Freeway Loop-The 2nd Domino in the CRC Process

I know the main focus of debate on the future of the I-5 system in the Portland area has of late been on the future of the Columbia River crossing. One “wild card” that will be arguable for years is how much growth can we reasonably anticipate in the Portland- Vancouver area. Right now, with the second highest unemployment rate in the US— a typical Oregon condition, btw—the immediate prospects of population growth are relatively low. In the 1980’s Portland proper even declined a bit—nevertheless rebounding once the economy improved again.

This has its advantages. Unlike Seattle, which in recent history has experienced smaller downturns, Portland’s larger pauses in growth provide the opportunity for a more coherent planning strategy. And I expect, that just as sunny summer days follow long gray winters, the influx of those seeking a safer and more enjoyable place to live will be headed our way again. There is even a name for it: the Western Migration. So unlike I-405 in the Renton-Bellevue-Everett area our interstate system has not passed a crisis point. But it’s getting there.

Anticipating continued and increasing congestion on I-5 and I405 through Portland, former Mayor Vera Katz and ODOT Director Bruce Warner formed the Freeway Loop Advisory Group to propose some solutions. Their report can be found here. The solution that seems to come up most frequently for discussion is on p. 11 of the Report: the Full Tunnel solution. Basic features of that particular plan are:
1. Removal of Marquam Bridge
2.”Travel decks’ (tunnel) beneath the Willamette riverbed and continuing to NE Broadway
3. Rebuilt interchanges at 1-84 and OR-99E
4. New street connections atop the tunnels
5. Central Eastside railway located below grade
Capital costs in 2003 dollars were estimated at 3.0 to 5.6 billion dollars

But in view of the escalating cost estimates for replacing the Interstate bridges (this started at 1-2 billion dollars and now is 3-4.2 billion.) and considering comparable projects in other US cities I would feel obligated to question the 2003 figures. And then there is the inflation factor. There are some other loose ends in the equation:
1. If we are putting I-5 below ground why stop at NE Broadway?
2. What if tunneling under the Willamette runs into some unforeseen difficulties?
3. What if burying I-5 under east Portland runs into difficulties or objections from powerful property owners?
4. What if the Union Pacific RR doesn’t want its line located underground? And what is the safety factor in burying an industrial rail line far below the flood level of the Willamette?
5. Doesn’t putting a major freeway under a natural body of water push the labor costs up far more than typical surface construction? There are such things as premium pay for hazardous environments.

Yet the 2005 report of the FLAG determined that the congestion of the I-5/I-405 loop was already near its limit. Now, however, without any revelation of this report in the ongoing discussion of the CRC project, we are considering a project that could attract even more traffic to the stressed I-5 route. Moreover we have (varying) projections of population increase of perhaps one million more by 2050 to a doubling of the Metro, population by 2060. It’s anyone’s guess, but we all believe more people will move here. So I am looking at other options. Like “Co-existence”

Seattle, again, solved some of its central city freeway problem by building the Washington State Convention Center partly over I-5, with the added “Freeway Park” adjacent to it. I googled “built over freeway” and came up with a number of projects. Two outstanding ones were: in Phoenix with the half -mile long Margaret T. Hance park built above I-10; and I-696 in Oak Park and Southfield, MIchigan capped by three, separated parks. How could this be done in Portland so that there is usage of the riverfront area but without the high costs certain to come with a freeway relocation project?

There is approximately two thirds of a mile of east Portland riverfront property that could be capped. This is approximately from the Hawthorne Bridge to the Burnside Bridge. The I-5 freeway is on the ground at this point, or nearly so, and it is also directly across from the heart of downtown Portland. A plaza elevated above I-5 could be connected by stairways to the East Bank Esplanade. The “plaza” would actually be a complex of buildings, parks, walkways, amphitheatres—and openings. Perhaps development could be built above the rail line as well.The main intersection of a north -south plaza would be the Morrison Bridge and this is where some extra strategizing needs to happen. Right now we have four high and long ramps that connect to the Morrison and these are taking up a lot of the airspace over blocks that could have a better use. I see some possibilities for consolidating these presently unsafe ramps and perhaps establishing some new connections to McLoughlin Bv. and to downtown Portland.

This could be a vastly less expensive means of having better access to the east riverfront than wholly relocating I-5. Something like this is happening with the Alaska Way viaduct in Seattle, although that project does involve a tunnel, which is expensive. The only roadway reconstruction in my proposal is for the four ramps that now connect to the Morrison Bridge. This doesn’t give us a several mile long unbroken East Bank. But it would give us a sustantial stretch of prime waterfront land–and fairly minimal interruption of our connection to the rest of the riverfront. But I think this can only be done if the CRC is not built. With population growth I believe that an enhanced I-5 crossing of the Columbia will eventually result in significantly more traffic through Portland as well. This may be mitigated by mass transit but I think in the long run traffic would increase.

11 responses to “Freeway Loop-The 2nd Domino in the CRC Process”

  1. Care to comment on the fact that the latest CRC proposal has “20” lanes across Jantzen Beach? That’s right, “20” — 8 thru-lanes and 12 exit/entrance ramp lanes.

    Jim Howell’s got some ideas about I-5 on the eastbank, the main one is to designate I-5 traffic to I-405.

    I would add having the Marquam (or its replacement) only handle I-84 traffic with a northbound exit and southbound entrance at a Morrison Bridgehead ‘circular’ intersection between Belmont and Morrison Viaducts. There would also be an I-84 and I-5 north entrance ramps. The overhead I-5 north ramp from downtown would come down.

    Overall, about 30′ of waterfront land is gained, which should push traffic away from the bank enough to reduce the noise.

    From the Rose Quarter, the entrance to I-5 southbound would require taking MLK to this Morrison Bridgehead. The entrance to I-84 from the Rose Quarter would also require taking MLK. This idea redirects traffic away from the Rose Quarter.

    I believe putting a 3-track UPRR mainline in a tunnel under Grand Ave is the best idea. Jim Howell supports building a railroad ‘trench’ on SE 1st, but it would cut off all eastside street and require rebuilding Powell Blvd. I’d rather see Powell Blvd rebuilt to go under SE Milwaukie and SE 21st.


    Seattle’s latest tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the so-called ‘Deep-bore’ is a monstrosity. It doesn’t provide access for about 40,000 daily vehicles or 2500 ‘per hour’ bound for Ballard which are redirected to Alaskan Way surface boulevard along the waterfront and 15-20 stoplights. Consistent gridlock is guaranteed.

    The better tunnel for Seattle is the “4-lane” Cut-n-Cover, WsDOT’s Scenario ‘G’. But, it makes too much sense, so Seattlers are not allowed to consider a fair review of that tunnel option. Mayor Greg Nickels and Hoo boy! SDOT chief Grace Crunican are unbelievably incompetent.

  2. Unfortunately large parts of I-5 on the east side are above surface level, so covering them is impossible without rebuilding other parts. We could look at building offices/warehouses around them, as was envisioned for the Mid Manhattan Freeway in the 40’s or 50’s, but it still would take extensive repairs.

    One issue to keep in mind is that the federal rules for getting funding for IHS projects is fairly strict, and requires upgrading the affected parts of the roadway to current standards. There are some questionable ramps at the I-5/I/84 interchange, as well as the Rose Quarter ramps.

    I-5 could fairly easily be capped in places in the Rose Quarter without too much cost, but the parts south of I-84 would pretty much require reconstruction to get much land back, and not make the grades too steep for inclusion in the IHS.

    The Big Dig is a poor comparison for this, since that was designed through an existing high rise district as well as historic areas that already had 300 years of plumbing, wiring, and subways underfoot. Portland being a newer city would likely have less tunneling costs than the Big Dig. Seattle also has more issues with flooding in the area of the Viaduct, so it seems that may be a fairly poor baseline for construction costs here.

    Lining it up under MLK/Grand would be fairly easy, but very disruptive to the east side during construction. Also with the streetcar going there, it would probably have to be put under 2nd/3rd, but connecting it to I-84 and I-5 north of 84 would likely wipe out the Burnside Bridgehead as a usable site, and the city seems to want to get some value out of the location.

    As a plus, this would allow all of I-5 from SoWa to I-84 to be hidden.

    The west side has a lot more locations for cheaply capping I-405, or allowing construction over it, so maybe that should be pursued first.

    Instead of just a bridge at Flanders, how about allowing building to be built over I-405 between Glisan and Everett? Between Couch and Alder would also work, and would make for a nice area to have some extra parks, or even an additional parking garage for the PGE Park area.

    It seems like I-405 could be capped just by allowing developers to build on a low-cost 99 year lease for the land over the freeway. We’re not using it for anything anyway.

  3. “The better tunnel for Seattle is the “4-lane” Cut-n-Cover, WsDOT’s Scenario ‘G’. But, it makes too much sense, so Seattlers are not allowed to consider a fair review of that tunnel option. Mayor Greg Nickels and Hoo boy! SDOT chief Grace Crunican are unbelievably incompetent.”

    I hope somebody starts making some sense, somewhere. I suppose those who authored the Freeway Loop study—many of whom are now on the CRC sponsor council—could now disavow it and say that a major reconstruction will not be necessary. But that would take a lot of backtracking. Yes there would be some reduction in traffic with the introduction of MAX to Vancouver. But what happens when Clark County adds another 100,000 people? Plus you have steady growth all along the I-5 corridor as a constant always adding additional traffic.

    I have been using the domino analogy to try to dissuade the powers that be from going any further with the CRC. I have been showing them the Freeway Loop Study ( sorry the link didn’t come through)-so that there can be NO DOUBT that extra traffic has been anticipated and that the prevailing solution is another great, expensive project. Whether the CRC is six lanes or twenty it is bound, eventually, to bring more traffic on to I-5. Even if a lot of people do take the MAX our experience with other routes is that the traffic returns once the corridor gets more population.

    If the population of the Metro area increases from 2 million to 4 million I know that all of that new population is not going to ride the MAX.

    I know how Metro’s planning scenario is supposed to work; I just think there will be a lot of population increase outside of the high density zones.

  4. Per Wells comment, can anyone provide a citation for the claim of 20 lanes across Hayden Island? This seems unlikely to me based on the information I’ve seen, but it is possible I’ve missed something.

  5. Per Wells comment, can anyone provide a citation for the claim of 20 lanes across Hayden Island? This seems unlikely to me based on the information I’ve seen, but it is possible I’ve missed something.

    The diagrams provided by the CRC study don’t show anything close to 20, so I assume it’s just more hyperbole to make the project sound super-evil.

  6. Looking at
    these maps
    , you’ll see the following:

    * One two-lane onramp headed northbound
    * A pair of one-lane northbound offramps (one from the mainline, one from the C/D road).
    * A two-lane northbound C/D (collector/distributor) road, which merges into the mainline at the northern edge of the island
    * The three-lane northbound mainline
    * The four-lane soutbound mainline (3 through lanes, one auxiliary lane)
    * A two-lane soutbound C/D ramp, which departs the mainline as the the southbound freeway enters the island.
    * A southbound on-ramp system, which splits into a two-lane onramp onto the mainline, and a 1-lane ramp onto the southbound C/D road.
    * The southbound onramp onto the island, which fans out into three deceleration lanes.

    There is indeed a cross-section of the island that, according to the above map, has 21 separate lanes of traffic. That excludes the transitway and pedestrian facilities, which are probably equivalent to 2-3 additional lane widths Much of this width occupies real estate currently occupied by the trumpet-shaped ramps now serving the island, but still–a big swath of prime real estate will be taken out of service and turned into roadworks.

    Of course, the above-referenced map might not be authoritative, in which case a better reference should be used.

  7. Best solution, REMOVE I-5 from downtown Portland. Cut it up and turn it into regular streets/highway. Make I-205 the through/freight Interstate in the area. For commuters place park & rides just a mile north/south of the city and bring them into the core via high capacity transit – like say a subway or light rail or whatever…

    We don’t NEED an Interstate, let alone TWO Interstates through smack middle of downtown like we do. The land alone would be FAR MORE valuable as usable land for residential or commerce. A single subway/rail/commuter line with double track could handle the entire volume of commuters in and out. With a short mile line north and south it would be cheap & could run frequently with minimal equipment.

    …maybe I’ll do a write up/design of this and place it online.

  8. Good call Scotty, and thanks for the reference. Yikes indeed – a 21-lane cross-section. Imagine the outcry when this gets public….

  9. Adron,
    Good luck with THAT idea. Many people boast of the fact that Vancouver British Columbia doesn’t have anything comparable to an Interstate highway passing through it; The Trans Canada Hwy and Hwy 99 supposedly diffuse into the street grid. This is misleading. There are other multi lane highways that take over where those national highways leave off—it’s just that it is a bit of a leap to make the connection. The other important fact in Vancouver is that there are simply no other MAJOR cities to drive to, anyway. There is a fourlane highway that continues out to the Ferry terminal.

    Back to Portland, why can’t we build over I-5? This has happened in other cities, and the I-5 is a relatively narrow thoroughfare. I would think mainly of park and plaza construction directly over the highway. But reconfiguration of certain ramps would free up a large number of blocks for construction purposes. This is much cheaper than the idea of moving the I-5 underground.

    As much as I favor rail transit I think the growth figures for the West Coast indicate we will need all the of our present capacity for surface traffic and then some. But we can find a way to hide it better.

  10. Of course, the above-referenced map might not be authoritative, in which case a better reference should be used.

    That’s a newer map that what I had seen, and appears to be a better design, but wow, it is a lot of lanes. I guess without removing access to Jantzen Beach or taking up a lot more space there’s no real way to make it work, but that’s kind of a mess compared to the older concept map I had seen.

  11. Ron… a few corrections concerning Vancouver BC.

    1) BC99 does end its life as a freeway when the highway crosses the bridge from Richmond into Vancouver. And you are correct that several major north-south corridors (Granville Street, Oak Street, Cambie Street, Knight Street, and Boundary Street) provide north-south connections. However, all of these streets are urban boulevards with numerous cross streets and private accesses; not limited access routes capable of high-speed traffic.

    2) BC1 (the Trans-Canada Highway), however, does run as a freeway for its full length in the BC area, from the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal, all the way out to the junction with BC3/BC5. It avoids downtown BC, skirting the eastern edge of the city.

    3) There are places to go from Vancouver–Whistler to the north, Vancouver Island to the west, Kamloops and the Okanagan Valley to the east (as well as Vancouver’s largest suburbs, places like Burnaby and Surrey), and the US to the south. Suggesting that BC doesn’t need freeways because there is no significant regional transportation needs is nonsense.

    4) There are actually two ferry terminals to Vancouver Island–the Tsawassen terminal goes to Victoria, the Horseshoe Bay terminal goes to Nanaimo; both fairly major cities in their own right).

    That said, I think that tearing up the Portland freeway network, as much as the green crowd would love it, is simply not going to happen in the foreseeable future. I-205 has capacity issues as it stands; and having freight traffic redirected from I-5 wouldn’t help matters.

    Burying I-5 underground, maybe–though there is still the issue of east-west connections.

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