By Joe Cortright of Portland, Oregon. Joe is the president and principal economist at Impresa, a consulting firm specializing in regional economic analysis. He's also a senior non-resident fellow of the Brookings Institution. Previously, he contributed Making Economic Sense of Measures 66 and 67
One startling picture should tell you all you need to know about the real driving force behind the Columbia River Crossing. This map shows red dots representing the increase in population outside the urban growth boundaries surrounding Portland and Vancouver. My friends at the Sightline Institute, who produced it call it the "measles" map, for obvious reasons: it shows the astonishing spread of sprawling houses in rural Clark County over the last decade.
The map clearly says something about the effectiveness of the two states' land use planning systems. Oregon's works. Washington's . . . not so much. While Oregon's strict agricultural zoning and tough UGB have contained urban growth; Washington's porous system has produced an obvious rash of exurban development.
The connection to the CRC: the project's forecasts show that more than nine in ten of the expected additional travelers over the widened I-5 bridge will come from further sprawling development in Clark County. For a long time, we've known that land use drives transportation, and Sightline's maps show how this works.
On the Oregon side of the river, the Portland Metro Urban Growth Boundary has done its job admirably: there has been precious little development on rural lands. In fact, according to the latest Census figures tabulated by Sightline, there's been essentially zero net increase in population outside the UGB. (View my report, Portland's Green Dividend, to learn how Oregon's approach to the UGB is effectively pumping money into the local economy.)
Meanwhile, in Washington population outside the region's loosely drawn Urban Growth Area (UGA) --Washington's pale imitation of the UGB--has increased by nearly 7,000 people and more than 3,000 housing units since 2000.
The Sightline report is a clear vindication of the efficacy of Oregon land use laws.
But the measles map has another message as well. Because the only viable way to travel to and from these sprawling houses to jobs and shopping is by single occupancy vehicle, exurban sprawl in Clark County generates lots of long distance trips. And many of them end up going across the Columbia River--to jobs and stores in Oregon. As a result, Clark County's lax land use policies that encourage suburban sprawl also fuel the demand for long distance single occupancy commuting especially from exurban developments in Ridgefield and LaCenter to jobs in Oregon.
Thus Clark County sprawl is the real driving force behind the CRC. And it's no surprise to CRC planners: As early as 2007, the project's "Travel Markets Technical Memorandum" predicted that 93% of the increase in morning peak hour trips over the new I-5 bridge will come from Clark County's "suburban fringe" (their term, not mine).
CRC advocates may claim that the $3.5+ billion mega-highway is about freight or safety or seismic issues--but all of these are actually red herrings. The real reason behind the CRC is the apparent desire of the DOTs to accommodate even more exurban sprawl in Clark County.
Oregon's land use system has contained sprawl, shortened average trip lengths in the region (creating a $1 billion annual green dividend) and made transit more successful and useable. We've raised density, and invested in making biking and walking more attractive. After all that hard work, does it make any sense to ask Oregonians to subsidize the infrastructure so that hobby farm and rural ranchette commuters from Battleground and beyond can have an easier trip as they drive their single-occupancy vehicles to jobs in Oregon?