ON JULY 9, the Portland City Council will make a crucial vote on the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project—either approving or rejecting the initial proposal for a 12-lane bridge between Portland and Vancouver. The new bridge would replace the current six-lane I-5 crossing.
The council has already made it clear they want light rail and tolls to be part of the $4.2 billion project, but it's time for you to make something clear to them: A massive bridge is incompatible with Portland's values of sustainability and livability, and it's irresponsible in an era where we should be doing all we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—not make driving easier.
Fortunately, before the council votes this upcoming Wednesday, July 9, they'll listen to testimony from the public—from people like you. Get down to city hall (1221 SW 4th; 2 pm) and let them know why the big bridge is a bad idea.
Here are just a few of the biggest problems with the CRC proposal. You only get two or three minutes at the microphone—make them count.
A Big Bridge Runs Contrary to Oregon's Carbon-Reduction Goals
In January, Governor Ted Kulongoski's Climate Change Integration Group released a report outlining "a framework for addressing climate change." The report made it clear that "climate change is accelerating," and Oregon must "rapidly [move] toward a low-carbon economy." The report calls for reducing emissions by 42 percent by 2020 and an earlier report set a goal of reducing emissions to 75 percent below 1990 levels. Meanwhile, the governor's report says that reducing "vehicle miles traveled," or VMT, is "the area in which the state can have the most influence," and "is simply the single most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." According to the Oregon Department of Energy, transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon, accounting for 34 percent of emissions.
Unfortunately, the CRC staff's own data show that a new bridge will increase vehicle miles traveled—and that's without taking into account land-use patterns that may change once the bridge opens (read: we may end up with more suburbs north of Vancouver, and consequently even more VMT). The project began before we'd realized how dire the climate situation is, and the project hasn't been updated to reflect the current reality.
According to an October 2007 report from Sightline, an environmental think tank focused on issues in the Northwest, a single additional mile of new freeway "will increase CO2 emissions by more than 100,000 tons over 50 years," even when factoring in the brief initial emission reduction that accompanies congestion relief.
While we know the projected impact a new bridge will have on VMT, we don't have precise data on the bridge's impact on carbon emissions. The city and Metro would like that studied, but their request doesn't have teeth.
"It seems like the research that's been done isn't adequate to tell us what the demand is going to be or what the global warming impacts are going to be. How can we move forward when we don't have the answer to that?" asks Mara Gross, a CRC critic with the Coalition for a Livable Future.
A Big Bridge Won't Relieve Congestion in the Long Run
Proponents of the CRC project argue that adding more lanes to the bridge will smooth out congestion, and make it easier for freight. Sure it will... at first. Then the new lanes will fill up, and we'll be back at square one—but $4.2 billion poorer.
Yes, the new lanes will provide some immediate congestion relief when they first open. But once people realize that the bridge is easier to drive, more people will drive it, increasing traffic until the new bridge is just as congested as the current one. Even the governor's climate change report says so: "New infrastructure... may induce demand, locking governments into a spending cycle of adding increasingly more capacity as more drivers take advantage of new facilities."
Meanwhile freight, which currently makes up just eight percent of traffic on the bridge, would still be stuck in that new additional traffic. Instead, why not study a way to make it easier for freight to get through—perhaps a freight-only lane for certain hours of the day—without building more space for cars?
We Haven't Studied a Phased Approach of Transit and Tolls First
The CRC's own numbers show that transit—like light rail—plus tolls on a new bridge reduces traffic by 20 percent, compared to a new bridge without transit and tolls. But they didn't study what would happen if we added transit and tolls to the current structure, perhaps using toll revenues to do seismic and safety upgrades to the existing bridge. Would that alternative be cheaper, and address congestion without increasing auto capacity? Common sense says yes.
The City Has No Oversight of the Project
The City of Portland is one of six partner agencies on the CRC project, along with Metro, TriMet, and the counterpart agencies on the other side of the river.
As recently as the June 26 work session, the council had unanswered questions about their oversight of the project.
"Projects this big have a momentum of their own," Transportation Commissioner Sam Adams said to the CRC's Tom Markgraf. "And we want to make sure we have a good handle on it." That's a great idea—but the council still doesn't have oversight authority on the project.
A letter from the governors of both Oregon and Washington assured the six partner agencies that they'll have an advisory role as the project proceeds—the agencies will "provide guidance"—but it's unclear if the city will get much say in things like how many lanes the final bridge design has, how much the tolls are, or whether the new bridge is an ugly concrete slab. In other words, if the city council signs off on the bridge at this stage, will they get another chance to have a meaningful say in how this project proceeds?
We Don't Have $4.2 Billion Sitting Around
This is an extremely expensive project—the biggest public works project in our region's history. Is it worth the hefty price tag to build what's essentially a commuter bridge?
The funding sources for the project haven't been finalized, but you can expect to pay tolls and a higher gas tax to supplement any federal funding. (Economist and CRC critic Joe Cortright estimates that a Portland area gas tax needed to fund the project will run as high as 15 cents a gallon for 30 years.)
As Cortright asked Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder during a City Club debate on June 20, if Burkholder had $4.2 billion sitting on the table in front of him, would this bridge project be the first place he'd spend it? Burkholder never answered the question.
The Portland region has a backlog of unmet transportation needs, and a long list of transportation dreams, like more miles of bike boulevards, expanded bus service, streetcar extensions, and other options that let people leave their cars at home. If we put so many resources toward one bridge that largely benefits Vancouver commuters, however, where will we find the funding for those projects?