Why I oppose the Columbia River Crossing

April 22nd, 2009

I’ve been reluctant to talk about the Columbia River Crossing project — the plan to replace a local hunk of Interstate 5 with a much larger, wider hunk — because I hate to preach to the choir.  I’ve naively assumed that all my Portland friends and neighbors are already lined up in opposition to any sprawl-enhancing freeway upgrade.  After all, this is the city that blocked the Mount Hood Freeway and rerouted I-5 off of the waterfront.   We hate this sort of thing, right?

But Portland has changed a lot in the last decade. We have more people, more cars, bigger suburbs and, I worry, less of a sense of local history, of how Portland became the great place it is.  So perhaps I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am that the CRC isn’t on everybody’s radar yet.  But I know I need to say something when perfectly intelligent friends of mine say to me, “Gee, Mykle, you sure are worked up about this CRC thing … tell me again what’s wrong with expanding the bridge?”

WHAT’S WRONG WITH EXPANDING THE BRIDGE:

Anyone who’s ever sat in traffic has wished for more lanes.  If you regularly commute on I-5 north of Portland you can understand the appeal of an additional six lanes of space over the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver.  It seems obvious that adding more lanes will reduce traffic congestion.  But that’s not what fifty years of freeway history tells us will happen.

Sure, when a freeway is enlarged there’s usually a short-term improvement in traffic flow.  It lasts long enough for the boosters to heckle the naysayers and for the developers to congratulate themselves and move on to the next project.  But soon thereafter, the phenomenon of Induced Demand takes hold.  This just means that a person who today says “no” to a job involving a commute through that corridor, because the traffic sucks, will tomorrow say “yes” when it sucks less.  Likewise, shippers will be able to ship goods farther distances in the same time, so market forces will drive more trucks onto the road.  As long as our willingness to drive is a constant, our driving demand will expand to consume additional freeway supply until the equilibrium congestion level of “almost-but-not-quite-unbearable” has again been reached.  In about four years, traffic will return to the same level of slowness and frustration as before the expansion — but with more cars, driving longer distances.  Which means, lest we forget: more fossil fuels burned, more greenhouse gases emitted, more global warming, more air and water and noise pollution, more freeway traffic deaths … come on, do I even need to explain this part?

That’s why some traffic engineers equate freeway-widening efforts with trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt.  More freeway capacity — more lane-miles of freeway — equals more cars and more time spent in them, period.  It does not equal faster travel.

That’s what we can predict for a theoretical bridge on a theoretical freeway, based on an exhaustive UC Berkeley study of California freeway expansions and their aftermaths.  But the CRC project has other, more concrete downsides.  For instance, here is a list of Oregon’s biggest freeway bottlenecks in the year 2008, with the I-5 bridge crossing topping the list.  However, look further down the same list and you can see several other I-5 choke-points just south of that one, at Victory, Broadway, Columbia, Alberta and Killingsworth.  These are due not to bridge traffic but to busy local interchanges with I-84, the Fremont Bridge, Hayden Island, Swan Island … all sorts of causes.  These choke points aren’t going to go away with a new bridge; in fact, they will get worse in the short-term scenario of reduced bridge congestion, because southbound traffic will idle here instead of over the Columbia.  That’s why the CRC would significantly increase air pollution in the city of Portland.

In other words, if traffic is no longer backed up over the river, it’s going to be backed up next to our communities.  The increased level of infant and childhood respiratory diseases from proximity to the freeway is already well-documented and terrible.  But what if traffic is idling next to our schools for three hours every day?

THE GREEN FREEWAY

CRC boosters know this bridge is a hard sell in Oregon — although many Vancouver suburbanites are already salivating for it — so they’re trying to sweeten the deal with so-called “green” features, such as light rail to downtown Vancouver.  This is a waste of money, because almost nobody lives in downtown Vancouver.  Most Vancouverites would have to drive downtown just to use the light rail, and at that point they’re already on the freeway and about to cross the bridge.  Are they really going to pull over?

Vancouver lacks density.  Making transit work for such a city is hard, and since all those exurbanites bought their homes thoroughly expecting to drive everywhere for everything, I don’t see the point of building them an expensive light-rail line that they’ve told us repeatedly they don’t want and can’t afford to run.

The CRC plan promises to blanket downtown Vancouver with ramps and exits, which is maybe not the “rejuvenation” downtown property owners had in mind when they originally supported the idea.  At any rate, the CRC is not going to magically give Vancouver a vibrant urban core — at best it will turn the historic downtown district into one big park-n-ride lot, while enabling real-estate developers to sell even more condos even farther away from jobs, schools and community — temporarily supporting the lie that these condos are “just minutes from Downtown Portland.” By the time the true cost of living in those Clark County exurbs becomes clear, the developers will be long gone, and the poor suckers who moved there will be stomping their feet for yet more, yet wider freeways.

Light rail will be a good idea for Vancouver when Vancouver makes a collective decision to want it, pay for it, plan around it and use it.  Until then, light rail on the CRC is just lipstick on a pig.

Other green features of the CRC project include … umm … let’s see, there was something about salmon habitat, if any salmon are still around after a giant construction project reconfigures the riverbed.  The greenest thing we could do for those fish is leave them alone.  A wider bicycle path was another cute piece of suggested greenery, but we can place that idea in the pile of improvements to the existing bridge that we could make at a fraction of the cost.  Same with the seismic retrofit, although there are many Oregon bridges more in need of that kind of maintenance.

KNOW YOUR OPPONENT

Okay, so the CRC is a terrible idea.  Why don’t we just ix-nay it and get on with the good life?  Unfortunately, there are a lot of powerful people trying to sell our region this bridge, and they’re making progress.  Who are these CRC supporters, and why do they support it?

• Well, obviously property developers like it, especially those sitting on undeveloped land in northern Clark County and/or unsold exurban condo ghost towns on the northern edge of Vancouver civilization.  They need to sell the lie that these plots are somehow near a city, and that living there won’t be isolating and dull.  What they don’t need is a real, lasting solution to congestion — with a quick fix, they can make their money and split.

• Some downtown Vancouver landlords, too, are hoping that the bouquet of overpasses and off-ramps planned for hooking up this monster to their street system will somehow reinvigorate their deserted downtown.  Alas, we know from experience that overpasses do not attract families or businesses.

• Likewise, the big-box mall operators of Jantzen Beach dream of more cars on the bridge, because they equate it with more customers in their malls, regardless of what else might be collapsing in the global economy.

• Recall that Wal-Mart wants to build a store on Hayden Island.  This bridge will let them do that, so we can count on their support.  The viability of edge-of-nowhere chain superstores is directly related to the level of traffic on I-5.

• Finally, for some reason our elected officials are falling all over themselves to support this.  Sam Adams is the obvious big disappointment, but there are others.  Politicians and planners like these sorts of big projects; it makes their city bigger, thereby making them more important and giving them more accomplishments to point to at election time.  And, if I was to be more charitable, I’d say that our city council is charged with the job of helping the local economy to flourish, and this project will almost certainly involve big piles of circulating money … which will, I’m sure, promote “growth.”

SMART GROWTH?

Let me go out on a limb here and say something that almost every CRC supporter will call ludicrous: “growth” is dumb.  “Smart growth” is a contradiction in terms.  Right now our city, our country and our planet are all reeling from a long list of serious, apocalyptic problems that can be directly traced to 100 years of unfettered growth.  Growth in population, in land use, in fossil fuel consumption, in pollution, in exploitation and economic manipulation, in power, et cetera, all fueled by our discovery of a giant pile of free energy in the ground, almost all of which is both filthy to use and beginning to run out.

We can’t go on like this.  It’s obvious.  There’s too many of us and we consume too much.  The earth’s population is going to shrink a lot in the next 100 years; all we get to decide is how.  Can anybody doubt there will be less driving in the future?

That’s why, when I hear all our local officials and planners and our (god help us) newspaper of record, the Oregonian, still parroting the idea that some vast number of new people (a million?  ten?) are guaranteed to arrive in our region soon (by 2010?  2020?), and that all we can do to mitigate such a disaster is get some freeways and condominiums built before they show up, my blood boils.  Fortunately, most of the projections that drove this mad population estimate are suspect, predicated on the idea that growth patterns from the mad mid-2000s would continue upwards forever.  Unfortunately, despite overwhelming evidence that the world is changing gears with or without us, the planners behind the CRC cling to their projections and insist that the current environmental and economic crises are all just a passing phase. To which I guess I would reply: this phase will pass when we figure out a viable new direction for the future of our region.  Otherwise I expect it to stay.

SO WHAT INSTEAD?

Well, there’s a lot of alternatives to this CRC plan, lots of options if we could get our elected officials and their bureaucrats to seriously consider them.  The CRC studies, drawn out and expensive as they have been, have from the outset assumed that some kind of bridge had to be build where the existing I-5 bridge is, and that it had to be bigger.  Tying the committees’ hands like that amounts to a huge waste of time and talent.  Fortunately, various alternatives have been proposed by various third parties, many of which suggest adding bridges elsewhere, possibly including tolling, or light rail, or free kittens for the elderly.  Here’s my proposal:

DO NOTHING

Let us declare that the current supply of freeway space in Oregon is the very largest amount we will abide.  Let us place a cap on any expansions, and insist that any future increase in lane-miles anywhere in the state must be offset by an equal reduction elsewhere.  Meanwhile, let’s continue to use our existing, beloved, recently renovated I-5 bridge and look at other approaches to reducing congestion, such as bridge tolls, improved transit, creating jobs on the Vancouver side, reducing housing cost on the Portland side, or simply reaping the benefit of the nationwide reduction in driving that we’re already seeing.

I wouldn’t suggest that we halt maintenance on our bridges, but we certainly should prioritize the biggest problems first.  The current I-5 bridge (actually two bridges side by side) may need some kind of seismic retrofit in the future.  But first, other freeway spans with more serious maintenance issues should get the attention and funding they need.

As should our sidewalks.  As should our potholes.  As should our other transit systems, and our schools, and our state health services, and all the many other public goods now being cut back due to huge budget problems statewide, while at the same time we seriously contemplate spending at least three billion dollars on this bridge to sprawl.  Whatever we do, let’s not do that.

5 Responses to “Why I oppose the Columbia River Crossing”

  1. Surlyben Says:

    Well, hell, you’ve convinced me. Although I do doubt that there will be less driving and less population in the future, at least in this country…

  2. Bob Says:

    Preaching to the choir, indeed! More people need to hear this point of view and I could not have put it more bluntly.

  3. b.ton Says:

    you should send this to the newspapers in town, this needs to be read by the general public! i think this is enough info to cut the strings of these puppets running around in favor of the crc who don’t even know why they’re in line with such a ludicrous plan in the first place!

    assuming they can actually read for themselves.

  4. See this before Says:

    I agree with what you are saying. Bigger highways are madness. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs where we had a knot of highway that consistently tied up traffic. Just like the CRC plan, developers were sure more lanes would help. They were right for about a month or two. Then it went right back to the exact same commute time as before. If you add in the two plus years of traffic disruption to build it, those two months don’t even count!

    4.2 Billion dollars is a whole lot of money for something that will not work. One mile from that bridge on the Portland side the highway goes to two lanes one-way plus a car pool lane for a total of three lanes. Engineers could expand the bridge to 10 lanes each way and you’d arrive at the same place, bumper to bumper traffic on and off the bridge.

  5. revphil Says:

    i like it! in fact i stole it! http://smarterbridge.blogspot.com/2009/05/who-benefits.html

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