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Columbia River Crossing

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Columbia River Crossing over Hayden Island
A rendering of the Columbia River Crossing as it would have crossed Hayden Island in North Portland. (This view is looking southeast across the Columbia Slough toward northeast Portland, with the proposed Yellow Line tracks west of the highway, in the lower right.)

"Columbia River Crossing," or CRC, was the name given to the process of planning for a widened highway and improved bridge connection across the Columbia River along the Interstate 5 corridor, replacing or supplementing the Interstate Bridge.

When the plan failed to win conservative votes in the Washington Senate, the governors of Oregon and Washington essentially declared the plan dead on July 29, 2013.

The project, estimated as of February 2013 to cost between $3.1 billion and $3.5 billion, would have extended the Yellow Line to Vancouver as far as Clark College, hung a bicycle and pedestrian path beneath the northbound traffic lanes and built 8 to 12 lanes for auto traffic across the river, including three "through lanes" in each direction and one to three "auxiliary lanes" in each direction for traffic getting on or off the highway inside the "project area," which stretches for five miles from Columbia Boulevard in Portland to state Highway 500 in Vancouver.


[edit] Benefits of the project

Interstate 5 on Hayden Island
The current site of part of the proposed CRC in Hayden Island, from the same vantage point as the hypothetical rendering above.

[edit] Light rail to Vancouver

The Yellow Line was originally conceived as a connection to Vancouver, but was built only as far as the Expo Center MAX station after Clark County voters rejected a ballot measure to help pay for the extension.

In Clark County, where conservatives tend to oppose the introduction of light rail, an enlarged CRC was seen as a possible compromise between the pro-transit left, which is based in west and central Vancouver, and the anti-congestion right, which is based in unincorporated Clark County.

Plans for the CRC had long assumed that federal New Starts grants would cover the full light rail construction cost of about $850 million.

[edit] Bicycle improvements

Bicycling from Vancouver to Portland is complicated and could be improved. On the bridge itself, each bike/pedestrian lane is just 3.5 to 4 feet wide, compared to the 10-foot standard.

[edit] Job growth

A 2012 economic analysis paid for by the project staff estimated that increased capacity in the transportation system due to the Columbia River Crossing would lead to 3,441 more jobs in the Portland area by 2030 than under the no-build scenario. That represents 0.15 percent of the state's projection for total jobs in the metro area in 2030.

The eased mobility would also have created 839 more jobs elsewhere in Washington, Oregon and California, the study estimated.

The analysis did not consider the possible economic benefits of other ways to use the public money.

[edit] Improved safety within the project area

Awkwardly spaced on- and offramps, unexpected complete stoppages from bridge lifts and relatively narrow lane widths in the existing project area sometimes lead to crashes. Project staffers say collisions in the corridor would have declined by about 70 percent compared to the no-build scenario.

[edit] Reduced auto congestion

According to the 2010 INRIX scorecard of congested corridors, the 10.1 mile northbound stretch of I-5 just south of the current Interstate Bridge is by far the most congested auto corridor in the Portland metro area, and the 35th most congested nationally.

Though at its peak congestion, Friday afternoon from 4 to 5 p.m., the stretch remains less congested than many other bottlenecks around the country, the relatively long duration of the daily congestion period bumped the corridor up the rankings.

Without widening the highway as proposed, the Columbia River Crossing staff projects (see page 3-28) that this off-peak congestion would get worse, with 15 total hours of weekday congestion (counting both northbound and southbound hours), compared to 3.5 to 5.5 total hours of congestion with the locally preferred alternative.

Tolling the new bridge, which would have been expected as part of the project, would also become a tool for managing future construction.

[edit] Expediency of a compromise

Although even supporters of the project conceded that it was flawed, many argue that tolls and high-capacity public transit between Vancouver and Portland would be politically impossible without an expensive highway expansion in addition.

[edit] Arguments against the project

[edit] Projections were based on outdated traffic patterns

CRC traffic
Projected traffic (red) and actual traffic (black) over the Interstate Bridge, 2000-2010. Graph by Impresa Consulting for Plaid Pantry.

As reported by Willamette Week and originally detailed by economist Joe Cortright, planners' assumptions about future auto traffic were based on trends that existed in the 1990s, but had reversed even before the 2007 gas price spike and the 2008 recession.

From 1994 to 1999, data tracked by the Regional Transportation Council show that average daily auto traffic over the I-5 bridge grew by an average 2.3% annually. However, that growth slowed to 0.6% from 1999 to 2004, then reversed to -0.8 percent from 2004 to 2009.

The projections on which the CRC was based assumed average growth of 1.5% over the 2004-2009 period.

In his analysis commissioned by CRC opponent Plaid Pantry, Cortright wrote (page 10) that the outdated traffic projections "appear to rely on a Metro regional transportation model that was calibrated based on the household travel survey conducted in 1994."

[edit] Tolls would reduce congestion with or without new construction

Despite the $2 billion that would have been spent on new highway construction, the Columbia River Crossing projected that daily auto traffic across the bridge would actually decrease 3 percent compared to a "no-build" scenario, in part because light rail would attract some commuters unwilling to ride buses, and in part because a new $5-a-day toll on auto traffic would give people an incentive not to drive alone across the bridge unless necessary. By the same logic, however, the crossing's congestion problem could be solved by simply adding tolls to the current bridge.

[edit] Reduced congestion would be temporary

Opponents of the new bridge argued that although widening the highway would temporarily reduce travel time, this would only have encouraged more commuting between Clark County and Portland until the highway would became congested again, requiring further expansion elsewhere on the corridor and, eventually, of the same area.

[edit] Planned free auto parking garages would waste valuable real estate

Thanks in part to federal grant formulas that rewarded transit projects for catering disproportionately to auto users, the CRC planned to construct three parking garages near three Vancouver MAX stations at a cost of least $158 million, then make the 2,900 new spaces available to MAX commuters for free, despite the fact that the City of Vancouver already charges for public parking downtown.

Even if park-and-rides do not, as some claim, actually increase the number of people driving, some transit advocates say land surrounding rail stations would be more valuable if used for commercial development, not free vehicle storage.

[edit] Problems could be solved more cheaply

See alternatives, below, for a discussion of possible ways to reduce bridge lifts, shore up its seismic footing and extend rail transit to Vancouver.

[edit] Projected cost

[edit] Projected building costs

Much of the cost of the project came from enlargements of six freeway interchanges in the project area. The following cost estimates are from November 2009:

Later, some of the interchange expansions were scaled back in size. By February 2013, the project was breaking down its estimated costs with less precision. (The figures below are low estimates -- which in this case refers to the level at which the project's designers estimate a 60% chance of the project costing less):

  • "Columbia River bridge, approaches and light rail extension": $2.05 billion
  • "Oregon roadway and interchanges": $595 million
  • "Washington roadway and interchanges": $435 million

[edit] $170 million planning cost

As of February 2011, planning for the bridge (including responses to ongoing criticism from opponents of the project) cost $118 million, according to figures requested and reported by the Portland Mercury. That total had increased to $170 million by July 2013.

Among the private companies receiving money for CRC planning contracts were:

[edit] Possible revenue sources

Planners tentatively assumed that about 1/3 of the revenue for the bridge would come from the two state governments, about 1/3 from the federal government and about 1/3 from tolls on people who use the bridge.

[edit] From Oregon taxpayers

In December 2012, Gov. John Kitzhaber, a CRC supporter, released a budget calling for the state to borrow $453.3 million from future general revenue (primarily personal income tax) for Oregon's share of the bridge construction (see p. 224).

However, House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-North Portland) engineered a deal in the subsequent legislative session that funded the project without forcing the legislature to make tradeoffs. The state legislature ultimately passed a bill, which Kitzhaber signed, allowing the Oregon Department of Transportation to borrow up to $450 million for the state's share of the bill without identfying any ongoing funding sources to pay off the debt.

At the urging of state Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Northwest Portland), the bill included "triggers" that would theoretically prevent Oregon from spending the money unless the project was also adequately funded by Washington and the federal government. (Economist Joe Cortright, a critic of the project, argued at the time that the triggers were "toothless" because, for example, it allows Oregon to take out the bonds after applying for grants from the federal government rather than waiting to see if federal funding is actually approved.

However, the federal "trigger" never became an issue, because of the Washington legislature's failure to approve its own share of funding for the project.

[edit] Funding from Washington taxpayers

Rob Johnson
Rob Johnson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition. The Seattle-based group expressed skepticism about the Columbia River Crossing but withheld vocal opposition.

In June 2013, in a special legislative session devoted to transportation, the Washington State House approved a plan to fund the CRC project, but it died days later when the Washington State Senate adjourned without passing such a plan.

[edit] From tolls

CRC toll table
Estimated toll rates by hour, in 2006 dollars, according to the project's 2011 final environmental impact statement.

Most bridge users are commuters who live in Vancouver and work in Oregon, though freight traffic and "reverse commuters" are also significant traffic sources. For most commuters, the toll cost had been anticipated to be about $5 per day in current dollars, about the same as transit fare. As shown in the chart at right, off-peak commuters would have been expected to pay less: perhaps $1 each way between 5 pm and 8 am.

According to the final environmental impact statement from 2011 (p. 4-10):

"The peak-period toll rate for an automobile with a transponder under the base toll rate schedule ($2.00 in 2006 dollars) would be $2.21 in 2010 dollars and $2.69 in 2018 when the new southbound I-5 bridge is scheduled to open for traffic."

[edit] From the federal government

The largest share of the federal contribution for the project was expected from the New Starts transit program that would pay most of the cost for the light rail expansion. The plan assumes that spending state and toll funds on the bridge itself would function as the local match for that federal investment.

Both President Barack Obama and President George Bush categorized the CRC as a project of "national significance" that should be prioritized by transportation spending.

"We support it, the money will be there and it really speaks to what America can do in terms of building big," federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in 2011. ""I don't know the exact percentage because we're still waiting for the final figures and the final cost, but I guarantee you: we will be in the project big time."

[edit] Alternatives

[edit] Common Sense Alternative

The "CSA" is a name given by George Crandall to an alternative way to achieve the project's goals with tactics, including adding commuter rail and a mid-stream lift span to the BNSF railroad bridge just downstream of the Interstate Bridge.

[edit] Video discussion of alternatives to the CRC

An October 2010 video by Portland videographer Spencer Boomhower, entitled "The Columbia River Crossing: A Boatload of Questions," looks closely at the projected costs of rebuilding the bridge and nearby interchanges and suggests alternatives.

Among other things, the video argues that:

  • One of the project's main goals -- eliminating lifts on the Interstate Bridge, a major source of auto and freight delays -- could be achieved in 91 percent of cases by adding a central lift span to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad bridge just downstream.
  • The Interstate Bridge could be earthquake-proofed with a seismic upgrade costing only $88 million to $190 million, or 2 to 7 percent of the project's estimated cost.
  • Eliminating the big-box stores of the Jantzen Beach Supercenter and a planned 300-acre port facility would remove some of the need for 17 lanes of traffic planned over Hayden Island.

Boomhower followed up with a second video specifically about the so-called Common Sense Alternative.

[edit] Public opinion

[edit] February 2011 poll of Oregonians

In a February 2011 poll conducted by the pro-CRC Portland Business Alliance and Portland General Electric, 67 percent of registered voters in Multnomah County, Washington County, Clackamas County or Marion County said they supported "construction of a replacement highway and transit bridge across the Columbia River."

  • strongly favor: 34%
  • somewhat favor: 33%
  • somewhat oppose: 15%
  • strongly oppose: 10%
  • don’t know: 8%

The poll didn't identify the cost of the bridge or ask what sacrifices voters might want to make to see it built. Nor did it specify levels of support in each county. A blog post in The Oregonian noted that the survey didn't include Clark County residents, the bridge's most frequent users.

[edit] April 2013 poll of Washingtonians

An April 2013 poll conducted by Moore Information for The Columbian found that Clark County residents were closely split on the project, with political ideology seeming to be a larger factor in their opinion than age, gender, location or whether they use the bridge regularly.

In the poll 46 percent of Clark County residents given a description of the project expressed support for it, while another 45 percent expressed opposition. Another 9 percent were undecided.

Support for including light rail on the bridge was slightly higher (49 percent of respondents) than support for the project as a whole, with very strong support (76 percent) among self-identified Democrats.

The more highly opposed demographics among Clark County residents, the survey found, were rural residents (58 percent opposition) and men over age 45 (56 percent opposition). However, the only demographic group broken out in the survey that saw majority support for the project was men ages 18 to 45, 51 percent of whom were in favor.

Among Clark County Democrats, 69 percent supported the project and 20 percent opposed. Among Clark County Republicans, 28 percent supported the project and 64 percent opposed.

The survey found that the most common reason for Clark County residents to oppose the project was its cost (27 percent of opponents), followed by tolling (15 percent), light rail (12 percent) and the perceived adequacy of the existing bridge (10 percent).

The survey's margin of error was 5 percent.

[edit] Final impact statement

The CRC's final environmental impact statement was published in October 2011.

[edit] External links

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