The Arterial Bridge option has been haunting the bi-state deliberations on the Columbia River crossing for some time. I was a member of the Governors’ I-5 Task Force…the so called “Trade Partnership”… (I cast the lone dissenting vote on the final report), and recall the night about mid way through our several years long discussion when someone, maybe it was me, suggested that what we really need across the River is a “Broadway Bridge.” This came in the wake of staff’s report that somewhere around a third of Interstate Bridge traffic was “local.”
From my own perspective as resident of the eastside of Portland who crosses the Willamette River often, this was an “Ah Ha” moment, and it appeared that many colleagues on the Task Force shared this reaction. I cross the Willamette by car, bike, bus, MAX depending on time of day, trip destination, etc. Car trips may be over the Fremont Bridge or even the Marquam, but are often via the Broadway, Steel or Hawthorne Bridges. But the point is that I have lots of options and chose the one best suited to my purposes. Travelers across the Columbia have very limited options…they must use a freeway bridge, whether they drive, take transit or even bike.
As the Task Force neared the end of its work, staff reported that the “8-2” option…a new eight lane freeway bridge with a new two lane arterial bridge…performed very well. At that point I made a motion, seconded by then Portland Mayor Katz, to include in the final TF recommendations for further study a “6-2-2” option…keeping the existing bridges and adding two 2-lane arterial bridges, one adjacent to the current bridges and the other at some point within the heavy rail bridge alignment. This motion “failed” on a tie, 10-10 vote. Interestingly enough some “yes” votes came from Washington side representatives, while three “No” votes were cast by those on the Oregon side…Port of Portland, ODOT and sadly, Metro.
I was assured at the time that the “6-2-2” option would be included in any DEIS. Clearly the largely consensus based process of the Task Force had broken down and the Facilitator has simply ruled “tie means exclusion, rather than inclusion.” So in the end the “6-2-2” was sort of recommended, I voted “No” on the final recommendations and the powers that be did not invite me back to the expanded Columbia River Crossing effort…for which I am grateful.
These task forces, commissions, studies, etc. are really public relations campaigns, the staffs of which are sort of like the panels of experts hired by the cigarette industry to tout the benefits of cigarettes, etc. Staffed and funded by the big DOTs, how can we expect anything but “big project solutions”…until their work is subject to truly independent review by the federal courts, which I believe will and should come to pass in this case. Until that time, we won’t really know the score.
So how bad is the congestion on I-5? For five hours every day, AM & PM peaks, its not fun, but that is not much more than 10% of the operational time of the roadway (24 hours x two directions = 48 hours; 10 %= 4.8 hours). Most of the weekday and almost all thru the weekends, the roadway is fine. Add to this the impact of incidents, which account for 50% of congestion, and you have to wonder…is the sky really falling? I am repeatedly reminded of the predictions of our energy needs in the 70’s…how many nuclear power stations did WPPSS (otherwise known as “Woops”) start to build? I-5 needs to be better managed and incidents reduced; there are lots of low cost strategies to do this effectively.
But what about freight?…in the peak hours on I-5 freight represents about 10% of all vehicles; reduce the numbers of SOVs by 10% and theoretically you could double the amount of freight getting through in the peaks. For true interstate freight movement there is I-205, and indeed lots of loads from the Puget Sound area to California go via I-90 and US 97. UPS the parcel delivery company whose main hub in on Swan Island already has solved its I-5 problems…it has 100 or so employees at a Clark county sub-hub. A UPS employee commented to me that if WashDOT really wanted to help freight, they would legalized “triples.” When I see raw logs hauled through Portland in the middle of the peak, I have to ask, “what freight crisis?” Another section of a bill of goods.
And is freight movement really that critical to the regional economy? Joe Cortright, a highly regarded student of this issue, was pretty clear the other night that its not. Surely no one will argue (except the Port of Portland) that the containers of frozen French fries and straw cubes moving to T-6 are the cornerstone of the regional economy. Intel did not lose market share due to whatever delays they may have in getting product to PDX. But this is not about freight…the first project endorsed by the “I-5 Trade Partnership” Task Force, Delta/Lombard, removes an existing freight advantage…the add-lane off Columbia Blvd. Southbound…for the benefit, God love ‘em, of Clark county commuters driving alone into Portland.
So what happens if nothing is built? More Clark county commuters join vanpools & carpools, ridership goes up on C-Tran’s new 4 and 4 Limited buses to Delta/Vanport MAX, fewer people move to Clark county, more Clark county residents opt for lower paying jobs there (sans Oregon income tax), some N. Portland businesses with a high % of Clark county employees (or whose owners live in Clark county) move their businesses north, some Clark county residents who work in Portland move to the revitalizing neighborhoods in N Portland. The sky does not fall! People adjust. Indeed property values edge up in N/NE Portland and cool off a bit in rural Clark county.
The Arterial Bridge with MAX is really a compromise…more vehicle capacity, but not so much that its overwhelms Portland, real competitive transit options, especially to North and Northeast Portland, and all at much lower costs…one small bridge now and maybe another later. Curious, but the staff opposition to this option, to even analyzing this option, appears to be based on two arguments…1. it will not carry enough traffic and 2. it will carry too much traffic. Certainly it will be a busy structure, and it will allow the
worst offending on/off ramps on I-5 to be removed, and it will cost less. Most important, It will give Clark county residents a choice…take the freeway, take the arterial, take MAX, take a bus, ride a bike…sound familiar? To not demand a fair and impartial analysis of this option borders on the criminal.