The Real Reason for the CRC: Supporting Clark County's Exurban Sprawl

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?

Comments

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      Agreed that the Metro UGB is too big. this is driven by the state mandated 20-year building lot supply requirement, which should be repealed immediately.

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    This is so easily dealt with, using the super-sprawling Washington, D.C. area as a model.

    Make one or more of the lanes in each direction restricted to cars with three or more people -- they call them "HOV lanes" (High Occupancy Vehicle) back in the East.

    Make that the HOV lanes free. Charge a high toll on the other, one- or two-people lanes. And lay on a decent schedule of bus and light rail service to encourage people to get out of their cars.

    You'll either encourage the sprawling Clarksters to start car-pooling, or you'll raise a fair amount of revenue for the two states.

    It's win-win.

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      I was going to say something similar. We need to put in a toll booth and light rail with or without a new bridge. It would reduce traffic without and add a cost to sprawl.

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      We had an HOV lane on the Clark County side heading south, but thanks to Don Benton, it was eliminated which reduced the attractiveness of the existing commuter bus to Portland.

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    Measles? More like the big C. Uncontrolled growth is the philosophy of a cancer cell.

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    Can't blame people for wanting to live in a house with a yard as opposed to a cramped apartment with no parking.

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    Interesting premise. If so, why are so many prominent Oregon leaders buying into this?

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      It creates jobs in the short run and revenues for construction firms.

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        Yes, that answers my question. But given our fiscal situation with public dollars, I'm just puzzled that there is any support at all for this, particularly given that there are so many other pressing infrastructure needs.

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          Agreed. I think the mayoral campaign showed how the system worked. Brady went with the bridge in an appeal to the construction unions and those supporting the bridge because they were aggressive in seeking support for their position. However, both Smith and Hales did not go there and the public sided with them.

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    Would people support the CRC if less housing in the Vancouver region were built outside its urban growth area?

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      Not the current version, for me. It moves congestion and its health consequences deep into residential east side Portland and has no real relationship to either Portland or Metro transportation planning, neither of which is strong enough on environmental or health issues to begin with. CRC makes it worse.

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    If we're going to make this a state thing, then I'm looking at the laws. I believe Washington has less strict land use laws than Oregon because of their economy. They have multiple Fortune 500 companies and other large, influential entities (mostly in the Seattle area) that need places to house their workers. Therefore, laws aren't very strict because they would be seen as hindering the economy. Unfortunately, Clark County is just one of those places that reaps the benefits of living next to a sales-tax free state with free and ample transportation to that shopping. Tolls on both bridges would help stop those long distance trips to save a couple dollars.

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    I think this post underestimates the close ties between the Vancouver and Portland economies.

    It's awfully easy to demonize Clark County and pat ourselves on the back. These kinds of quotes are not helpful: "hobby farm and rural ranchette commuters".

    Is that right? Or are Clark County residents middle and working class families who can't afford the prices of housing in Multnomah, particularly in areas with better schools?

    We conveniently forget that those evil Clark County residents are our co-workers and pay taxes into Oregon coffers.

    Agreed that Metro policies have determined that this land use pattern is not allowed here. But let's not kid ourselves that we are innocent of the impact these policies have on Clark County. Clark County is a convenient safety valve for Portland.

    A useful thought experiment might be how our economic vitality would be impacted if Clark County did not exist.

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      Paul, some of these are legitimate arguments up to a point, although I wonder if you make the corresponding ones in Vancouver about stereotypes of Portlanders there. But unless you have moved back to Portland from the 'Couv, probably you should mention as you have in the past that you have skin in this game from the Vancouver commuter side of things.

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        Pretty sure that Paul lives in Portland. I know he's talked about (threatened?) moving to Vancouver, particularly as school funding troubles arise again and again, but I'm pretty sure he lives in Portland.

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          My apologies to Paul. Evidently I misremembered posts from some time ago as having said he had done so when he must have only been saying why it might be a reasonable choice for him & his family. Thanks for the catch Kari.

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      Also, in what sense is Clark County a safety valve?

      I'd be interested in your views of a different thought experiment -- compare "not exist" to "if Clark County was part of Oregon"?

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        The "safety valve" concept is one pushed by folks who believe that the UGB would cause housing prices to spike uncontrollably - and that Clark County "releases the pressure", allowing Portlanders to maintain their belief in the UGB without paying the consequences.

        I happen to mostly disagree with that sentiment, since I happen to think that there's a healthy emotional barrier to moving across the state line (as irrational as that may be.)

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    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.

    I'm a huge fan of land use planning and linking it intelligently with multi-modal transportation options. And a huge fan of using strict zoning to protect natural resources and farmland.

    And I agree that the wrong bridge plan will fail to encourage more efficient use of the urban land supply and to some degree facilitate rural sprawl.

    But honestly, I find it hard to believe that the true political motive here is to facilitate rural sprawl in Clark County. 3000 housing units in a decade? Is that really enough of a market to drive the politics of a mega-bridge project?

    I find it hard to believe that WSDOT has this as a motive. I find it significantly harder to believe that ODOT is concerned with achieving this outcome.

    There's a lot of points that can be made here, and a lot of reasons to point to for not supporting the bridge as it's been envisioned. And it may well be that Clark County has some motive in line with your thinking (I really don't know.) But if you're going to convince me that Clark County's rural sprawl is the driving force behind this multi-state infrastructure project, you're going to have to work harder to make that point.

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    Well Mr. Kancler, you need to look at the history of contributions to Clark County Commissioners, the developers of fringe housing are the big givers in those races. The Planning Commissioner for Clark County quit after complaining that the Commission was an easy mark for development money. He said the county had zoned way too much land for housing as a result, and that it couldn't afford to serve it properly.
    I see other motives here -- the politicians in Portland -- Adams, Fish, Saltzman and Leonard went along with the CRC because of the support they saw for it in the Portland Business Alliance, in AOI, in the supposedly progressive Oregon Business Association, in the AFL-CIO, in AFSCME, in SEIU and in the building trades, plus the freight industry.
    There is also the matter of the $160 million that has been spent on local consulting firms and lobbyists, and continues to be spent at more than $2 million a month. More than $8 million has gone to lobbyists like Tom Markgraf, EnviroIssues in Seattle, David Parisi, and the current Governor's former Campaign Manager Patricia McCaig.
    Tom Immeson and Neil Goldschmidt, whose lobbying firm got this thing going in the 2003 session of the legislature, were registered lobbyists at the time for Parsons Brinkerhoff, which has, for example, received more than $17 million of work at latest count. We are not privileged to know how much Immeson and Neil made from this. I would remind you that Immeson is hauling in a quarter million from the Port of Portland as salary these days, and that he managed Governor Kithaber's transition, carefully seeing that the Governor bought into the CRC by who was chosen for positions on his staff and in the transportation sphere. If anyone is interested in the 16-page paper Joe and I wrote about suburban and exurban sprawl in Clark County from this thing, I am happy to send it to you.
    By the time the paid lobbyists had done their job, before this thing ever went public, it was a done deal. David Bragdon and Sam Adams went where their political bread was buttered, and so too many others, in the legislature, at Metro and in the City Council. One of my Oregon political heroes, former Governor Barbara Roberts has played a very important role in helping her former staffer Patricia McCaig shoo the later stages of this project through Metro. Tina Kotek and Tobias Read are leading the project to water in the legislature, but they can't get the votes to fund it in 2013 -- there are a large number of demo legislators who have wised up, and the Republicans understand how this project cannot be financed without devastating future transportation projects that might occur in their districts. But John Kitzhaber is going to have to face the music on this if he hopes to run again in 2014, and that ain't going to be a pretty sight for him.

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    Just a note about Eileen Brady's motives in supporting the CRC. When George Crandall, Jim Howell and I showed her the Common Sense Alternative, she said she would defer her decision until after she met with Immeson, which was coming up soon. The next thing I knew, Eileen was telling IBEW, "Build Baby Build." Sure enough, there are Imeson, Hewitt and Wyatt in her C&Es, to say nothing of the Building Trades and other interested parties.

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    Well Mr. Kancler, you need to look at the history of contributions to Clark County Commissioners, the developers of fringe housing are the big givers in those races. The Planning Commissioner for Clark County quit after complaining that the Commission was an easy mark for development money. He said the county had zoned way too much land for housing as a result, and that it couldn't afford to serve it properly.

    Thanks for the perspective, Ron. As I indicated I'm not familiar with Clark County politics, and the political dynamic you describe certainly isn't a new one (I live in Bend...), nor I suppose is it particularly surprising.

    So it may be the case that the power establishment within Clark County wants the bridge to support its rural construction ambitions, although I'm sure this isn't the only reason for the county's interest, nor perhaps even its driving interest.

    The author, however, has asserted something much broader, which is that the REAL reason WSDOT and ODOT are pursuing the CRC as they are is to facilitate rural sprawl in Clark County. Whether or not the effect of the bridge is to facilitate sprawling development (among other things), arguing that more rural sprawl in Clark County is the driving political motive behind the project seems kind of absurd.

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