THE REGION'S most expensive transportation project cleared another hurdle last week: Metro Council voted to move the $3.6 billion Columbia River Crossing (CRC) forward—even though the freeway expansion project has failed to resolve more than half the concerns the council had the foresight to raise three years ago.
"I've never been enthusiastic about this bridge," said former Governor Barbara Roberts, on June 9 before voting in favor of expanding the I-5 bridge between North Portland and Vancouver. The council voted 5-1 to advance the project, but Roberts described her own vote as a "leap of faith."
"I don't understand the path from when we laid out these concerns to how we got to here with so many questions still unanswered," said Roberts, who joined the council on a temporary basis this year.
When Metro approved the plan for the big bridge in 2008, they set some stiff conditions for what needed to happen by 2011. The project needed to come up with a financing plan, a tolling scheme, and a strategy to deal with the expanded freeway's harmful effects on nearby neighborhoods.
Of 11 concerns, only five have been resolved. How much the bridge will actually cost, for example, is up for debate—after an independent analysis from economist Joe Cortright showed the project could cost as much as $10 billion ["Recalculating the CRC," News, Oct 14, 2010].
Also unresolved after three years of work: The cost and timing of tolls, the bridge's environmental impacts, and whether the bridge's bike and pedestrian path will be "world class" (bike/ped advocates say it's definitely not) ["Changing Gears," News, Sep 3, 2009].
Critics, including State Representative Lew Frederick, D-Portland, whose strident editorial against the project was read aloud at the meeting, say the plan to widen the I-5 bridge to 10 lanes will create more car traffic and further choke the air in North Portland. When Councilor Kathryn Harrington, before voting yes, asked project staff about long-term plans to combat air pollution, the answer was disheartening: No one present could recall whether the CRC had a long-term plan to monitor air quality.
Corky Collier, executive director of freight advocacy group the Columbia Corridor Association, told the council to ignore critics' "unsubstantiated complaints" about the project. "There's no reason why these improvements to the project can't occur," he testified.
Despite their concerns, Harrington and all but one of her colleagues still put their stamp on the project, saying it would create jobs and help reboot the economy.
The makeup of the council these days is significantly different from the one that wrote the list of CRC caveats in 2008. President David Bragdon and Councilor Robert Liberty, both outspoken skeptics of the project, left the council prematurely. In their seats are former Governor Roberts and pro-bridge President Tom Hughes.
Hughes joined Roberts and Harrington in voting yes last week, and so did Councilors Rex Burkholder and Shirley Craddick. Carlotta Collette was absent from the meeting.
The sole "no" vote came from Councilor Carl Hosticka, who lamented that the staff "spent three years on the project and didn't answer half the problems."
Next up: Reviewing the project's "Final Environmental Impact Statement," which is slated for release this fall.