Soylent Grey is the CRC!

Evan Manvel

Soylent Grey is the CRC!

A projected southbound traffic map after $4,000+ million spent. Red is congestion. (North to south is top-bottom, time of day is left to right, river's the blue line in the middle). Source: CRC project.

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.

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    Disclaimer: I do some work for the Coalition for a Livable Future on the costly, risky CRC highway mega-project. I speak only for myself, and do not get paid based on the number of times I say costly, risky.

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    And yes, the Soylent Green analogy is a bit tortured. Sorry about that...

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    Aren't you preaching to the choir here? Where's the lobbying effort while the legislature is in session?

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      You might be surprised to learn how much of small-b "blue Oregon," and especially "blue Portland," is not part of the choir re: CRC skepticism.

      At least one candidate for mayor is a vehement supporter of the CRC, and in at least one way, big-b Blue Oregon is tied to that candidate...

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    Many legislators read BlueOregon - when Kari posted his analysis of the legislative races, both Rep. Kotek and Rep. Hunt commented. And many legislators mention my BlueOregon posts when I see them.

    That said, I've been down to the legislature quite a few days this session, and am headed down tomorrow.

    I'd encourage other folks to make the trip too, or at least attend local town halls or write their legislators.

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    Another great article, Evan. I appreciate the elegantly simple and effective list of responses to CRC-booster bullet points. And good use of a Charlton Heston reference. :)

    I've been feeling a little Soylent-Green-Heston-esque ever since, in the course of my messing with Google's traffic congestion maps (a tool that lets anyone explore a typical day and time's highway congestion, which in the case of that link is Weds 5pm), I noticed something interesting: The traffic is typically at its absolute worst in the stretch of I-5 going through North Portland, between where our biggest planned freeway expansions - one of which is the CRC - are planned.

    Which suggests we had better brace ourselves for a whole lot more freeway even if the other expansions get built. And this suggests (as you suggest) that the CRC isn't going to do that congestions any good, because that congestion isn't within the CRC project area. The CRC will just pour more traffic into this NoPo jam.

    I made this map to explain what I mean (and because it was that, or running around yelling, "Don't you seeee??? Wake up, people!!!"). You can see to the north there is the CRC, and to the south there are the planned expansions of the Broadway and Rose Quarter stretches of I-5. This typical Wednesday morning's congestion (as of Dec 26, when I made this map) is located between all that asked-for freeway construction.

    Bottom line: It's generally assumed by CRC critics that the Rose Quarter is the next big bottleneck after the CRC. But I think the NoPo stretch of I-5 north of the Rose Quarter appears even worse. And I think that several-mile stretch of I-5 will become the next big freeway ask, after the CRC, its tolling, its financing, and a Rose Quarter expansion have together sucked up over $10 billion dollars of the public's money.

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    All that Canada-to-Mexico traffic on I-5? Those drivers are directed to take I-205 through the Portland region.

    I'm not exactly sure how they're "directed" to take I-205. I do know that casual drivers making their way through the region are very likely to take I-5 all the way through - since GPS guidance systems bias against changing roads (here's a google map, for example).

    I've long believed that one simple, very-low-cost step we could take to reduce congestion on I-5 would be to swap the names of the two freeways. Just make the eastside loop part of I-5, and make the the road that comes through town I-205.

    There would be some short-term confusion as maps get updated, and people get used to it, but after a few years, all would be well. Heck, you could reduce some confusion by calling the in-town section something entirely new - presumably I-605.

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      They're directed to take I-205 on the highway signs. That is, the signs that people see when they're driving, if they're not staring at their handhelds. :)

      I believe the highway signs say "Salem" when driving south, and "Seattle" when driving north, both directing people to I-205.

      But yes, I think the renaming would help a bit on the margin.

      And depending on origin and destination, some of the long distance freight traffic takes Highway 97 to avoid the constant vertical up-down of I-5 in Southern Oregon, which is both a fuel and time waster.

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    Here's the google street view of the direct sign going north, telling people to use 205 to get to Seattle.

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      A correction: coming home from Salem today, they've changed that sign. They put up a map on the side of the road showing both I-5 and I-205 diverging and re-merging, and the directional sign mentions only Portland and Oregon City, methinks. No mention of Seattle either way.

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    I agree, we do not need a new bridge. But I do not agree that tolling is the answer. It would make congestion worse, not better. Have you recently driven across the Golden Gate Bridge or the Bay Bridge? Going into the City, backups occur even when traffic is relatively light. To my knowledge, not one mile of I-5, from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, is tolled. The message we would be sending to truckers is a loud and clear: avoid Oregon at all costs. Regarding routing thru traffic to I-205, have you driven I-205 lately? It's as bad as I-5, with terrible bottlenecks in several areas, especially between Oregon City and Foster Road. That roadway backs up every weekday beginning mid afternoon.

    Smart use of scarce resources is needed. A new bridge would not solve the congestion problem. So much attention has been focused on the idea of a new bridge because it has been coupled to the effort to bring light rail to Vancouver. Like many, I like light rail but have my doubts that this project can be cost justified, especially given the reluctance of voters in SW Washington to support it. I would spend resources on adding a third lane to I-5 southbound as it leaves the bridge and currently goes from three lanes to two and then again back to three. This is where we see the worst bottleneck today. It is not a long-term solution to the overall problem, but neither is a new bridge in the same location.


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      The message we would be sending to truckers is a loud and clear: avoid Oregon at all costs.

      And if you're going from Washington to California, how exactly could you do that? They pretty much have to go through Oregon, tolls or no tolls. There may be some valid policy reasons to avoid tolling, but "scaring away through traffic" isn't one of them.

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      Don't the San Francisco bridges you're referring to have the kinds of toll booths where you have to stop at the booth itself? Those certainly do slow things down, but what I've heard about the CRC tolling is that it would be a fancy new style of tolling that employ license plate readers or some other technology to make it so vehicles wouldn't have to stop. So it might not be cause for that particular concern.

      And since freight is one of the more valid concerns driving the CRC, and because freight is only 8% of the traffic crossing the Columbia at that point - while most of the congestion is caused by commuter traffic - personally I'd be all in favor of a tolling exemption for freight.

      Maybe the best idea then would be to simply use tolling as congestion pricing, just enough to tone down the gluts of rush-hour traffic (and to pay for the tolling infrastructure itself, which is actually pretty expensive), and that's it. Don't even use the tolling to pay for the seismic upgrade on the current bridge, fund that through some other means. It's a common, shared transportation resource, and a seismic upgrade is pragmatic and conservative enough fix that it would make sense to fund it through the usual transportation budgets. (Whereas draining the common budgets to essentially subsidize a smalle segment of suburban commuting via a gigantic boondoggle seems less reasonable to me.)

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    If I were conspiracy-minded, I might think that the CRC was just a nose in the tent to get notoriously freeway expansion-wary Portlanders to the point of throwing up their hands and agreeing to expand I-5 all the way through the city. After all, for a city its size, Portland's freeways are pretty diddly. Highway engineers, I'm sure, think I-5, 1-205, and I-84 ought to be 4-5 lanes in each direction at a minimum. And, of course, projects like those with all their concomitant land acquisition, demolition, business and residential relocation, and construction would provide full employment for realtors, lawyers, civil engineers, cement contractors and construction workers until sometime around 2065 -- plenty of jobs. Oh, and the bonds to pay for it would keep the rentier class happy as clams.

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