[Edit: Here's the audio!]

"I believe that spending $4 billion dollars on a freeway bridge is a huge mistake," says economist Joe Cortright, in his opening statement at today's City Club forum on the Columbia River Crossing. Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder just finished his intro, making the case for the project--in part by referencing the East Bay Bridge in the Bay Area, which was seismically unsound (they're replacing it, but they didn't add any traffic lanes to the new bridge).

Cortright's keeping it lighthearted enough to get laughs as he hammers home "critical points" like how the bridge could double the rate of sprawl. "Our dysfunctional relationship with Clark County and the rest of the region," Cortright says, is the biggest factor in congestion. There's a 7-to-1 ration of people coming into Portland from Vancouver versus the reverse commute. "This project would increase vehicle miles traveled [VMT] by 40 percent," when the recent governor's report on climate change says we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent, and reducing VMT "the area in which the State can have the most influence," according to that report.

More debate after the cut.

The cost to fix the bridges would rival the cost to tear down the current bridges before they're replaced, Cortright contends.

"The $4 billion dollars we spend on this project is $4 billion we won't have to spend on other projects," Cortright says, explaining the idea of "opportunity costs."

"For a much reduced level of money, we could fix the existing bridges, modify the ramps," add transit, "and do that in a way that would seriously deal with the congestion problem we face."

He's asking Burkholder: If he has $4 billion on the table today and could put it toward anything that would enhance our region, "would you put it into this bridge?" Oooo, I really hope Burkholder answers that.

"There's what we'd like to see the world be, and there's what the world is," Burkholder says, adding that the task force has asked all of these questions and choked on the price tag.

"The issue of growth is definitely an issue in this discussion," as is land use planning, Burkholder says. But "that's a decision of political leaders" on both sides of the river.

"I used to be an advocate for bicycles," Burkholder says. "Today I'm an elected official... and my responsibility is to look toward the future." Apparently in Burkholder's future, bicycles aren't that important, but letting people drive from Vancouver to Portland is. (At our CRC panel during the Toward Carfree Cities conference last week, transportation advocate Chris Smith asked Burkholder's colleague Robert Liberty what's happened to Burkholder--is this an Invasion of the Body Snatchers situation? I'm starting to think Smith is onto something...)

Redevelopment of Hayden Island can't be done "without this bridge," Burkholder says. Downtown Vancouver wants to "reknit its two halves together," and Burkholder contends that can't happen without this project.

"We do need to plan for the world we live in," Cortright says. But this project is planned as if we live in the 1950s. He's referencing the Mt. Hood Freeway project, where the plug was pulled--after funding was in place--and instead we have light rail and a vibrant SE Portland.

Cortright points out that Burkholder didn't answer his question about whether he'd spend this money all on the bridge if it were sitting on the table in front of him. "For your $4 billion dollars, you could buy 200 miles of streetcar" instead, for example. "There are lots of other things that we could spend it on."

Cortright is looking ahead to January 2009, when "we'll have a new federal administration... I can see the possibility that a President Obama... calls a meeting and invites his new Transportation Secretary Earl Blumenauer to sit down with the leaders of the country's greenest city" to rewrite the federal transportation bill. "And President Obama will reflect on the crown of 75,000 people" that greeted him in Portland, and say "what can a nation learn... what are the Portland lessons for what our transportation funding and policy ought to be? If we go ahead with the Columbia River Crossing, that answer will be... to have a $600 million [federal] earmark for a highway bridge. That's not the kind of vision that Portland has... I hope you'll join me in becoming an ardent opponent of the Columbia River Crossing, and that we need to move in another direction."

City Club's Leslie Morehead is asking the pair about good design. But in the current environment, what's the possibility of creating an iconic bridge? Burkholder says it's very high, "there's a possibility of a great bridge there." He doesn't think it'll necessarily be something you notice while driving across it--"you'll be paying attention to traffic," (which, I might add, you'll still probably be stuck in)--but will still be beautiful.

Cortright says if we build it, it ought to be beautiful. "But the decision of what this will look like is in the hands of the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Washington Department of Transportation." Once the cities sign off on a locally preferred option, it heads to those departments for real design work--and the cities are just advisory.

Chris Smith, city club member, is up asking a question. "It's really unclear how much control [the six local jurisdictions] have," he says, referring to yesterday's city council meeting. His question is, once the jurisdictions vote on the locally preferred option, will they ever have a chance to vote on details of things like number of lanes? Burkholder says the process needs to be consensual. If the region can't agree on something, the feds won't give us the money. "I believe in clean government and transparency, and I'm an optimist," says Burkholder, so he thinks everyone "will work together closely."

"I'm not so quick to trust the departments of transportation," says Cortright. For example, it's not really a 12-lane bridge, according to the departments of transportation--it's three through lanes, plus auxiliary lanes. "That can only charitably be described as Orwellian," he says.

Traffic over the I-5 bridge is down, asks Leslie Carlson, co-chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, while gas prices are up. But the project is modeled on gas prices in the $1.25 range. Why not study this based on updated data, Carlson asks?

"I'm not a data guy," says Burkholder, who says the project is studied based on the price per mile driven, which he says has remained "relatively unchanged," as people buy more efficient vehicles in response to gas prices. "People will change, the fleet mix will change, so the price stays about the same." Also, he says, "models aren't perfect," which is why this is a political process as well. We did not approve a 12-lane bridge on Tuesday night, we approved three lanes in each direction" plus auxiliary lanes.

Burkholder wants to clear up confusion about VMT. "Many of these trips are short," he says, with about 75 percent of trips getting off and on "in the project study area." That sounds to me like an argument in favor of giving people options that don't involve getting on an Interstate to travel less than five miles. I, for one, would love to skip the freeway when I'd like to hit Jantzen Beach--I'd love a route that would allow me to bike or ride my scooter.

"A lane is a lane is a lane. It adds capacity no matter what you call it," Cortright responds.

Why didn't the task force study commuter rail between Union Station and Vancouver's Amtrak Station? asks a man in a sharp plaid suit.

That's a misconception, contends Burkholder, who's doing a remarkable job of not answering the question. The railroad bridge had very little to do with the problems on the I-5 bridge, he says. We're spending less on infrastructure now than we did in the 1950s and 1960s.

Robert Liberty is up to ask the final question! "In December the Metro Council adopted a [plan] that identified a $7 billion shortfall for capital projects... should this be a priority?" How should the region prioritize projects for funding?

"There are lots of other priorities in this region," says Cortright, and this one ties up our capital for decades. "It's not the time to sign that giant promissory note, and fritter away our" ability to finance other projects in the future.

Burkholder says that's a false choice. This one will attract federal capital and be partially financed by tolls (probably on the I-205 bridge, too, FYI). "I think there's a lot of opportunity here to make this happen and do it in an environmentally sensitive way."