Remember the cult classic movie Soylent Green? It’s a dystopian film where - spoiler alert - the leaders of the overpopulated earth decide to euthanize 40-year olds and have their corpses turned into the soy-lentil green food – Soylent Green. Charlton Heston famously screams at the end of the movie, "Soylent Green is people!"
Similarly, with the costly, risky CRC highway mega-project, our leaders are pushing to euthanize a middle-aged bridge. Just as the people in the film avoided wondering what Soylent Green was made of, so too are many people failing to explore the details of the CRC - Soylent Grey.
The CRC is a lot of things: a five-mile freeway and interchange expansion, a light rail extension, a bridge. There’s a huge question at the center of the mega-project: do we actually need a new bridge?
The question isn’t “Would a new bridge be nice?” like a kid asking, “Can I have a pony?” But rather, “Is a new bridge the best use of our limited resources?”
Particularly in a time of budget cuts, we need to focus on fiscal responsibility. And looking at each of the arguments made by CRC boosters, it becomes clear Oregon has higher priorities. We have bridges in much worse shape, schools and other essential structures more prone to earthquakes, highways more essential to interstate travel, roads with much higher crash rates, and smarter ways to address traffic congestion.
The Bridge Spans Have More Than 50 Years Life Left in Them
In asking whether we need a new bridge, one might start with a basic structural engineering question: given the bridge spans were built decades ago, how many years of life do they have left?
Answer: More than 50 years. We’ve invested significantly in maintaining the bridge, and it’s in pretty good shape.
From a 2004 ODOT report:
“personalized care, combined with large maintenance projects, has kept the spans healthy and free of weight restrictions. With ongoing preservation, the bridges can serve the public for another 60 years.”
That's many more years than scores of other bridges across Oregon. ODOT Director Matt Garrett:
“[B]etween 2030 and 2060 ODOT will be hit by a massive wave of bridges that will reach the end of their design life and will require replacement or substantial repair. In the 2030s and 2040s, ODOT will need $5-6 billion per decade to deal with this wave of replacements and repairs—about 10 times the amount currently being invested. At current funding levels, by 2050 only 25 percent of state highway bridges will be non-distressed.”
So structurally, we’ve got other priorities for the next fifty years –- priorities we’ll struggle to afford. Meanwhile, the CRC looks to spend about $75 million just on tearing down the existing I-5 bridges that have a half-century left in them.
Oregon has Higher Priorities for Earthquake Safety
CRC backers love to bring up earthquakes ("[W]hen logic fails, try fear." - Nigel Jaquiss, Willamette Week). The right question here is a big picture one: In an earthquake, what’s most at risk, and how do we prioritize fixing those things?
The last comprehensive survey found over 1,000 Oregon schools that are at High or Very High risk in earthquakes. In transportation, ODOT codes the Marquam Bridge “structurally deficient,” but not the I-5 bridge. Thousands of bridges and hundreds of thousands of buildings don’t meet current high seismic standards. In fact, the region has just one bridge that meets current standards (the new Sauvie Island bridge).
If we pour billions into the CRC, that’s money we’re not spending seismically fixing all those other things. For those who fear earthquakes, the CRC diverts money away from seismic upgrades and maintenance (about $250 million of the $4,000+ million project can fairly be considered seismic costs). And of the money we’ve spent so far on high-priced consultants and lobbyists for the CRC? Tens of millions of that is interstate maintenance funds that could have been creating union construction jobs seismically upgrading bridges.
The Primary Interstate Route Is I-205
CRC backers will argue the bridge crosses the Columbia River, making replacing it especially critical (Eileen Brady made a version of this argument on Think Out Loud). On inspection, this too fails to convince, as the I-205 bridge carries more than twenty thousand more people across the river each day than does the I-5 bridge, and it also doesn’t meet current seismic standards.
All that Canada-to-Mexico traffic on I-5? Those drivers are directed to take I-205 through the Portland region. So if we’re targeting our seismic reinforcements to ensure people get across the Columbia River and freight moves along the west coast highway corridor, upgrading I-205 would do more.
Finally, if we’re really convinced I-5 needs seismic upgrades, we could reinforce the current bridge for roughly $200 million, saving billions of dollars for other projects.
Safety Corridors are a Better Solution for Crashes
Another argument why we “need” a bridge is traffic crashes. But the data don’t back that up. ODOT Transportation Safety Administrator Troy Costales notes, “Interstates are -- by far -- the safest roads in the state.” On Portland's fatality maps 82nd Ave, Foster, Barbur, and 122nd jump out, not I-5. And ODOT targets the state’s worst crash areas on state highways with its traffic safety corridor program. Guess what? The CRC area doesn’t make the cut, because it's not one of Oregon's worst safety areas.
If ODOT wanted to, it could implement a safety corridor on I-5, increasing enforcement, education, and low-cost engineering improvements. As Costales testified on Monday, “The implementation of safety corridors is relatively inexpensive and has been shown to have dramatic impacts on crash rates.”
But to focus our safety investments on areas that aren’t our most dangerous means more Oregonians will die on our roads. Thus spending on the CRC undermines safety, instead of supporting it.
The CRC Does Not Fix the Traffic Issues
Finally, there’s the argument about moving traffic. For all the number of times the mega-project’s staff and consultants call the CRC a “long-term, comprehensive solution,” it’s anything but. The southbound traffic congestion barely changes – in fact, the congestion is projected to be worse in North Portland post-project than if we did nothing. The project’s Independent Review Panel – people hand-picked by the CRC-backing Governors – found: “Questions about the reasonableness of investment in the CRC bridge because unresolved issues remain to the south [near 405 and the Rose Quarter] threaten the viability of the project.”
And the most comprehensive academic review of highway expansions within urban areas found they induce an exactly proportionate increase in traffic, countering hoped-for improvements in traffic flow. It concludes, “the welfare gains for drivers of building more highways are well below the costs of building these highways.”
We Don't Need a New Bridge
The facts speak for themselves. The current bridge has more than 50 years of life left in it, and our seismic and safety priorities lie elsewhere. To help traffic and freight move, we should implement congestion tolling immediately, review the results, and identify investments that best target our needs.
We all want a new pony and shiny new highways and bridges. But we certainly don’t need one, and it’s far from the best use of our limited resources. It’s time to pull the plug on Soylent Grey, and start moving forward on an affordable, functional plan.
A note: Both the existing bridge and the planned new Columbia River Crossing bridge are in fact two bridge spans, side by side. For conceptual ease, I sometimes refer to them as singular bridges.