Why the demise of the CRC is a victory for progressives

It’s been a nice hot weekend, so you can be pardoned if you missed the news, but the Washington Legislature adjourned without funding the Columbia River Crossing, As a result, both governors Inslee and Kitzhaber have essentially declared the project to be dead.

This is viewed by welcome news by various different groups: Conservatives opposed to the expansion of light rail, environmentalists opposed to the expansion of I-5, and good-government types outraged by the gross incompetence which has followed the project for the past decade, as well as the appearance of significant self-dealing by the project team (and a process that appears designed to force a preferred and pre-selected solution), all have reason to cheer. And it is Washington conservatives that we have to thank for killing the CRC (for now), as the Democratic political establishments in Salem, Olympia, and Washington DC were all behind this project, despite the objections from their fellows on the left.

But while many on the right are crowing about the outcome–the “crime train” won’t be bridging the moat between Portland and Vancouver, and the two governors were dealt a political defeat–the ultimate winners will likely be progressives, not the Tea Party right.

The reason why is after the jump.
The first thing that needs to be understood–is that for the CRC, dead probably doesn’t mean dead, as in “no project will ever be built”. A replacement/enhancement to the Interstate Bridge won’t occur for quite a few years; I’m assuming that the federal funds that were being made available will be instead given to someone else. However, the need for a replacement crossing in the corridor still exists–and assuming the US economy doesn’t go into the tank and stay there, future funding opportunities will be available. When, I don’t know–but if and when the region gets its stuff together (and hopefully produces a more reasonable proposal), there will be opportunities in the future.

And the demographic realities of the US suggests strongly that the political culture that develops CRC-2 may be more progressive than now.

  • Some of the strongest opposition to the project came from conservative residents of Clark County. Much of this opposition came about due to anti-transit attitudes from the older generation–who associate transit with crime and poverty. These folks are slowly growing old and dying; the young voters replacing them don’t have the same negative attitudes towards extensions of public transit. While I don’t expect that all of Clark County will warm to MAX any time soon, I do expect that in short order, conservatives will no longer have veto power over the project in the Washington Legislature.
  • By the same token, the younger generation tends to have a more libertarian lean and has far less loyalty to organized labor–and is less likely to view construction jobs and other claims of “economic development” as reason to do projects. Construction industry lobbying was a major factor in the development of the current CRC, and while I expect that to continue, I expect to see more scrutiny on such projects.
  • Cultural change within ODOT is also another factor. Over forty years ago, ODOT was formed in a reorganization of the old Oregon State Highway Department, but only recently are we witnessing the agency starting to take its multi-modal role seriously. A decade ago, an ODOT official essentially proclaimed that the agency would block any MAX extension across the Columbia unless attached to a freeway widening. Nowadays, the agency is showing signs that it considers alternative transportation as essential components of its mission, as opposed to add-ons it has to support to get highways built.

The bottom line is that the political circumstances that produced the current CRC–a highway megaproject with significant greenwashing–are changing. What a new CRC would look like, I’m not sure–I expect it to be a less ambitious project in any case. It might not even include light rail (though I would expect some rapid transit–possibly BRT–in any case). By killing the project, the next version of the CRC can start off with a clean slate, free from the burden of “we’ve spent all this time and money so we can’t quit now”. And when the project does get revisited, the politics will probably be far less in the favor of the concrete lobby.

30 responses to “Why the demise of the CRC is a victory for progressives”

  1. Much of this opposition came about due to anti-transit attitudes from the older generation–who associate transit with crime and poverty. These folks are slowly growing old and dying;


    Trimet and by default Light rail in this part of the northwest has become the poster child of government gone wild. Everyone outside of Portland proper began to feel Portland and Trimet were bullying their way into neighboring communities.

    Most of this perception was the creation of Trimet itself. All you have to do is recreate all the various boondoggles that were shoved down the throats of the populace.

    You have a transit district cutting on the one hand and growing on the other! People are not totally stupid! Everybody knows there is something not right with that picture.

    As much as I may disdain the comprehensive views of John Charles he really was able to articulate the issues clearly. He’s right, Trimet needs to shrink not grow. As I’ve said before, this is more an anti Trimet movement than an anti light rail movement.

    It’s just a shame that over $160 million got flushed down the toilet, but what else do you expect from government officials?

    They are all knowing, self serving, aristocrats (in their own minds) who have absolutely no interest in the public good and every interest in serving special interests.

    I guess some six figure execs can go apply for unemployment. Oh yea, I forgot, they just go on down to one of the contractors on the last remaining boondoggle available for milking, MLR and get hired on by one of those contractors who will just go back to the Trimet board and get more funding without even one serious question asked.

    Some of us remember this very well “I’m not a crook”

  2. 1) Extending light rail to Vancouver, benefits people in Vancouver, not people in Portland. There just aren’t that many destinations in Vancouver that people in Portland would go to. If they are going to get the benefits, then Vancouver residents need to be the ones advocating for it.

    Instead, the main advocate for light rail was Trimet. It will benefit from the increase in riders once the line extends across the river. But those extra riders will mean fewer seats for Portland riders, especially during peak commute time. In short, extending light rail across the river degrades service for folks who now use light rail.

    2) Light rail will do a poor job of serving sprawling Clark County. It will do a great job of serving the more densely developed city of Vancouver, connecting it more firmly to a dynamic Portland region. Part of the opposition in Washington caused by exactly that. Some people moved to rural Clark County to get away from Portland. They don’t really want the city of Vancouver to adopt the Portland model.

    3) The problem with the CRC was the leadership role taken by the WashDOT’s southern region and MnDOT. While WashDOT in general is likely to be more friendly to alternatives under the leadership of Lynn Peterson, the southern region is dominated by highway builders. They were never really interested in light rail or transit except for their political value in Oregon.

    4) The idea that this crossing’s primary role is as a link between Mexico and Canada is ludicrous. Its real role is to to connect Vancouver and Portland. The cities of Portland and Vancouver need to assert their leadership and control over what is basically a local connection.

    5) We are seeing the difficulty with federal funding of transportation. This project was driven by access to federal funds. Instead of a decision on how to best spend money on improving the crossing, the project was developed based on what would generate the largest amount of funding. In general, the more money it cost the better. It was only when the process was over that the project’s planners woke up like drunks who had gone on a bender and realized they had gone too far.

    6) Building a light rail project requires a team of skilled people that produce that “on time and under budget” boast that Trimet always makes. And, yes, that includes all those “special interests” and consultants. Those folks are critical to both the design and political advocacy for light rail. If the next project isn’t ready to go when the current one is complete, that team will disburse. Once that happens, its likely the light rail era in Portland will be over.

    That need to keep momentum was a big part of the I-205 project. That was the project that could get political support to be built then, even though the Milwaukee line made more sense as a transit decision. These decisions are made in terms of “what project next”, rather than just consideration of what works best for an individual corridor.

    6) The problem of Trimet lack of operating funds is mostly unrelated to transit mode decisions. Trimet’s reliance on a payroll tax needs to be revisited. I think the idea of taxing parking spaces should be revisited. The idea is to tax things you don’t value, rather than taxing something that you do value. Most people value jobs more than parking lots.

  3. I hope the next step is for Metro and the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council to start a process to determine “how can we best improve connections between our two regions?” with the state DOTs kept on the sidelines.

    If that ultimately means a half-dozen separate small projects rather than a single gigantic one … well, all the better.

  4. “Everyone outside of Portland proper began to feel Portland and Trimet were bullying their way into neighboring communities.”

    Everyone except, well, myself and tons of people I know and work with who (for example):

    1. Live in Milwaukie & are excited for MAX to open.
    2. Live in Tigard and Tualatin and also would love some SW MAX availability.
    3. My friends in Hillsboro who ride MAX daily and those in Forest grove who would love an extension.
    4. My friends in east Vancouver who’se only problem with the MAX to Vancouver plan was it didn’t go over the 205 bridge…
    5. Myself who resides in Beaverton and would live to see the red line go farther than BTC.

    So whose anecdotal statements win?

    Lets not be so quick to say “everyone”.

    The biggest thing the burbs need though is cross-town service that connects burbs without going downtown.

    I say it’s time for a “ring MAX”.

  5. Scotty,

    It’s only a victory for progressives unless Oregon holds fast to its insistence on no increase in rubber-tired capacity, except for a punitively enforced HOV lane (e.g. a $1,000 fine for a violation and full-time camera enforcement).

    Because you can double darn betcha that Helicopter Don and King David will be back early next year with a big proposal for a highway only bridge. It’s not that they don’t want to raid the public purse. Oh, no; they want at the public purse…for sure.

    They just want it raided for their friends in the awl bidness.

  6. The headline grabbed my attention, but as often happens, the text didn’t really support the headline.

    An equal case can be made that the political circumstances that produced the CRC deadlock are going to be with us for quite some time, that we are in gridlock – literal and metaphorical – for the foreseeable future.

    1) There is no money in sight for the smaller/better project(s) that are touted, whatever they may be, at least not on the Oregon side. ODOT doesn’t have a dime, nor do Portland or the Port, in the unlikely event there was anything folks could agree on. This project’s funding plan was leveraged from next to nothing. Borrowed money was repaid by tolls, and the local match to the federal funds was fleshed out with very creative financing.

    2) The notion of anything but glacial political change here is overly optimistic. A quick check of census data shows a smaller over-65 cohort in Clark v. Multnomah Counties – 12% and 14.3%, respectively. Maybe the Washington legislature tilts a little less rightward, but the dogged anti-transit stance in Clark County will count for more. Clark County won this one, and I’m not sure why they’d come back to the table. Better to go to the legislature next session for freeway-only money to fund new interchanges.

    3) While the jobs aspect goes beyond the construction phase, the two ports and the folks that are in and served by the freight industry are not able to break through the chatter and make their case for the value of freight mobility to the local economy. Not sure where the poster above gets the conclusion that I-5 is only about local connection.

    It probably doesn’t matter but I bet that anyone close to the project (which I am not, but one hears things . . .) would disagree that the CRC’s WDOT leadership was disconnected from Olympia.

    I’d love to be proved wrong here!

  7. 1. Third Bridge in BBSF corridor w/connection to US 26.
    2. Connect to Rivergate, Silicon Forest and West Side Trail.
    2. Express bus, high capacity transit.

    This doesn’t have to be complicated.

  8. @Ron,

    No, it “doesn’t have to be complicated”. But it does have to be paid for.

    Drilling a tunnel — for cars, not trains, therefore at least twice the diameter — through the West Hills will be a cool billion plus, then add some sort of high level bridge over the Willamette for another half billion. It doesn’t have to be as high as the St. John’s bridge of course, but it has to have that 100-plus foot clearance that everyone demanded of the CRC. There are lots more actual, real, ship moorages upstream the Willamette from the confluence of the river and the slough than upstream of the I-5 bridge in the Columbia.

    But you see, this will not qualify for any Federal funds, because it’s neither high capacity transit (express buses are not high capacity in any known universe) nor a part of the Interstate system.

    I’m glad, because Vancouver will now slowly strangle in its auto congestion.

    Please, please, please, please Mr. ODOT man, put a heavily enforced, high fine HOV lane southbound on I-5 in the AM peak, starting mid-bridge to push the backup into good ol’ Clark County, where it belongs, not in North Portland.

  9. From what I recall off-hand I believe that the feds have been getting their hands deeper and deeper into the state highway system, and so interstate highways aren’t the only ones that can get federal $$

  10. “1) There is no money in sight for the smaller/better project(s) that are touted, whatever they may be, at least not on the Oregon side”

    Not on the Washington side either.

    The WA state government threw all its highway money into the spectacularly wasteful Deep Bore Tunnel in Seattle, and what’s left is going to appease Spokane. And as for rail… well, any Washington State rail money is going either to the Seattle area, or to the Cascades line, or possibly to Spokane. Vancouver is perceived as not wanting rail and it will get nothing.

    And as for federal funds? They go to places where the projects have political backing. Chicago alone has a huge backlog of giant road and rail projects, and LA is spending every dollar it can borrow.

    The CRC is dead. The “common sense alternative” may come back….

  11. There were no funds for the CRC but the state was happy to grant ‘bonding authority’ for the mega-project.

    When you dream it, they will find money from nowhere to fund it

  12. I’ll bet Congresswoman Beutler can start finagling with the Republican leadership to find some money. People are underestimating the resilience the SW Washington conservatives, I myself was even surprised at how tenaciously Rivers, Pike, King and Benton fought the CRC off. The GOP bigwigs were already out here, and heard the facts, so I bet they can cobble together funds.

    Blumenauer and whats her name are probably good for some pork dollars, too.

    But first it has to be a plan that makes sense. There are some good things about the CSA, but MAX into Vancouver is a no-sale. Without spending billions on a complete Clark Co. system it doesn’t accomplish much. The Washington legislature has already funded regional mobility grants for smaller communities, so I figure the same story for the ‘Couv.

  13. “Not sure where the poster above gets the conclusion that I-5 is only about local connection.”

    Which poster is that? The data shows that an overwhelming percentage of the trips over the I-5 bridge are local connections, but there are certainly some trips that aren’t.

  14. It’s not “resilience”, it’s selfishness; there’s a difference. Resilience is a healthy ability to change with circumstances. Selfishness? Not so much.

  15. The CSA approach to MAX makes a lot of sense. Connect MAX to a CTran transit plaza as far south as possible (say, the block bounded by 4th, 5th, Washington and Columbia), and build no further. All CTran bus lines to downtown Vancouver could end at the transit plaza, providing easy connection to MAX. CTran could improve local transit service by shifting all of the buses that cross the river on I-5 to better serve Clark County. Regardless of the vociferous opposition of anti-rail fanatics, it would be pretty easy for Vancouver and CTran to expend a few million for the local portion of a very short MAX segment from the bridge to the transit plaza.

    A MAX bridge would qualify for federal funding, and the bridge probably could support a couple of arterial lanes each way as well. Assuming tolling is available to rehab the existing bridges, all three bridges could be tolled at a fairly low rate. The freeway bridges could be shut down one at a time and the new MAX/arterial bridge could help carry traffic while the old bridges are rehabbed.

    And of course, we could have already put a lift span on the railroad bridge (eliminating more than 90% of I-5 bridge lifts) for about half the money spent planning the megabridge debacle. We found $170 million to throw at a boondoggle … we can’t spend $80 or $90 million to actually build something useful?

  16. Douglas,

    Are you certain that the BNSF wants a new center of the river lift span? Remember that they may still have to keep the swing span for at least some of those ten percent of lifts that will be necessary for vessels which cannot fit under the hump.

    While tall sailboats — a significant portion of I-5 lifts — could certainly make a reverse “S-curve” to a center of the river lift on the railroad bridge, there are bound to be at least a few long barge tows in the high water of late winter and spring that won’t fit under the hump and will require the services of the lift spans on I-5. Such barge tows are exactly the vessels which have trouble with the S-curve today. So I expect that the Coast Guard will insist that BNSF keep the swing span for them.

    Of course, it would rarely open, but it’s still a mechanism which would have to be maintained and two more sets of gaps in the rails to be battered by passing trains.

  17. The big losers are Vancouver commuters and the SoWA land developers selling sprawl. I have no problem with NOT using my taxes mostly just to pay for their decisions. Don’t like the rush hour traffic jams or the price of gas? Move to OR. I have no sympathy.

    The real solution would be to institute tolling on both I-5 & I-205 now. That would reduce traffic volume enough that the current bridges could handle it and, when the time comes, make for a smaller CRC2 project. It might also make a MAX line more palatable for those who have opposed it. Save $10 in tolls (and get a free Max ride if your employer provides a pass)? Lots of people might make the decision to do that and it would free up bridge capacity for those who don’t and for the long distance freight interests.

  18. No question that the railroad bridge would need both a swing span and a lift span. But there’s probably a way to work out a maintenance funding agreement with the relevant DOTs and Ports that would address everyone’s needs.

  19. Steps forward:

    – Seismically retrofit the existing spans.
    – If the rules change on tolling, begin tolling I-5 and I-205 to fund a new 8 lane freeway bridge upstream of the existing bridges.
    – Once this bridge is built, the existing bridges can be used for local access, and the Hayden island interchange can be closed.
    – A small local access/transit bridge can be built between the Expo Center and the island, and you now have local access from both states, and 8 lanes for I-5, all funded by federal dollars and toll bonds.

    This would be the cheapest way to add capacity. None of the existing bridges would be torn down needlessly. And if Washington residents don’t want to pay tolls, they don’t get a new bridge.

  20. I would say if we’re going the seismic retrofit + toll route, see what demand looks like after that has been in place. It is likely that some trips wouldn’t be worth taking – just how many is the question

  21. Let’s do with our highways what we want to do with them – make them function reliably.

    Absolutely should be tolling existing spans to improve predictability of travel time. Let’s solve the business/freight problem of these bridges the revenue-generating way, not the ‘spending billions of dollars’ way.

    We already have other HCT corridors that require investment dollars we don’t yet have. Let’s focus on Powell/Division & Barbur/I-5 in SW ‘burbs.

    Lastly, let’s see what we can do about improving passenger rail capacity b/w Union Station and Vancouver station (which a good plan should implicitly help improve freight rail capacity, at the least by getting passenger trains off the same tracks). If SW WA commuters have proper incentive and availability of a mass-transit connection from VanWa to Union Station, we win – without having to pay to extend MAX to Vancouver to throw them a very expensive bone that has little direct value to us. We ride Amtrak, so we should make improvements that benefit us even if VanWa commuters decide en masse to shell out for the toll instead of train tickets.

    At that point, it’s the commuters’ decision whether they move closer to their jobs, pay the toll, or ride Amtrak (or fire up their own commuter rail system). But WE don’t have to pay for something that almost exclusively benefits those north of the river.

  22. Apparently the governors are going to meet about “what’s next”. Which means the project is definitely not dead yet. Governors don’t meet to discuss a dead project. Someone, Patricia McCaig?, has a plan for reviving it. Otherwise the discussion of “what’s next” would be happening at at much lower level.

  23. I don’t think any of you guys are looking at the question of navigation concerns on the Columbia river and the maritime questions. The Columbia main channel is only 600 feet, has strong currents, and should be cleared of obstructions to the navigation channel, whenever possible. Not presently possible on the I-5 bridge, but the Third Bridge on a double through arch span would put the main central pier far out of the way of the channel and demarcate between commercial areas and pleasure boat areas. The CSA with its proposed ‘basculke lifts’ just contributes to the impediments and obstruction in the nav. channel. It’s only other redeeming feature is the RR lift span, but this should be broad enough to substantially clear the channel. The present BNSF swing span pier is smack dab in the middle, and just one more navigation hazard in a series of them in the Port of Vancouver.

    Please consult some NOAA charts people, it would really help…..

    “It’s not “resilience”, it’s selfishness; there’s a difference. Resilience is a healthy ability to change with circumstances. Selfishness? Not so much. ”

    David Madore, one of the people on your s—list gives free space to twenty local community organizations. Where does that fit on your scale, ‘Anandakos?’ I don’t agree with all of his views (like a freeway bridge at 192nd) but I wouldn’t call him “selfish,” maybe just tunnel vision.

    The Third Bridge makes a lot more sense than the CSA. However, the CSA mainland to Hayden Is. local bridge would reduce the traffic turbulence on I-5. As to the RR lift span—–it should be wide enough to get bridge piers out of the Columbia main channel as much as possible.

    @Chris I, I’ve changed my mind on the seismic upgrading of the I-5. Yes it is good for this to be done, but according to the latest OSU report we are not in an excessively dangerous seismic area. Seismic upgrading is full of pitfalls and wasted efforts. Probably the main seismic problem with the I-5 is the fact that it has a very high arch in it—-sort of like a bow string, so if there were any up and down shaking it could tend to push out on the (vertically extended) piers. However, with the $250 million price tag, this is something that could be delayed until the science improves—and perhaps the PEER lab at Berkely could come up with some specific ideas. They just hosted an international conference in May.

    As to tolling, the MAP-21 act precludes tolling on existing interstates until new capacity is finished. Please check your federal law, people. I am sure our Third Bridge concept would require tolls—major new bridges here have. But they shouldn’t be as high as the CRC proposal was, and time saved over the I-5 and US 26 commute would be valuable.

  24. ODOT’s fine Marine Drive interchange replacement is desperately needed, shovel-ready and would extend MAX to Jantzen Beach alongside the new local access road. Cost about $450 million. Oregon can build a stand-alone 1st Phase. 2nd Phase: Build a 5-lane single-deck Southbound bridge alongside a 3-lane BRT/Ped bridge. Build Concept #1 Off-island access. Convert the old bridges for 5-lanes of Northbound traffic. “Oh like, sure man, like whatever.”

  25. @Ron Swaren:

    “…according to the latest OSU report we are not in an excessively dangerous seismic area. Seismic upgrading is full of pitfalls and wasted efforts. Probably the main seismic problem with the I-5 is the fact that it has a very high arch in it—-sort of like a bow string, so if there were any up and down shaking it could tend to push out on the (vertically extended) piers.”

    Response from one of my Twitter friends:

    That is inaccurate. OSU, DOGAMI have mentioned vulnerabilities in PDX. ODOT engineers say bridge counterweights are I-5’s issue.

    In fact, ODOT is on record saying the bridge is currently “very vulnerable” to even a moderate quake.

    Ron, do you have a link to your OSU report? I’m just trying to reconcile incongruent information from two different sources that I respect. Thanks.

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