spent on it.

    The point about the Republican Congress not wanting to spend money is a good one, but valuable infrastructure-building projects are the ones most likely to be authorized. However, the stakeholders must let go some of their intransigence about items.

    The regional leaders who wanted artwork and an “inspirational design” will have to accept functionality.

    Tolls are not tenable, but a TEMPORARY regional fuel tax for Oregon and Washington may have to be imposed. Adjustments in the weight-mile tax as well.

    Congress should rescind the requirement that Government construction projects must pay higher than market wages under Davis-Bacon.

    Evan mentioned opportunity costs. There are huge opportunity costs in doing nothing. The total lost-productivity from the gridlock at the I-5 bridge must easily be in the Billions annually.

    And I don’t care how our gridlock is not as bad as Los Angeles and San Francisco. That is one of the many reasons I don’t live in such areas. Also, I am not comparing to LA, I am comparing to Portland of 20 years ago. I can see why a person who hasn’t lived here long may not understand how a long-time resident feels.

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      The CRC will not solve the gridlock problem. The gridlock will just move to other parts of the system, and we'll be without funds to do anything.

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        I'm not an urban planner, but my daughter majored in it in college.(Later switched to nursing where she is happier.) But she maintains that the data shows that new freeways and highway projects don't solve congestion, they create more of it when more feeder traffic and commercial development moves to align with the new freeway. It concentrates rather than diversifies traffic patterns.

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          One difference is that this isn't a typical "new highway" project. It's an existing route, intended to move traffic from Seattle through LA; our problem is that we have far to many on and off ramps, which has turned it into a local highway, not an interstate highway. In other words, it's the people taking a quick hop over the river who are the problem.

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      Just curious... no major stake in this discussion... but I am fascinated by the discussion.... why are tolls untenable?

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    I'm not a fan of a big new mega bridge, but I do think we need a new bridge. Meaning, I don't think keeping the existing structure and refurbishing it somehow is a viable option. The current bridge is old and a safety hazard in more ways than one, and I don't think it's redeemable. A new bridge that doesn't need to have a draw bridge is needed. We need to extend light rail to Vancouver, in both the I-5 and I-205 corridors. We need safe bike and pedestrian pathways. I think we can accomplish all that without a huge mega bridge. But I think it will have to be a new bridge, or combination of new bridges.
    I think it is possible to overstate the CO2/global warming argument, because in a few decades more cars and trucks will (hopefully) be running on electricity or other alternative fuels that produce less overall CO2. And while it is true that relieving congestion over the Columbia River will shift it to the Rose Quarter, I think the answer to that is to fix the Rose Quarter, rather than not fix either the Rose Quarter or the CRC. True we can't build our way out of congestion, but that doesn't mean we can't ever make any improvements to some of our most important regional interchanges. Both sides are going to have to give a little bit here to meet in the middle and figure out a reasonable solution at a reasonable cost.

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      Keeping the existing bridge and refurbishing it is a completely viable option, if coupled with a new bridge. Nearly every counter-proposal to the mega-bridge involves some type of "supplemental bridge" approach -- rehabbing the current bridge and adding a modestly-scaled new one, at a substantially lower cost than tearing out the old bridge and building a gigantic new one.

      Most proposed alternatives suggest keeping the existing bridge for freeway use and adding a new arterial/transit bridge. My view (which appears to be a distinct minority opinion) is we should build a new 8-lane freeway bridge, funded by tolls, and rehab the existing bridges for light rail, arterial traffic, bicycles and pedestrian crossing. It's not the only solution, but it would accomplish nearly everything the "mega-bridge" proposal would do, and probably at less than half the cost.

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        I've wondered about this alternative. Thanks, Doug.

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        Doug, that's a great idea. The kind of compromise solution that might actually get done, being that it both throws a bone to the apparently insatiable hunger for freeway construction, while also taking the pragmatic approach of not throwing away good infrastructure.

        I've had a similar thought, basically:

        ** Refurbish the existing bridge, with: one lane devoted to arterial auto traffic (with a nice wide breakdown shoulder), and then split the other two lanes between light rail and bikes. Then devote the sidewalks to pedestrians. (Basically what it sounds like you're suggesting.)

        ** Put the same mix on the North Portland Harbor bridge to Hayden

        ** A sleek, simple 6-lane freeway bridge (unlike the 8 you suggest, since there's only 6 lanes of freeway to the north and south) that completely bypasses Hayden Island, and the disruption its shopper traffic causes. This would make the planned $554,000,000, 17-lane Hayden Island interchange unnecessary.

        ** No tolls (maybe). Maybe this all could be done cheaply enough that tolls wouldn't be necessary? Since tolls seem to be such a sticking point. And as the Impresa report points out, just collecting tolls will be hugely expensive.

        Using the existing bridge for active transportation makes sense because of something too rarely pointed out about the proposed bridge: it's really high. Last I saw, there were elevators up to it from Hayden Island, and I think over the river it goes about level with the towers on the current I-5 bridge. If you want to encourage people to walk and bike over a half-mile wide river, adding a steep hill for them to hike up isn't going to help.

        Personally, I'd rather we step back -- way back -- and re-think the whole notion of freeways cutting through the hearts of our cities. What is the the real value we gain in being able to drive through Vancouver and Portland at 60 mph? Is it that much better than, say, 40 mph? (I can hear the "getting goods to market" argument forming, but how many of our goods make most of their journey on a slow boat from China? Why does the last 100 miles of their journey need to be at freeway speeds?) Does the value of this extra 20 mph or so offset the damage freeways do to the fabric of our cities? (Any real estate gurus want to figure out how depleted the value of the land is along freeway corridors?)

        But short of that, something like what Doug suggests could be the way to go.

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    Has anyone considered a freaking tunnel? Check out this 15 mile project. HOUSTON I-45 Parkway + Tunnel

    The I-45 Parkway & Tunnel Concept is a long-term solution to traffic congestion on the I-45 corridor. It consists of four basic phases: 1. Build two tunnels beneath the existing I-45, from Beltway 8 in the north to US-59 south of downtown. This distance is about 15 miles. 2. Relocate traffic from the existing HOV lane on I-45 to these roadway tunnels and re-stripe existing I-45 to improve lane configuration. This will allow the existing HOV lanes to be converted to future high capacity transit (light rail) and will reduce the number of surface lanes. The tunnels will lessen the demand for surface lane capacity on the existing I-45. 3. Implement a research program to develop innovative and domestically (US) produced high capacity transit technologies to be incorporated into the I-45 corridor. 4. Development of the I-45 Parkway with high capacity transit (light rail) and implementation of strategies for stimulating transit oriented development.

    Houston I-45 Parkway & Tunnel Concept Some basic cost estimates for a six-lane 50-foot diameter roadway tunnel set it at about $160 Million per mile. Based on this cost estimate the proposed 15 miles of I-45, from US-59 south of downtown to Beltway 8 at Greenspoint, would cost about US$4.5 Billion which is cost competitive to the preferred alternative identified by TxDOT.

    Nothing has come of it (surprise, its in Texas!)

    As of December 2008 there is no update on the evolution of the I-45 corridor

    What will the economic impact of all the construction be? A tunnel would only cause issues at the terminus' and as the interchanges were integrated.

    The Houston tunnels are 2 level, would we need that?

    Just some food for thought.

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      Tunnels are expensive. Of course, tunnels can also be fitted with systems that capture exhaust and filter it - rather than letting it escape into the atmosphere.

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        $160 Million per mile is quite reasonable. The article quoted was $4.5 billion for 15 miles. A tunnel under the river might be what, 2-3 miles? As I asked above, what is the economic impart of the above ground construction, e.g traffic delays, temp roads to bypass construction etc.

        The Gotthard Base Tunnel estimated cost is $10.2 billion and its two 35 mile rail tunnels through solid rock!

        I think a tunnel would be a much faster method also.

        Just my 2 cents worth.

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    Great post, and thanks very much for featuring the video!

    One thing that doesn't get enough emphasis among all the talk of "how much we're spending on this bridge" is how much of this project is not bridge. The bulk of it has nothing to do with bridge-building.

    The CRC is a freeway project with a bridge attached. Most of its money will be devoted to on-ramps, off-ramps, and lane expansion.

    This is the frame of the video showing an itemized breakdown of the proposed costs (at the 3,600 million dollar estimate):

    You can see how the interchanges stack up cost-wise:

    Marine Drive Interchange

    Hayden Island Interchange

    SR 14 Interchange

    Mill Plain Interchange

    Fourth Plain Interchange

    SR 500 Interchange

    Cost of all CRC interchanges: $1,562,000,000

    Compare this to the cost of the CRC bridges: $818,000,000

    So the proposed cost of the bridge is just a little over half the proposed cost of the interchanges.

    And the cost of the bridge is only something like a quarter to a fifth of the total $3,600,000,000 project cost.

    Whereas the cost of the interchanges approaches half the cost of the project.

    And yet all the focus is placed on the bridge. Why is that? Personally, I think it's good marketing. Bridges are important, and iconic. That probably makes them easy to sell to the public. Whereas interchanges? Eh. Boring, complicated, and hard to think about.

    You can imagine a con artist trying to sell a bridge, but it's hard to imagine him selling a freeway interchange...

    That's a big reason I made the video. I was trying to get my head around the (proposed) costs, and (supposed) benefits of this project, particularly when it the parts that are so boring that I have a hard time thinking about them. The peppy music helps, I think.

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    Anything is rationalized in this society if it involves automobiles.

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    There is a major problem with the video*. Look at the "southbound traffic backs up in the morning" part of the video (0:25 - 0:30) The traffic over the bridge is indeed slow at times, but more often than not the traffic is slow south of the bridge. Think about that for a minute: If the bridge was the problem, then why does it cause traffic to slow down after they've already passed it? The bridge isn't the problem with southbound traffic. In fact, if you look at the fine print in the EIS, they even admit that a new bridge will have a very minor effect on southbound traffic speeds...

    The real problem with southbound traffic is the 2 lanes on I-5 at the Rose Quarter. If you think the megabridge is a good solution for the CRC problem then what the Rose Quarter needs is another costly set of interchanges, estimated at around $2B.

    Why isn't that more overtly mentioned? Why would we fix one without fixing the other? Why wouldn't we write an EIS/request money/etc to cover both projects at once? I don't know...

    *I can't blame the person who made the video for that. EISes tend to produce the solution to the problem that they said existed. This EIS said there was a problem with traffic on the bridge, and then the solution is to widen the bridge until it is wider than everything around it so that the traffic on the bridge is no longer a problem. People tend to react to EIS solutions by saying that they don't like the solution. But rarely do people go back to the problem and ask, is it the right one in the first place? In this case, if the problem had been stated as "we need to facilitate economic activity over the bridge," we might have reached vastly different solutions, including but not limited to, improving the schools on the Oregon side of the river so that families didn't flee Portland to go to Clark County. $3.6B would do a lot for our schools...

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      Hi Matthew,

      Thanks for commenting on the video! (I'm the guy who did it.)

      Your observation is spot-on. There was more that needed to be said about those traffic patterns (which, incidentally, were taken from Google's traffic maps back in May; it's a week's worth of average congestion played at something like three images per second). The main problem was time; I didn't have enough time to call attention to the patterns like I wanted to.

      But it is interesting how the congestion flows, mainly backing up south of the bridge.

      And it's even worse northbound in the evening - why?

      I explored a pet theory for this in a one-pager I did in response to Robert Liberty's call for entries:

      I think a lot of it comes down to the flow of traffic getting gunked up at the Hayden Island interchanges; a phenomenon I've heard described as "turbulence." So the problem would seem to have more to do with on-ramps and off-ramps, not to mention the wisdom of putting a big-box shopping center on an island whose one way on or off is a busy freeway interchange.

      Another thing that's pretty striking about those congestion maps is how solidly green the lines remain north of the crossing in the evening. But this plan calls for pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into demolishing and rebuilding freeway interchanges where those green lines are.

      Anyway, I'm glad you took the time to study the traffic maps, and to comment. Lacking the time to address what they seem to show, I hoped people would just notice on their own. It's great to get the feedback that you did.

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    I wonder how many of the people involved in this "debate" actually live with this bridge on a daily basis? How many of you were unable to get home last week because an accident just north of the bridge gridlocked all of I-5 north, all the way down to Tigard?

    I live on Hayden Island, was Co-Chair of the Hayden Island Plan Steering Committee, sat on the CEJG of the CRC for three plus years, and am currently involved with my community trying to assure that Environmental Justice concerns are addressed.

    And, I can see the current bridge, and the shipping channel from my living room, which is ten feet from the north river bank, mid way between the Interstate and BNSF bridges.

    The video, while informative, is also a bit biased. The actual bridge is only part of other "fixes" relating to interchanges that are stressed beyond capacity. The MLK north entrance ramp to the bridge backs up almost half a mile south at rush hour, as do most other entrances north at Marine Drive, Delta Park, Interstate Avenue.

    The larger issues which relate to jobs, the other falling down bridges on the Oregon side (Sellwood, Marquam) and street/highway improvements in Oregon relate to the Oregon taxing system which appears to have evolved one crisis at a time, a system of patches and emergency fixes, much like the actual streets themselves.

    The other issue is the federal share, and the larger fact that the entire country has been gutted of capital because of the Bush/Cheney "War for Oil" coupled with massive tax cuts for the most wealthy and the almost wealthy.

    Any conversation of the expense of building this bridge which does not include those conversations is simplistic.

    While this may be a "mega project" for this region, it is a postage stamp for much of the rest of the country. I-10 across most of southern Louisiana is one long bridge, for about 100 miles. My home town of Tampa Florida has two bridges that are 8 and 15 miles long respectively (Google "Howard Frankland" and "Sunshine Skyway." Then there is the legendary "Overseas Highway" that goes through the Keys to Key West.

    Lastly, while the gasoline powered automobile probably won't be with us much longer, personal transportation has always been with us. Starting with the "Sedan Chair", the wagon, carriage and riding horseback, roads, bridges and personal vehicles will always be part of human passenger transportation. The cars of the future will probably be powered by wind and solar generated electricity, but they will still be cars.

    The current bridge is not sufficient to the needs of the region, and specifically not sufficient to the shipping needs of the region, which depends on commerce for it's livelihood. While the price tag may be a lot of money, the larger portion is on the Washington side, and they will be writing the bigger check and paying most of the tolls.

    Can we please proceed FORWARD?

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      I think a huge emphasis of any crossing project should be placed on the needs of Hayden Island residents. That someone's chances of getting home (or leaving home) depend upon the vagaries of a congested freeway should be considered unacceptable.

      Did you happen to go to the City Club forum Evan mentions in his article? At that event George Crandall presented a "common sense alternative"

      A crucial element of which is: multiple ways across the river. It would seem to address many of the problems of the current congested single crossing. While also underscoring many of the flaws with the planned monolithic, swiss-army-knife crossing.

      BTW, it was nice to get a chance to meet you at the Bus Project event at the Backspace, when you were running for City Council. It was quite obvious then (and now) that you speak from the heart on these issues.


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