I had the pleasure this afternoon of eavesdropping on the type of political conference call that’s usually private. When four local leaders critical of the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project set up time to chat with two big CRC backers, the phone call was made open to reporters and I couldn’t resist.

Local leaders Metro Prez David Bragdon, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart have been getting extra attention from the CRC staff since February, when the four demanded independent review of the big bridge they said would have unacceptable impacts on local communities and canniablize funding for other transit projects.

Today the group discussed the proposed reworking the bridge design with Oregon and Washington Department of Transportation Directors Matt Garrett and Paula Hammond, who were not very flexible on design ideas.

Things got a little awkward. Especially after Mayor Adams came right out and said the bridge, though striped for 10 lanes, is about 15-16 lanes wide. Read on for the fascinating discussion!

Mayor Leavitt pointed out that the fed’s appropriate standard for freeways is to have an interchange every two miles, while the CRC squeezes seven interchanges into five miles. With controversy erupting on Hayden Island about the plans to expand an intersection there that would take out the island’s only supermarket, Leavitt asked if they could reconfigure the interchanges to have less of an impact on the island. Adams suggested building an arterial connection to the island via Marine Drive, instead.

“Two miles is ideal,” replied Hammond, “But impacts of taking away access for a growing area or an area that’s already established would be huge.”

Adams’ Transportation Director Catherine Ciarlo chimed in, “Is there a way to remove the interchange that doesn’t have those impacts?"

There was immediate silence on the other end of the line.

“Hello?” asked Mayor Adams.
“I guess they didn’t want to hear what I was saying,” joked Ciarlo.
“This telephone conversation did not meet the appropriate standard,” said another voice, to laugher.
Hammond clicked back into the call. “Here we are! We heard every snotty thing you said!” she said. Ahahaha. Technical difficulties. That was awkward.

12 lanes + 4 shoulders = 172 feet of hot asphalt, baby!
  • 12 lanes + 4 shoulders = 172 feet of hot asphalt, baby!
Hammond continued explaining the problems with nixing the interchange on Hayden Island, “We have a community and freight that will say, ‘What the heck? You’re taking away our interchange?’”

Then Mayor Adams started asking for a cost-benefit analysis of a smaller bridge and things got snippy.
The current CRC design maps out two side-by-side double-decker bridges supporting 10 striped lanes of car traffic, light rail and bike/ped facilities. “If you had a smaller number of lanes, at what point would you no longer need to dual-deck the bridge?” asked Adams. A single-layer bridge could have a smaller pricetag than the current plan.

“At what point do we as a community say a bridge this wide is too big or just right and how does that impact cost? It could be more expensive to do a single deck for all I know. We want to know the plusses and minuses of all ideas,” said Adams.

“Obviously we can’t start over,” replied ODOT’s Matt Garrett.

“Matt, come on,” snapped Adams. “The proposal on the table is for a 14 lane structure. Double decked… The agreement that was on the table was that we’d build it up to 12 lanes with federal standard shoulder. I need you folks to get out of sloganeering and into analyzing what’s actually proposed. Are we doing the best project possible?”

“I understand what you’re trying to get at,” replied Garrett. “But because the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] process is such a disciplined process, if we start drifting away from what we proposed—”

“The biggest vulnerability under a NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process is to exclude things too early,” interrupted David Bragdon.

“I don’t understand your math,” Hammond said to Adams, saying the bridge was cut down to 10 lanes to save money.

“The agreement that we had was that we would build it up to 12 lanes, the middle shoulder is one lane, the shoulders are one to two lanes each way. That adds up to 15 or 16 lanes of concrete on the bridge deck. The question is, do you need to double deck? Can you save a lot of money that helps, politically?”

“You’re trying to go to the worst possible lane number to prove a point,” countered Hammond. “Haven’t we refined and proposed 10 lanes?”

“No one jump to any conclusions here,” replied Adams. “These are requests to analyze scenarios so that we can be confident we have the best possible solution that has exhausted all creative possibilities. We simply want to know the cost benefit of going to a single deck.”

Predictably, things ended rather inconclusively, with promises for all sides to discuss these issues more.