It’s All in How You Frame the Question: Columbia Crossing Open House

Columbia Crossing 2 portlandtransport’s Columbia Crossing 2 photoset

I attended the Columbia River Crossing open house on Saturday (Oct 22, 2005). For those who may be interested, there are two more open houses scheduled on October 25th and 27th (details).

My first impression was that the sign you first encounter framed the question as one of congestion (“What’s Your Opinion of I-5 Congestion”) and that I had never seen congestion celebrated with balloons before!

With that framing, it seems pretty hard to get to a conclusion other than “let’s widen the I-5 bridge.” This is classic “predict and provide” thinking.

If we started with “what’s the best way to move people and goods across the river?” I wonder if we might get to a different answer?

I arrived about an hour after the event started, and it appeared that the rail advocates may have been there in numbers before I got there based on the comment charts. Lots of references to MAX and commuter rail.

Staffers from WDOT, ODOT and their consultants were out in force with very smart matching polo shirts (it was a little Stepfordish actually).

The project is now entering the Environment Impact Statement (EIS) phase, which is the planning effort required to select a “locally preferred alternative” prior to applying for federal funds.

My personally preferred alternative is not on the main list of options being studied. I’d like consideration of an arterial bridge with light rail, rather than an expansion of the freeway. This would help move people and goods and services, but not necessarily a lot more passenger cars.

Just as the Willamette has 2 freeway bridges and several arterial bridges (Broadway, Morrison, Hawthorne, Ross Island), isn’t it time the Columbia got an arterial bridge designed to move traffic between the districts immediately on each side of the river? Why do we force relatively short trips onto the freeway?

You can follow the project at its official web site


14 responses to “It’s All in How You Frame the Question: Columbia Crossing Open House”

  1. Yeah, why spend a gazillion on a new bridge(s) when other alternatives would relieve pressure on what exists? Another alternative–which they, for now, have tabled–is the “West Arterial Route”–i.e. connecting west Vancouver to Oregon Hwy. 30 via the rail corridor and North Portland Rd. I think this is sensible because downtown Vancouver IS spreading westward, and one could go all the way to Ridgefield via Fruit Valley Hwy. and downtown Portland is spreading northward in the River District and Linnton. I doubt that it would be highly expensive to add traffic lanes and possibly a streetcar track over the railway and construct two new bridges adjoining the rail bridges. I know this costs money but it would accomplish for the western Metro area what 1-205 has done for the eastern portion, yet on a more subdued scale.

    Evidently this route may be considered in the future; the idea has not been totally abandoned.

  2. Ron, while you and I are both Streetcar fans, if there’s any place in the region that definitely needs the higher capacity of MAX, it has to be in crossing the Columbia. Streetcar would not be adequate in that role.

  3. If MAX is brought across the Columbia River, through Clark County and down to PDX I hope it becomes something more than what it is today: a $350 million bus route! But I would like to know what that plan will cost and whether Clark County residents will pay for it and make use of it. Though I have used the airport MAX (it’s cheaper than long term parking), I am also aware of the arguments for light rail thru Clark Co. I daresay Clark County folks are not urbanist types: they are more like the typical small town, northwest cracker; “get in da car and go. What parking fee? I have to go over a mile to get the MAX?” But maybe it will work. Hope so. Clark County folks could become urbanists.

    That is why I have begun to qustion the LRT philosophy in Portland. The Gresham and Hillsboro lines have many passengers, but other proposals may only be glorified bus routes. Paul Weyrich’s New Electric Railway Journal has compiled stats on US cities LRT projects: cost, length, riders. Portland isn’t very high in efficient use. Boston or Atlanta seem to have a very high usage. For info go to : and click on Rail Info for US Cities under NNERJ Menu, then click on any subject (in red letters) under Basic Rail Transit Data by Rail Type. You will see that there is a wide disparancy between US cities in how well- utilized their systems are. (Sorry I couldn’t give you a link) Like I have said, other cities have been there before us, so we can pay attention and learn from them. Did it really help? Was it pork? Are they rethinking what they did? In what circumstances does it work and not work?

    Re: the Columbia Crossing; I have appreciated Jim Howells “get the most out of it” attitude, but I recognize Mr. Whitford’s vision of improved rail connections through the entire Northwest. I would hope that a blending of the two visions could be accomplished.

  4. Most people see the blue line of MAX as the only really popular line and the red and yellow lines as simply “glorified bus routes,” however, the blue line is the only “complete” line we have. Much like the lower projected ridership with the Seattle Link LRT: when Sound Transit scaled back its plans to only a segment of the original route, the ridership counts drop until the entire project is finished. This has happened with the yellow line. In the late 90’s a complete yellow line was offered, but failed to get popular funding. That line stretched from Vancouver to Clackamas and the ridership counts were much higher, obviously, than our shortened yellow line.

    Until the entire length is finished from Vancouver, via the Columbia Crossing project, to the South Corridor Phase II, ending in Milwaukie, and eventually a Phase III, to Oregon City, ridership will appear lower.

    A complete MAX system will be a great asset to our region as we deal with the limited capacity of our road, river and rail networks and the rise in fuel and energy costs.

  5. A few pieces of data from the last I-5 study:
    *incidents account for 50% of all congestion…Matt Garrett (ODOT Region 1) recently agreed with me on this.
    *1/3 to 1/2 of all trips on I-5 over the Columbia River are local…south of SR 500 to north of Downtown Portland, and would not be on the freeway if they had an option.
    *peak hours…6-8am, 3-6pm or 5 hours, represent about 10% of total operational time (i.e. 48 hours per day, 7 days per week). 90%of the time the freeway is fine!
    *during the peaks 90% of all vehicles are non-freight.

    I see this as a big public relations ploy to get a big new bridge that will be obsolete the day it opens.

    An arterial bridge with LRT is logical and long my favorite, but I still think a tunnel bypass and conversion of the existing bridges to arterials with LRT should be included in the EIR.
    See my piece elsewhere on this site.

  6. I just got back from picking up my mail in Vancouver, and took the opportunity to scout out the situation, again… I would like some response on these questions, anyone?:

    1. What specific route should a MAX crossing have?(Already Vancouver is throwing in condos and highrises close to I-5). I have seen the most basic route proposal, but specifically are buildings and businesses to be removed? Or will it go north on a particular thoroughfare?

    2. Could a new bridge at the “West Arterial” (R.R. bridge) provide an alternative MAX crossing and also an autoroute to North Portland, hwy. 30 and Terminal 6? This would take the MAX somewhat farther west; either the Yellow line could start bearing west along the southern edge of the Expo Center till it gets to No. Portland Rd. vicinity -or- it could angle across or go west through Hayden Island ( I don’t know what route it would go on to get past Jantzen Beach Center).

    3. How will higher density in Vancouver progress? I have heard reports of a plan to build riverfront condos, similar to those east of I-5 near the terminus of the railroad bridge. Development is already spreading westward from Esther Short Park. With potential Columbia River views will this turn into a new Pearl District? But the closer they get to the rail corridor, the more noise…

    4. What will it take to get Clark County to use the MAX? I agree this is a great proposal. If they have to walk half a mile, take a bus, or go to a PArk and Ride will they still leave the cars at home? What if parking fees have to be charged in the future? The present traffic over the I-5 bridge can originate from anywhere; if MAX doesn’t suit their need, then what?

    5. It is demonstrable that MAX routes do not reduce traffic in the long run. In its use as a development strategy to produce TOD the increased population, in whatever ratio, eventually fills the freeway back in. MAX also is a competitor to buses. MAX, or any commuter rail, can succeed if it is attractive enough to lure potential auto users and can justify the added expense over a bus system.

    I would like to see MAX or other commuter rail succeed. As I pointed out above has figures on ridership of rail sytems around the country. They are railfans but from a conservative viewpoint. But tough questions need to be adressed because I don’t think the federal government should *heavily* subsidize these sytems nor any other transit idea. As an analogy, LBJ envisioned the “Great Society” but Clinton had to dramatically reform it to reduce the federal deficit. Once again we are accruing a large deficit….

  7. Couldn’t agree more that we need to reframe this debate, and fast! As a starting point, we’ve identified concerns and priorities to shift the focus from congestion to the things we care about…community, public health, environment and quality of life. Check out the take action section of our website to see our talking points.

  8. I did go to the open house on Saturday with my son. I sold it to him as checking out ‘big bridges’. You have to bring in the incentives for three year olds, right?

    I was thankful to the group of CRC personnel who spent the four hours at the mall. I was able to speak to one engineer and he listened to my concern that we have one chance for this Crossing to be iconic and to service all the types of transportation options that Northwesterners value.

    This bridge will mark us (Brand us) for the next 50 to 100 years I believe. Too bad some of us didn’t get together and join the discussion as a diverse unit looking at our region as something worth thinking about.

    The engineer even took down on his flip chart my suggestions.

    First thing I believe should or might happen is the issue of safety will be considered critical. As stated above and before, the I5 Bridge has no shoulders for moving cars to the shoulders. This one issue is going to drive the “new bridge option” to fruition. Understanding this conclusion means moving forward and asking “Then where to place the new span?”

    I mentioned building the “three tower” suspension bridge just to the East of the northbound bridge in order to straighten out the jog at the North end of the current bridge ramp and continue the new facility to just North of the Delta Park Project. Doing this allows the current freeway to function as is until the new “auto” bridge is ready for the final work at each end.

    The current South bound span then has pedestrian lanes and local access lanes (tolled). Talking to the engineer, he agreed that someone trying to jump from the South bound bridge to the North bound bridge would not be very possible.

    Then the current North bound bridge is converted to light rail and high speed rail. No pedestrian crossing on the North Bound span to insure that the two rail corridors have no access to unauthorized personnel on that span.

    Remove half the piers to create more passages for sailboats and the barges. Both redesigned bridges have their highest points at the center span to meet Coast Guard/commerce requirements.

    The other acceptable part of this use of the older bridges is using the shorter South Channel bridges for local access (no toll) on the South bound bridge and Light Rail and High Speed Rail on the North bound bridge.

    The center “main tower” located on Hayden Island would hopefully be designed for a observation deck and maybe a resturant. Maybe “rotating”?!?

    The biggest issue I see about a suspension bridge is the cost but also the location of the “North Tower” and its required height (flight path for Pearson Airpark) and getting Highway 14 connected to an elevated bridge.

    Bottom line is this “baby” is going to effect us from Seattle to San Francisco for 100 years. And we need an architectural/civil feature that gives us a “place”. For Portland and Vancouver what is better than truly “super bridges” for everyone to recognize our “place”?

    Ray Whitford

  9. Extension of the Yellow Line to Jantzen Beach, and directly to downtown Vancouver, then to Uptown with the 1st phase ending at Clark College would have excellent ridership.
    Running it west on Haydon Island to the heavy rail alignment and back via the Boise Cascade land has merit, but out of direction travel is not a winner for ridership.
    Current travel time from Expo to Rose Quarter is 20 mintues, 30 to Pioneer Courthouse Square. Adding five minutes to get to JB and Downtown Vancouver might be all you would want to do…Ester Short Park to the Rose Garden in 25 minutes sounds pretty good.
    The EIS for South/North MAX showed that ridership would double with the Vancouver extension. On the west and east side MAX ridership is of such a level that it is equal to one lane of freeway or better.
    Again, many trips on I-5 are to North Portland…Rivergate, Columbia Corridor, Swan Island and Lower Albina… where together 40-50K people work. Many of those trips would be very attractive on MAX; Swan Island as two bus lines that run all day from the Yellow line to the Island. Most Lower Albina jobs are walking distance.
    For those for whom transit still would not work, an arterial bridge makes the most sense…a “Steel Bridge” if you will. Shifting those trips to an arterial bridge would take another lane’s worth of traffic off the freeway and make possible the closure of the on-ramps from Downtown Vancouver and Hayden Island that have no merge lanes, making the freeway a real 3 lane affair, with maybe half the current demand.
    So why a new bridge? Why all the fuss? Remember in ’97 when we put our shoulders to the wheel during the Interstate Bridge closure, all the feared traffic went away!

  10. Lenny,

    It seems like something could be done for the western METRO area, to accomplish what I-205 did for the east. The “West Arterial” was mentioned in previous analyses, so maybe it remains viable. I guess the other option would be something that comes through the confluence/Pier Park area, but where would the potential for rail transit be in the latter? It’s too far out of the way. So, as NW Portland grows out along Front Ave and Vancouver grows west, the “heavy rail”/Portland Road (West Arterial) route would be a relatively short connection and could provide access to a significant number of destinations. And I think it could have commuter rail potental.

    Like you say it could relieve traffic on the I-5 route-the adjoining highway in Washington state goes all the way to Ridgefield-and I think it could be another mass transit option–such as via a streetcar connecting Esther Short area to River District and Pearl, with stops for St. Johns, U of P, and Hwy 30, etc. I will go today (Tuesday) and try to raise this point.

  11. All the data from the I-5 Task Force, 2002 edition, showed relatively few trips to the west side over I-5. Likewise the recent analysis done for Metro Rideshare by Urban Trans (PB was the partner on this) shows that most those who work in Hillsboro or Beaverton live on the westside of the Willamette; very few come from Clark county.
    I think an argument could be made for a Port to Port bridge along the heavy rail alignment that was designed for freight and linked into Mill Plain and Columbia Blvd, which someday will have its own bridge across the Willamette downstream of the St Johns.
    I oppose any roadway through the RR cut…just another freeway in N. Portland that will undermine its resurgance.
    Again, I question the real need for a big project, but if ODOT and WSDOT insist, then I would advocate for a bypass tunnel and the conversion of the existing bridges to arterials with MAX. All the freeway between Columbia and Mill Plain could be torn out and replace with boulevards and new development along the river!

  12. I think the central problem here is that Clark County continues to build more homes than it creates jobs. Any effort to reduce congestion on I5 runs up against that reality. If we add capacity to I5 we should do it with our eyes open, the purpose is to provide opportunities for further residential development in Vancouver, not to solve traffic problems in Portland.

    Metro’s modeling for the first task force showed that any new capacity on I5 resulted in relatively higher property values in rural Clark County and lower values in central Vancouver and on the Oregon side of the river. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the investment, but it ought to be clear what we are getting in return.

    Adding new capacity reduces the amount of time each day that speeds will be 10-20 mph, but it won’t change the speed during rush hour. And since you have more lanes, there are actually more people going 10-20 during the times that the road is still congested. The benefit of the new capacity is that it allows people to travel at their optimum time rather than earlier or later to miss the worst of the rush hour.

    But the Portland street grid can’t absorb the traffic across the bridges now. Adding capacity to allow 50% more vehicles to cross the bridge at the same time will likely create more congestion whereever that traffic gets off. The question I would ask is where is the excess capacity in Portland to absorb the extra traffic?

    The second problem is that people determine the length of their trip by time, not distance. Faster speeds just mean that people now will buy houses further from work or travel further to go to a particular store. This is why the average length of a commute measured in time has not changed appreciably in the last 100 years. When people walked, they lived within 20 minutes walking distance of their job. When they could drive, they live within about 20 minutes driving distance (on average). I’m not even sure the average transit or bike trip is any different.

    I think the key question for light rail or bus is the land use plans in Clark County. Given the current auto-dependent development that is taking place, it is unrealistic to think that Clark County will have the kind of residential or employment densities that can support a robust transit system. Extending light rail across the river to connect downtown Vancouver and Clark College makes sense. But unrealistically assuming a further extension will just create misleading modeling results that will make it appear that the overall plan will reduce congestion and improve air quality.

    The truth is that there would be no immediate need to expand capacity across the Columbia if they simply put tolls on the existing bridges during their peak use. The result would be an increase in car pools, an increase in transit ridership and a decrease in trips during rush hour. Essentially making more efficient use of the existing vehicle capacity instead of adding more.

    The proceeds from the tolls could be used to subsidize the alternatives for people to avoid paying them and ultimately to add capacity when the all the efficiencies have been milked out of whats there now. We could easily delay the need for new capacity by a decade or more until we have milked all the efficiency possible out of the current capacity.

    The basic problem is that we can’t fix the congestion. We can only move it around in terms of when it happens or where.

    Advocates of alternative transportation also have to insist that the plans for Transportation Demand Management, ITS and other soft solutions are developed with the same specificity as the engineering solutions.

    The last study just stuck in a reduction in the amount of traffic with a laundry list of ways it might be achieved. In essence, the task force bought into a goal that would require doubling or tripling parking costs in downtown Portland without saying they were prepared to actually do that.

    They said they were going to manage access to the freeway to maintain its free flowing condition without actually stating how long the delays would be for people in North Portland stuck at ramp meters. Or how far up the street the line of cars would run or what the impact would be on neighborhood streets.

    I think getting specificity on these things will be a huge battle. The DOT’s want a big honking bridge. They are going to promise congestion reduction and freight mobility. But the truth is they can deliver neither without some new management scheme for the freeway. And the barrier to more efficient management of the freeway is not lack of vehicle capacity but lack of political will.

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