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July 3rd, 2013 NIGEL JAQUISS | News Stories
 

No More Bridge to Nowhere

Blind faith in the fatally flawed—and now dead—CRC starts a new I-5 conversation.

news3_3935FREEWAY SKEPTIC: “The Washington Legislature understood the CRC did not solve the congestion problem,” George Crandall says. “To spend $3.4 billion on a project that didn’t solve the problem was too much.” - IMAGE: Anna Jaye Goellner
George Crandall knows how to kill a freeway.

In the 1970s, Crandall helped lead the fight against the Mount Hood Freeway, which would have torn through Southeast Portland neighborhoods. In defeat, Portland instead built its light-rail system.

In recent years, Crandall, a veteran urban planner, has been a leading critic of the proposed $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing, the Interstate 5 project between Portland and Vancouver.

Crandall says he felt “relieved” Saturday when he learned the Washington state Senate had failed to approve funding for the CRC and the governors of Oregon and Washington had pronounced the decade-long project dead.

“It sucked up a lot of political energy,” Crandall says of the CRC. “It really wasn’t necessary. It was the wrong thing to do.”

But Crandall says he sees a big difference between the deaths of the two freeway projects.

“With the Mount Hood Freeway, there was a larger strategy to salvage the money and put it to different uses,” says Crandall. “In this case, there is no salvage strategy.”

For years, Oregon and Washington leaders chased a mirage of federal funding for a sprawling CRC project that was supposed to address chronic traffic congestion on and around the existing Interstate Bridge.

But leaders frequently fudged the facts and misled the public in their claims about the project (“A Bridge Too False,” WW, June 1, 2011).

As Portland economist Joe Cortright demonstrated, the project was built on wildly optimistic traffic estimates. That led to exaggerated claims of how much money tolls would raise. In the end, the bridge would probably not have paid off its debts as backers claimed.

The second miscalculation was political. Oregon agreed to the massive bridge in exchange for Washington’s acceptance of light rail between Portland and Vancouver.

Ironically, when Crandall and his pals killed the Mount Hood Freeway, part of the motivation was to bring light rail to Oregon. But opposition to light rail in Clark County and among Washington Republicans led to the CRC’s final defeat.

Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima), chairman of Washington’s Senate Transportation Committee, says the CRC planning process was a charade.

“The process was strictly manipulated by Oregon light-rail supporters from the beginning,” King says.

Port of Portland executive director Bill Wyatt, a CRC backer, says the complexity of getting two states and the federal government to agree on a plan led to a bolted-together proposal that included something for every constituency: new I-5 interchanges for freight mobility, a new vehicle bridge for Clark County commuters, and light rail for Portland’s mass-transit advocates.

“There isn’t an obvious plan B,” Wyatt says, “because so much energy has gone into the whole package as a result of the compromises made along the way.”

The CRC’s death was a huge loss for Gov. John Kitzhaber and House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland). Kitzhaber and Kotek got Oregon lawmakers to approve the state’s $450 million share for the project in March, but only after whipping Democrats into line for a vote many disliked.

It was also an embarrassment for rookie Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who could not close the deal his predecessor, Gov. Christine Gregoire, had made with Kitzhaber.

And it’s also a loss for the business lobbyists and labor unions who made the CRC a critical issue in the 2012 elections.

The states spent $172 million to plan a project that is now nothing but reports and drawings.

Now comes a test for Oregon and Washington: If leaders are serious about dealing with I-5 congestion, will they turn to less expensive but more creative solutions?

Crandall and Jim Howell, a rail advocate, drew up an alternative to the CRC two years ago called the “Common Sense Alternative.”

Crandall says a phased approach would have cost half as much as the CRC, addressing congestion by first reducing how often the Interstate Bridge lifts to allow shipping traffic through. And the plan targets a chief cause of congestion—traffic from Hayden Island—with a new, local-service-only bridge.

King thinks the answer is a new interstate vehicle bridge with more capacity. “At some point in the future, if light rail is the answer, let’s do that,” King says. “But right now it’s not the answer.”

Not everyone is hopeful.

“It takes so long to get where all the interests are aligned,” says Rep. Tobias Read (D-Beaverton), chairman of Oregon’s House Transportation and Economic Development Committee and a sponsor of the CRC funding bill. “We are likely to get to a similar place again with a proposal that is more expensive.”

The CRC’s death may also claim another victim: Mayor Charlie Hales has said the fate of West Hayden Island is linked to the construction of the CRC project. Now, Hales will have to decide whether to halt the Planning and Sustainability Commission’s scheduled July 9 vote on annexing the land for a new shipping terminal.

The port’s Wyatt says smaller projects could address trucking bottlenecks and congestion on I-5 south of the existing bridge. 

But he too is pessimistic about Oregon and Washington getting on the same page soon, given that the states can’t agree on two major issues—tolling and light rail.

“It’s hard to see,” he says, “a handshake with Washington at this point.” 

 
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