The respective mayors of Vancouver and Portland announced an agreement yesterday concerning the Columbia River Crossing, the project to replace the aging spans between the two cities known as the Interstate Bridge.
The mayors of Portland and Vancouver say that a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River should have 12 lanes.
They also propose a bistate commission to manage the new bridge, along with the Interstate 205 crossing upstream, including tolls, high-occupancy lanes and transit fares “to reduce vehicle miles traveled and pollution.”
So over at NPI Advocate, a poster named Brock raises concerns about how all this is going to cause more sprawl, destroy farms, etc. Basically they’re the same concerns voiced by some folks in Portland about a “huge” new bridge, with a fair amount of focus on the number of lanes on the bridge itself.
I have some news for folks. The new bridge isn’t causing the problems related to sprawl. They’ve already happened, and they were caused by a political system dominated by special interest money, resulting in a local government that is heavily beholden to and influenced by that special interest. The barn door is open, and the cows are gone. The urban growth boundaries have already been greatly expanded. The suburban slums, as one former Clark County commissioner termed them many years ago, are on the ground and getting uglier and more hard-scrabble in tough times.
Democrats lost yet another county commission race last year, and the county commission is firmly in the hands of pro-sprawl forces. The only thing stopping them right now is the economy.
So unless someone wants to get significant changes passed to the Growth Management Act, I don’t really see how forcing us to live with an outdated and dangerous bridge really solves anything. Local governments are given a good deal of latitude under GMA, and while attorneys can pick at the edges, the basic thrust of what Clark County government wants is pretty clear: more growth. They don’t want to comply with state water quality rules, they recently got mad at the feds for raising concerns about water runoff from a proposed highway interchange, and basically Clark County does what it wants and defies anyone to stop them.
The absence of effective political organizing by environmentalists, with their dainty 501(c) (3’s) and distaste for political combat, means there’s only one outfit with the money and influence to shape public policy. The BIAW squashed the local greens like bugs under a bulldozer, and the local Democrats have had their challenges as well. It hasn’t been uncommon for Democrats to make unholy alliance with the BIAW here, notably in the person of retired county commissioner Betty Sue Morris. Clark County is kind of like the old Soviet Union in that regard: you can have any political party you want as long as it’s unfailingly and aggressively pro-growth.
To be clear, I don’t think all of Brock’s points are without merit. I would encourage folks, if they are interested in the issue, to read the whole thing. Organic farming is starting to get some traction here, and there have been attempts at saving ag lands.
But repeated focus on a “12 lane bridge,” which has become the mantra of the Portland-based left, is a red herring. A new bridge would contain the same number of through travel lanes, six, with the additional six lanes used as “auxiliary lanes” to allow vehicles to more safely “mix,” as the traffic engineers put it. There’s some justification to talk about the proposed length of some of these lanes, but if you know the area the sheer number of exists seems to suggest they are needed.
As right wing opponents sometimes like to point out, the bridge traffic will still run into a gigantic mess further south in the Rose Quarter area of Portland, where the freeway squeezes back down to two lanes, so claiming there will be some huge increase in capacity on the corridor from a new bridge is just wrong.
The “bridge influence area,” identified as a roughly 2 mile stretch of I-5 in Clark County and north Portland, would be vastly improved, especially a series of sub-standard and tightly packed entrances and exits. If you’ve ever been to Jantzen Beach shopping center, the on-ramp to I-5 north is only about 200 feet long, when modern design standards call for them to be 2,000 feet long. Try merging into that sometime with four semi-trucks blocking your path. I know someone who basically had their vehicle squashed up against a Jersey barrier because there was simply nowhere to go.
The current spans are hopelessly outdated and dangerous to drive upon for numerous reasons, including the lack of shoulders, narrow lanes and the “hump” in the middle that allows some water craft to pass below without a bridge lift, thus limiting the sight distance of motorists. Oh yeah, sometimes people forget, it’s a freaking drawbridge. I think it’s the only one on I-5 anywhere. During the snowstorms in December, when trucks were getting stuck trying to navigate the hump, the situation was compounded when river traffic backed up as well, forcing a bridge lift in the middle of the mess.
Another safety factor is that nobody knows for sure what will happen to the existing structures in a strong earthquake. Not only are the pilings made of wood and driven into the river bottom rather than concrete poured to bedrock, but the lift spans operate with huge counter-weights. Imagine if you started rocking a large grandfather clock back and forth; the action of the pendulum gives you a miniature idea of the potential peril.
But there’s something else that really gets to me. The CRC project is likely to include light rail. Nobody has a crystal ball, but if the project is built, it seems likely that light rail will finally come across the river. I really don’t understand why left wing bridge opponents continually seem to ignore what would be a huge victory. I believe that on the day a line to Vancouver opens, it would immediately be the busiest in the system, on the order of 20,000 trips a day, if memory serves me correctly. If we want to reduce automobile trips, how can this not be considered a victory?
As for the creation of a bi-state council, Brock has some interesting points. How things like land use management can be negotiated in a compact is a legal question far beyond my pay grade, I’m just a political hack. But I can tell you the howls of outrage about Portland and Seattle liberals trying to tell us what to do have only begun.
I’ve tried, over the course of time, to issue warnings that it would be a bad thing to enact tolls that can be portrayed as “punishment,” for the simple reason that, rightly or wrongly, they will be overwhelmingly perceived in Clark County as an unfair economic attack against residents who happen to live on the north side of the river and work on the south side, when they already pay Oregon income tax. So while people who study urban planning may sometimes be enamored of tolls to manage traffic demand, from a political perspective the smart thing to do here is dedicate tolls to construction and maintenance only. Unless, of course, we want a promised vote on a sales tax increase for operation of light rail to fail, which would likely scuttle the whole project. (Yes, I do see the potential for mischief. But that’s another discussion.)
What the mayors have done takes a pretty significant amount of courage. It’s obviously an attempt at a grand compromise, to take into account the political exigencies on both sides of the river while still keeping the project focused on what it is: a large public works project that will pay dividends to the entire region’s economy for the next one hundred years or more.