$1.5 billion transportation project passes the FEIS milestone

The Sunrise Corridor’s FEIS has been approved. The price tag: $1.5 billion.
And no, I’m not talking about Milwuakie MAX.

Instead, it’s another transportation project in Clackamas County, one that involves concrete (6-8 lanes of it) rather than steel rails and overhead caternary, one whose price tag appears to be just about the same as Milwaukie MAX, which should merit some interesting compares.

I’m speaking, of course, of the Sunrise Corridor–a new 6-8 lane freeway connecting the current interchange of I-205, OR 213 (82nd Avenue) and OR 224 (Milwaukie Expressway), heading east, just north of the current OR224/212 alignment out to Rock Creek junction, and ending a short distance west of the current “center” of Damascus. The project, if built, would be the first new freeway built on the Oregon side of the Portland metro area since I-205 was completed back in the 1980s. (We’ve widened several since then, but no new ones have been built).

The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the project was just recently published, and the executive summary is interesting reading. (The full EIS can be downloaded from the ODOT project website; one document per chapter–the “old” project website which was hosted David Evans and Associates, the consulting firm overseeing the drafting of the EIS, appears to have vanished).

The price tag? Just south of $1.5 billion. (If this were Dead Horse Times, I’d insert the customary picture of Dr. Evil here, but portlandtransport.com is too highbrow for such cheap editorial stunts).

A billion doesn’t buy you very much any more

For the $1.5 billion, what do you get?

  • A five-mile freeway stretching from I-205 to Rock Creek Junction, 6-8 lanes in width, along with some realignment and widening of OR212 east of there.
  • Three interchanges along the route, one at I-205, one at or about SE 122nd, and one at Rock Creek, including the monstrous new interchange at I-205 shown below. (Click on the picture for a bigger version).hellinterchange.png
  • Various improvements to other approach roads and ramps in the corridor, including a new braided ramp at the current I-205/OR212 interchange, a new access road connecting 82nd Avenue to the commercial area just west of 82nd and north of 224, a new Ambler Road overcrossing of the UPRR tracks, and a network of multi-use paths.

You don’t get any transit, naturally, though I’m sure the 31E will use this new freeway if it gets built, and it’s still running. This is an ODOT project, after all.

Show me the money

The big catch–there’s always a catch, after all–is that out of that $1.5 billion, only $200 million or so has been budgeted to build the thing–$1.3 billion is not an amount you can paper over with an urban renewal district here or there. :) Out of that $200 million, $56 million is the value of land in the right-of-way already owned by various stakeholders. Metro hasn’t identified any funding for the project as of yet, though it’s included in the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan, in the “financially contrained scenario” (i.e. its high on the priority list). Including funds not currently budgeted, it’s estimated that over $400 million will be available in the next 20 years–still leaving a $1 billion shortfall.

Tolling has been considered for the project, though it appears to be off the radar screen as of now. (A similar conclusion to the tolling question was reached on the Newburg/Dundee Bypass).

There’s one other possible fly in the funding ointment. Currently, there are a few electoral efforts underfoot in Clackamas County to withdraw financial commitments made by county commissioners (albeit commitments which are unpopular with voters) to fund other shorter-term regional projects, namely MLR and the Sellwood Bridge. Were these referenda to be successful, and other regional stakeholders forced to come up with additional funds to complete these projects (assuming further reductions in scope couldn’t be made instead)–how might that affect regional contributions to the Sunrise Corridor? While no such deals (or threats, or however you want to spin it) have been discussed in public–generally infrastructure financing deals involve a good deal of horsetrading between different governmental entities. I hope I don’t sound like a mafia wiseguy when I make this observation (“nice freeway project ya got there…”), but I could see a scenario where Metro’s funding level for the Sunrise project (were it to get that far) to drop by $30 million or so….


The other hurdle the project will face is objections from environmentalists. Oregon’s environmental lobby is rather good at blocking or descoping roadway projects–and is far better at it than CPI and other conservative groups are at derailing transit. (Not that I’m complaining. :) And it appears there’s at least one big bright red plum for 1000 Friends and their friends to pick on this project–the “independent utility” rule for federally-funded infrastructure projects. For a project to qualify for Federal funding, it has to have “independent utility”–it can’t depend on the construction of subsequent projects for proper functioning. The FEIS claims that this condition has been met–but it’s a condition that can be challenged in court. A similar challenge helped kill off the West Eugene Parkway, and a good argument can be made the Sunrise Corridor won’t be fully effective until the “part 2” project–the so-called “Sunrise Parkway”, connecting Rock Creek to US26 west of Sandy–is built. (The Parkway is still in concept phase at this point). And there’s also the little matter of traffic on the Milwaukie Expressway–which might see additional pressure were this project built (and especially if the Parkway were also built, and zillions of skiers and freight haulers to start using this route rather than the Gresham street network to reach the Mt. Hood Highway).

There’s one more issue worth noting–development in Damascus. A major justification for the project is the urbanization of Damascus–a decade ago, planners were projecting that the Damascus area would see significant increases in population. That hasn’t happened (other than in the westernmost parts); and Damascus residents, not particularly liking the County’s (and Metro’s) plans for their community, incorporated–thus allowing themselves greater control over their land use planning. Whether or not significant development in Damascus will occur, I don’t know–but many residents there are opposed to it. But without urbanization of the area, is there still justification for an infrastructure project of this magnitude?

At any rate, it should be interesting.

16 responses to “$1.5 billion transportation project passes the FEIS milestone”

  1. I dont live in the area, but I have visited. Its ironic that the Milwaukie interchange will run the new freeway directly thru Oregon Iron Works and their new Streetcar test facility.

    Additionally, its sad that this is taking place so close to the end of the green line stop. With all the recent posts you guys have made about the protests of urban renewal, this feels like cheating to be in the same conversation. If one wants to avoid paying for transit, just say it. Dont write up bills against it while a freeway is (quite literally) being planned in your backyard.

  2. How to pay for this ODOT foolishness? A $100 per year registration surcharge for Clackamas county residents would be a good start. This thing looks like the “Mt Hood Freeway” revisited; let it go the way of the Westside Bypass.
    After reading today’s Trib on the landslides adjacent to the Sellwood Bridge, it looks like the best solution might be to convert it to a bike/ped facility. Metro can then make another stab at siting a highway/light rail bridge in Clackamas county across the Willamette somewhere between Milwaukie and Oregon City where it belongs.

  3. One major concern with a Sellwood bridge relocation to a point south is that over 2/3rds of bridge traffic goes north on 43, not south. Witness the long queue evenings in the left southbound lane north of the bridge. 43 is four lanes through Powers Marine Park but three to the south with no real chance of widening in the foreseeable.

    In the meantime, you got to love Chair Perterson’s “floating” of a lead trial balloon which includes consideration of converting one of those three lanes to a bike/pedestrian path….I’m not making this up.

  4. It doesn’t bother me much that they want to put a highway in this particular place. It’s not ripping apart anyone’s neighborhood, it’s an existing industrial area, and it (assuming Part 2 is built out to US26) serves a regional purpose.

    What bothers me about this project–and about the funding constraints/criteria that guide highway construction these days–is the massive scale of the thing. The proposed highway is essentially the same size as I-205 itself–and all that to bypass the parade of warehouses along OR212, so a few minutes can be shaved off the commute to Damascus or Estacada.

    But given the constraints on roadbuilding, both at the state and federal level, it’s hard to imagine anything else being done.

    One of the big problems with ODOT is that they tend ONLY to be concerned with transportation–and their designs frequently reflect that: massive highway projects optimized for speed and against local access; roads more concerned with passing through places than serving them; giant scars which devastate a place rather than integrating with it. The very notion of designing and building a simpler facility, one that bypasses the bottlenecks on the existing OR212 without nearly doubling its width, seems unthinkable.

    And Federal funding schemes for highway projects tend to exacerbate this problem–the primary goals for new or revamped projects are speed, safety, and throughput; designs which aren’t capable of bringing level of service ratings back to A typically aren’t considered–and only once level of service parameters are cast in stone, does the question of how to integrate the project into its surroundings start to be considered, it seems.

    If I-205 were being designed today, it would probably be a 10-lane behemoth.

    Many critics of public transit, and TriMet in particular, complain about the cost of rail projects, and some of that constraint is justified. But what would be the equivalent folly in transit circles to this? Building MLR as a four-track fully underground line? Running at five-minute headways? If only the powers that be were as focused on reducing travel time (including waiting) for transit raiders as they seem to be for motorists.

  5. ES:

    That’s because engineers are the smartest dumb people around. Their profession is guided only by the quantifiable. I’ve never heard a civil engineer question what a 10 lane freeway will do to the air quality of surrounding neighborhoods, or how it will make it more difficult somebody to haul their groceries from their once walkable market store. It’s all about speed and movement.

    I think engineers are some of the smartest people in the world, and I feel our world is better with them around. But I cringe in living in a world designed only by engineers — and I’d bet a handful of engineers would agree with that statement too.

    Imo, the design of highways is overly burdened by the restrictions that large trucks need. We talk a lot about subsidies in regards to personal transport, but not much about the elephant in the room called trucking.

    Meanwhile our railroad system is mostly a private enterprise, but trucks get a free pass on our socialized road system with a small user fee while doing much of the damage on roads and needing much of the costly engineering specifications to utilize our roadway system.

    An overpass would not need to be 13’6″ tall (or whatever) if it weren’t for trucks. We also wouldn’t need these monstrous on/off ramps with costly superelevations, either.

    Why won’t the phony free-market shills address this issue?

    [Moderator: That’s just a bit too far for our guidelines… please keep things moderate and non-inflammatory, thanks. Besides, some of my best friends are phony free-market shills. :-) Happy new year! – Bob R.]

  6. As someone who IS, allegedly, an engineer–albeit in a completely unrelated discipline, software (a field which it is frequently asserted is insufficiently rigorous to be considered a true engineering discipline, and one which is FTMP not regulated like civil and chemical engineering are), I’ve got a few comments on that.

    It’s important, when analyzing and criticizing the design of something, to separate the “what” from the “how”. Engineers are very good at answering the “how” question given a suitable “what”; they often lack the broader prospective to come up with the answers for the “what”. Left to their (our?) own devices, engineers have a tendency to specify the most all-encompassing “what” possible–when you have an organization (such as ODOT) which has an engineering-centric culture, it tends to focus on optimizing those things it has direct control over (mobility) over those things that are outside its scope (such as livability of the surrounding area).

    In other words, it’s important to separate policy from design. Engineers should be doing design. They are very good at it, including the civil engineering professionals at ODOT. Elected officials, however, should be doing policy–deciding the “what”. The decision to accomodate 55MPH truck traffic while trying to maintain an “A” level of service during the entire day is and should be political decision, not a decision that engineers get to make under the guise of “best practices”. (Best practices, an engineering term of art, are important–but again should constrain the how and not the what).

    This doesn’t just apply to public works, either–I can think of numerous examples of high-tech companies with strong engineering cultures which went off the rails when the massive levels of design talent employed thereat stopped listening to customers and started assuming that bigger and better hammers were needed, not noticing that the world was moving to (proverbial) screws.

    WRT the comments on trucking. I spend a fair bit of time in Hong Kong, as my wife has family there, and it’s a very interesting place to visit, especially from an urban design perspective. It has awesome transit, but it also is building freeways all over the place. However, the freeways it builds–indeed its entire road system–is simply smaller scale than what we have in the US. North American-style 18-wheelers simply wouldn’t work there–nor would some of our larger SUVs and pickups. The streets are too narrow, the clearances too small, and the corners are too tight. The freeways that they do build look quite a bit like (other than the driving on the left part) US-style freeways from the 1960s, with closely-spaced interchanges, short ramps, and bus stops on the shoulder–and none of the massive networks of braided ramps typical of more recent urban freeway construction.

    A while back, I did a DHT post on the CRC, which I called an unorthodox and mayby crazy but really simple idea, in which I proposed a low-cost alternative for the CRC:

    * Replace the bridge(s), making the new spans friendlier for river navigation and including transit, pedestrian/bike access, and an auxiliary traffic lane in each direction

    * Leave the rest of the freeway alone, rather than rebuilding the whole thing from Columbia Blvd to SR500.

    * Lower the speed limit so that the current design of the highway is no longer functionally obsolete.

  7. The ironic part about reading freeway EIS reports is that they propose a drop in CO2 levels due to less congestion. It’s obvious there is no call to keep things slow aka the “experience the area rather than pass thru” notion. If that were the plan, then simply widen the existing highway.

    As far as engineers go, I find it somewhat stereotyping when I read about “letting engineers design”. Let me tell you as a product engineer, not all if us think this way. Standards aren’t the end all, be all when deciding how something gets built. When I hear a DOT cite that as a reason for ROW being extra wide and roadways being overdesigned for speed it make it makes me cringe. Even in a role where legal recourse happens there are plenty of times when common sense prevails over “design standards” simply because it makes sense. In regards to highway design This is simply a cop out. Is it driven then by political will? Industry lobbying? (construction, etc)

    I liked your analogy about overbuilt transit though Scotty. That sounds like a reasonable comparison. Here in Indiana, a freeway is being built from Indy to Evansville (sw corner of state) and a lot of standards were massaged to cheapen the project. Critics have wondered if this will increase upkeep coats down the road but it’s one example of a freeway being trimmed down to save costs. Not that I agree it should be built period… But it’s one example

  8. Many critics of public transit, and TriMet in particular, complain about the cost of rail projects, and some of that constraint is justified. But what would be the equivalent folly in transit circles to this? Building MLR as a four-track fully underground line? Running at five-minute headways? If only the powers that be were as focused on reducing travel time (including waiting) for transit raiders as they seem to be for motorists.

    The problem is that the rail systems are already overbuilt.

    Let’s look at my hometown example here in Tigard, WES. One train, which has a hypothetical capacity of about 80 passengers (or 160 for a two-car train, but thanks to short-sighted design errors this is the absolute maximum capacity without having to rebuild every station platform and completely rebuild the entire Beaverton TC facility), passes by once every 30 minutes, eight times a day in the morning and eight times in the afternoon.

    For the other 29.5 minutes per half hour, the track is idle, except for the occasional freight train.

    On Saturdays, the track is idle. Same with Sundays. 217 could be gridlocked, but the $161.7 million investment in WES is utterly useless.

    Sure, we could add more trains, but it costs several hundred dollars just to put a train on the track. $20 per boarding ride. Even successful, truly high capacity trains like Sounder where one 3,200 horsepower locomotive carries eight or nine double-deck, 160 passenger capacity coaches (thus a hypothetical capacity of over 1,400 passengers) still have a per-boarding-cost of $8 and up. A bus – as unsexy as it is – costs a tiny fraction of the cost of WES. Sure, it’s stuck in traffic, but the alternative is being stuck in traffic.

    Looking at MAX, even at a 15 minute headway, that’s still 56 plus minutes per hour that the track is NOT being used. Yet it’s there. It has a cost; it must be maintained.

    I suggested about a year ago a large number of cost-cutting measures that need to be implemented on light rail lines – one of which is single-track operation. There is virtually no need as to why the new MAX lines must be double-track. Even the trunk line between the Steel Bridge and Gateway has plenty of excess capacity now, despite trains every five minutes. Yet, it is insistent that MAX be fully built out to a high standard from the start, without looking at ways to build a scalable system and start small.

    Another suggestion I had was to build a diesel light rail line from East Portland to Sherwood – using existing tracks but finding efficiencies that were forsaken with the comparatively expensive WES route. Such a line could easily be converted to double-track and electric propulsion later – again, the general sentiment was “if we don’t build it big, we might as well not build it at all.”

    Ironically, those who decry highway projects as bloated don’t see the large number of projects that were built too small, or were built scalable. Yes, I question the Sunrise Corridor as basically a “highway to nowhere” and am not justifying it. But I see roads like Tualatin-Sherwood Road (never should have been built to only three-lanes — it quite literally was congested the day it was built, but only because the existing, substandard two lane road was already overcapacity and the three-lane version did not add capacity), and Oregon Highway 18 between Sheridan and Dayton where ODOT was quite forward-looking in buying extra right-of-way for future road expansion which for the most part has not been used yet (it is quite noticeable from the McMinnville Airport to Dayton on the south side of the highway.) Perfect planning; a highway expansion would be almost shovel-ready.

    Another example of overbuilding is the push for rural freeways – I-5 south of Salem and Albany is well below capacity; so is I-84 anywhere east of Troutdale. U.S. 97 is being pushed to become a freeway. We are continuing to pay for those four-lane monstrosities even though a “super-two” would have been sufficient, with adequate passing areas.

    Overbuilding – regardless of the mode – is justifiably cause for public concern and outrage. Underbuilding is also a concern. Building a system that is right for now, but expandable in the future, should be the goal. Unfortunately there are too many engineers, planners and politicians who just want to build it big, build it high, and are waiting for the grand opening celebration so they can have their picture taken and then move on while the rest of us have to suffer the consequences. With highway projects – it’s ongoing maintenance of the highway. With rail projects, it’s the operations and maintenance cost.

    At least in Portland, we refuse to overbuild our bus system. Unfortunately many routes are screaming for higher capacity buses, and we don’t care.

  9. Erik,

    I’m not sure the limited platform length of our rail system (WES and MAX) is a big issue at this time, given the typical headways found on the system. Single-track operation (I’m assuming you are suggesting that ROW can be bought for a dual track for MLR, but that the line not be fully dual-tracked) might work–and is essentially what’s being proposed for the LO Streetcar (and what is implemented for WES). How much money it would save, I don’t know.

    With regard to higher-capacity busses: One potential “gotcha” that needs to be watched out for, were TriMet to acquire and roll out higher-capacity vehicles, would be the tempation to trim costs by trading vehicle capacity off for headway: i.e. rather than running four 40′ busses per hour, instead running 3 double-deckers or artics per hour and claiming the same throughput. By the same token, none of TriMet’s bus corridors is “headway constrained”–we’ve nothing like the 99B in Vancouver BC (along Broadway) in which full artic busses come along every three minutes or so, and further increases to frequency are no longer practical due to bunching problems. I’d rather see service along the 72 improved by increasing frequency than by deploying bigger busses–obviously this costs more money, but from the rider’s perspective makes the service more valuable.

  10. This came in response to a WES query in’09:

    We have retrofitted every other seat with an aisle hand hold for standees. We may eventually retrofit the vehicles with stanchions and/or hand straps should our rider ship increase to the point that we have a lot of standees. This would be a considerable modification to the car as the interior structure was not designed for stanchions and we have to maintain FRA compliance structurally.

    The vehicles themselves are capable of the following at “maximum capacity”.

    Trailer = 80 SEATED + 1 CREW + 2 WHEELCHAIRS + 146 STANDING



    Darren Morris
    Operations Manager, Westside Express Service
    Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet)
    The jaw dropped more than a little bit when reading the standee capacity. This was about the original Colorado cars and not ‘previously owned’ Alaska units.

  11. The biggest cost savings when it comes to single vs double tracking is ROW property acquisition. There is a genuine savings to be had there.

    Most planners, when pushed to answer questions regarding actual construction costs on type of rail, depth, etc. say that the cost savings isnt in that. It sounds strange, but I beat that horse last year and seem to have gotten that answer all over the place. Is it true? Who can say…

  12. A lot depends on a lot of things.

    It’s probably cheaper and easier to condemn a 30′ right of way once, then it is to condemnt a 15′ ROW now and an adjacent 15′ ROW later. It’s easier to build a new rail line when you don’t have existing service sooming buy mere feet away from where you are laying new track and catenary. And single-tracking can complicate scheduling, and occasionally lead to delays where one train is stopped waiting for the opposite train to clear a section of track. Double-tracking makes operations much smoother.

    Originally, the MAX Blue Line did have a single-track section out near Ruby Junction; a second track was added quite a while back, though. The only remaining single-track section on MAX is a short stretch of the Red Line, where it leaves Gateway TC, does a 180, and then heads north to PDX.

  13. Of course, the single-track section of the Red Line WAS a cost-saving measure, given the extra money that would have been needed to build a two-track structure and to rebuild the two-track overpass where MAX crosses I-205 just west of Gateway. That particular bottleneck permanently constrains Red Line headways — although that contraint won’t matter, since running all four lines across the Steel Bridge prevents any significant increase in service anyway.

    Realistically, putting E/W MAX into a subway downtown is the only way to significantly increase the capacity of the entire system. At that point, we could increase both train length (4 car trains) and frequency … maybe triple or quadruple the peak capacity of the LRT system. But I don’t see this region needing that extra capacity for years yet, if ever.

  14. Scotty,

    The JTA seems like a nice temporary fix. I’d hope they consider buying the ROW they need for the full project as funding becomes available. In the long term having access to US-26 without going through Gresham will be a good thing for the region, though a 6 lane freeway would be a bit of overkill. A two lane expressway/parkway should be more than enough to handle freight and commuters.

    Wasn’t there talk at a time about including a MAX extension from CTC to Damascus along this corridor in the long term? Is this still something that could happen and is being planned for?

  15. MAX along Sunnyside (which is where I would imagine such a thing would go; not down along 212) is included on Metro’s HCT (High Capacity Transit) plan, but it’s a way-out-in-the-future-thing. While Sunnyside is a nice wide street which could probably accomodate rails at some point in the future, the land uses along it are not transit friendly–many single-family subdivisions have sprung up in Happy Valley, most of them at a distance from the street. But were Damascus to densify, it might be a worthwhile extension, either to the Green Line, or to a MLR extension which intersects with the Green.

    Beyond the corridor analysis, no detailed planning appears to be happening. SW Corridor is next in line, and Powell is probably after that, along with further revisiting of the WES corridor.

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