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.

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