A Bridge Over The River Why?

Local pols say global warming is a dire threat. But they want to spend $4.2 billion on a project that makes driving easier.

Rex Burkholder until recently would have probably ranked last on a list of Portland elected officials most likely to push for a $4.2 billion highway project.

"Every penny we spend on transportation is wasted," Burkholder wrote in a November 2006 Oregonian op-ed.

Burkholder is a true greenie. Before winning a seat on the Metro Council in 2000, he founded the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in 1990 and was a founding trustee of the Coalition for a Livable Future in 1994. His oft-stated belief that people should live where they work and trade in SUVs for bicycles and bus tickets has made him, for critics of Portland's mania for mass transit and land-use planning, the devil on two wheels.

Google Burkholder and you'll find the plainspoken 51-year-old Kansan transplant is treated as a bespectacled piñata by highway-loving conservatives on postings such as "Is Rex Burkholder Mentally Challenged?" (NW Republican, August 2005).

"Rex's idiotic transportation dogma has caused congestion to grow more quickly [here] than [in] any other urban area," wrote GOP activist Rob Kremer in a February 2007 post on his blog.

But lately something big and blacktopped has taken hold of Burkholder. It's called the Columbia River Crossing project, which if built, would be the most expensive public works project in Northwest history.

On May 2, the 39-member bi-state CRC task force published a document describing the five options for reducing congestion on the six-lane Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver, Wash. Leading the charge for the Cadillac-cost option, which includes a new 12-lane bridge: none other than Burkholder.

"In terms of congestion, safety and obsolescence, the existing bridge is broken," he tells WW. Burkholder believes incremental fixes would cost nearly as much as a new bridge and would be far less effective.

"Instead of patching a leaky roof, it's better to build a whole new house," he says.

Burkholder is Metro's representative on the CRC task force. Although Metro is but one of eight government entities that must approve the project, the agency's vote next month on which option to pick is crucial because Metro is the conduit for federal transportation dollars.

Yet the gigantic project wasn't much of an issue in the races for Metro—Burkholder was unopposed for re-election Tuesday to his third term on the Metro Council—and two of his colleagues faced only nominal opposition. And even in hotly contested primary races for mayor, City Council or even U.S. Senate, candidates (other than City Council hopeful Chris Smith, a critic) rarely mentioned the issue.

Despite his decades of work to end the primacy of the single-passenger auto on local roads, Burkholder is now advocating a mega-project to make it easier to commute between Clark County and Portland.

The $4.2 billion he wants to spend could buy a $21,000 Toyota Prius hybrid and a year's worth of gas, four new $1,000 bikes, and an annual $1,260 C-Tran pass to Portland for each of Clark County's 150,000 households.

Burkholder acknowledges his views have changed during three years on the CRC task force. Hearing Washingtonians' pain led him to the epiphany that Clark County suburbs aren't structured like Portland's Irvington neighborhood where he leads a mostly carless existence.

"When we started, I said, 'This [building a new bridge] is not my issue,'" Burkholder says. "But it's been death by 1,000 cuts."

The tectonic shift in Burkholder's approach—from highway hater to bridge booster—is evidence of just how difficult it is for even the most committed environmentalists to choose between the way Americans live now and the wrenching sacrifices needed to combat global warming.

Critics of the CRC project, many of whom are longtime Burkholder allies, have banded together into a group called SmarterBridge. They say Burkholder is simply choosing a mid-20th-century roads-first solution rather than seizing an opportunity to attack global warming.

"This bridge is the first real test of whether we're going to change the status quo," says Jeremiah Baumann of Environment Oregon. "Instead of changing our auto dependence and giving them options, we're preserving the status quo."

Rather than building additional capacity, Baumann and other project critics would toll both Columbia River crossings now to discourage driving and to fund light rail and seismic upgrades to the existing six-lane crossing. And they'd leave intact the spans that a 2006 ODOT inspection found were in "fair to satisfactory" condition.

Oregon politicians from Gov. Ted Kulongoski to Burkholder to Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams talk tough on global warming: Oregon has committed to reduce carbon emissions 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and by 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050; the city has committed to reducing emissions to 10 percent less than 1990 levels by 2010.

But below are six reasons critics are dismayed those same pols are driving full speed ahead on the CRC project—in spite of such ambitious carbon-reduction goals.

And if you think the bridge is somebody else's problem because you don't drive or because you don't live in Vancouver, remember this: You'll open your wallet to pay for the project in the short term, and in climate terms, we'll all pay in the long run.

1: The bridge isn't Oregon's problem.

The task force says the option that best reduces congestion is also the most expensive—with an estimated cost of $4.2 billion. That sum would streamline seven I-5 entry ramps approaching the Columbia River and build a light-rail/bike-and-pedestrian bridge and a new 12-lane bridge for vehicles, replacing the existing I-5 bridges.

Although the project is pitched as a bi-state partnership, traffic counts show the congestion on the I-5 bridges results primarily from Clark County commuters. During the morning rush hour, for instance, southbound traffic outnumbers northbound commuters by about 2 to 1. And figures show more than three-quarters of the vehicles carry only one person.

But the financing plan calls for Oregon and Washington to split the balance of whatever the feds don't pay.

Critics question that allocation.

"Why should people in Portland pay for tax refugees in Washington to travel to Portland?" asks Burkholder's Metro Council colleague, Robert Liberty, who favors tolling, light rail and phased improvements to the existing bridges.

Burkholder and other CRC members say congestion affects Washington and Oregon residents alike.

"We have to look at the transportation system as a whole," Burkholder says. "A million new people are going to move to this region in the next 20 years, and we need to figure out how to manage that growth on a regional basis."

Transportation dollars are tight in both states. Given that the Oregon Legislature hasn't increased the gas tax—the source of most local transportation funds—since 1993 and Metro has compiled a wish list of critical transportation projects costing $15 billion in the region, some observers fear the CRC could crowd out other priorities, such as replacing the Sellwood Bridge.

"I worry that it could consume all the federal dollars for the area for the next 20 years," says City Commissioner Sam Adams, a member of the CRC task force. Yet Adams is a cautious supporter of the project, provided it includes light rail, bicycle and pedestrian capacity, and relief for Hayden Island.

Doug Ficco, a WashDOT engineer and co-director of the CRC project, says Adams' concerns are unfounded because federal transportation funding comes from different pools of money, and the CRC project would not compete with other regional priorities.

Liberty says teeing up a $4.2 billion project without considering the impact on other more environmentally friendly projects around Oregon is irresponsible. "We ought to figure out what our priorities are, how much we have to spend, and then rank our possible expenditures," he says.

2: Gov. Kulongoski's own climate change task force says there is an "urgent" transportation problem—but that problem is not congestion.

In January, Kulongoski's climate change integration group, which included Burkholder, sounded a dramatic wake-up call.

"The earth's climate is undergoing unprecedented change as a result of human activity, and this change will have significant effects on all Oregonians, their families, their communities and their workplaces," the group's report stated. "It is urgent that we act now."

The most effective action, the report says, is to reduce driving, which accounts for 34 percent of Oregon's carbon emissions.

"Reducing VMT [vehicle miles traveled] is simply the single most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," the report said.

Yet reducing vehicle miles is nowhere near the top of the list of CRC task force priorities. And CRC forecasts show the project would not result in a material reduction in vehicle miles—estimates show that compared to leaving the bridges intact, the proposed $4.2 billion project, which proponents say is "revolutionary," would reduce VMT only four-tenths of a percent by 2030.

Despite championing emissions reduction, Kulongoski is also a big booster of the new bridge. Dave Van't Hof, the governor's sustainability adviser, denies the two concepts are in conflict.

"If the governor's criteria are met and the project includes light rail and congestion pricing, it will be a national model of a climate-friendly project," says Van't Hof, who represented the governor on the climate change group.

Critics note that as proposed, the tolls would only be installed after the bridge is built in 2015. That means their purpose is to finance additional capacity rather than reduce vehicle miles traveled.

"We want to make the climate change goals primary," says Jill Fuglister, co-director of the Coalition for a Livable Future, the Portland nonprofit Burkholder helped to found. "The question they are trying to answer is how do we relieve congestion. We think every investment of any size has to move us toward a net reduction in carbon emissions."

3: $4.2 billion is a lot of money for marginal improvement.

Even if Vancouverites ride light rail, instead of rejecting it as they did in a 1995 vote by a 2-to-1 margin, and even if the 500 or so who now walk or ride bikes daily across the bridge were to quadruple, CRC projections show the reduction in total carbon emissions associated with the bridge versus the no-build option could be a less-than-Olympian 2 percent (emissions would drop more than VMT because of reduced congestion).

"Even if you accept that their assumptions are right," says Environment Oregon's Baumann, "they're talking about a very small improvement to a very big problem."

Traffic studies project the morning rush-hour commute for Clark County residents in 2030 would be 41 minutes from 179th Street in Vancouver to the I-84 interchange—if the new bridge gets built. That's 10 minutes longer than today and only five minutes faster than if there is no new bridge.

CRC projections show it would actually take two minutes longer to drive the busiest part of the route—from SR-500 in Vancouver to Columbia Boulevard in North Portland—with a new bridge than if we stick with the old one. That's because by 2030, 44,000 more vehicles—178,000 vs. 134,000 now—would be crossing the 12-lane bridge.

Critics say the minimal improvements in southbound commute times prove building the new bridge would only shift the existing bottleneck south.

WashDOT's Ficco says concentrating on the rush-hour travel time misses the bigger picture—that the proposed bridge reduces the number of hours of daily congestion from a projected 15 by 2030 to 5 1/2.

"If we don't do this, what we call 'rush hour' now will last all day," he says.

4: In fact, if you build it, however, they will drive…more.

There's a concept transportation planners call "induced travel," which means more road capacity results in more traffic.

While the precise relationship between capacity and demand remains under debate, CRC figures show if a new bridge were built without tolls, the number of people crossing the Columbia would increase dramatically, versus the no-build option. Figures show that without tolls, a new bridge would carry 225,000 passengers a day by 2030, while the current bridges, if left in place, would carry only 184,000. The difference of 41,000 is the "induced travel" generated by the newly built capacity.

If, as the task force proposes, the new I-5 bridge is tolled, and an adjacent light-rail, bicycle and pedestrian bridge is built, that combination would reduce traffic by 47,000 car trips, leaving only a small net reduction—6,000 trips from the no-build scenario (see chart below).

"Unfortunately, the added lanes [on the bridge] are projected to erase most of the benefits of tolls and light rail, reducing the gain to just a 3 percent improvement," Baumann says. "For $4.2 billion, Portland should do better than a 3 percent improvement."

5: The need for a new bridge is predicated on a massive increase in traffic—but current behavior raises questions whether such assumptions are valid.

There's a flip side to a new bridge creating more traffic demand. That is, people may already be changing their driving habits, according to Portland economist Joe Cortright.

Cortright, who is part of the SmarterBridge group, is no highway engineer. But he is a nationally recognized expert on economic behavior (a report he did in 2002 for the Brookings Institution correctly predicted OHSU's bio-tech hopes were a pipe dream, for example).

He says CRC backers' underlying assumptions are opaque, and probably wrong when they project traffic congestion more than doubling, from six hours per day currently to 15 hours in 2030, if nothing is done.

For one thing, the price of gas is now an attitude-adjusting $4 per gallon and could go a lot higher. And, Cortright says, the CRC models seem to assume people will continue blindly moving to and commuting from Clark County to Oregon regardless of increasing congestion.

CRC staff have punched back at Cortright, charging that he cherry-picks data to support his arguments. But data released by ODOT recently tend to back up Cortright's case. They show Oregonians are driving less and using the I-5 bridge less. Highway miles driven decreased from 20.9 billion in 2002 to 20.6 in 2006, even though the state's population grew about 4 percent during the same period.

"This project is predicated on the assumption that traffic will increase at about the rate it did from 1990 to 2005, when we had declining real gas prices that averaged maybe $1.25 a gallon," Cortright says. "People adjust their behavior when the world changes significantly."

6: Greenies and land-use advocates stopped the Mount Hood Freeway in 1974 and a proposed Westside Bypass in Washington County in 1988. Why, with so many questions remaining about the CRC project, does it appear to have the momentum of a brakeless log truck careening down a mountain pass?

One of the five options the CRC task force evaluated was doing nothing. That's a nonstarter with road builders, manufacturers, shippers and trade unions represented on the CRC task force.

At a Portland Planning Commission hearing on the CRC project last week, Corky Collier, director of the Columbia Corridor Association, which represents more than 100 local manufacturers and shippers, noted the unusual nature of many of the public comments.

"What you have here is a roomful of business leaders asking for more government spending," Collier said.

"This [the CRC project] is the No. 1 transportation priority for us," testified the Portland Business Alliance's government affairs director, Marion Haynes, at the same hearing. Haynes noted that every major business group in the region supports the project. Construction trade unions also love the new bridge.

Democratic governors, Democratic legislatures and overwhelmingly Democratic congressional delegations control both Oregon and Washington. Democrats win elections with union money. A $4.2 billion construction project would create thousands of union jobs, which helps explain the lack of political opposition.

"There are no fiscal conservatives when it comes to transportation projects," says Metro's Liberty.

Next month, Metro will vote on a preferred option for the CRC. It is unlikely the Metro Council will block the project at this stage.

And later this summer, Portland's City Council will weigh in. While Adams and Commissioner Randy Leonard are leaning toward the project, Mayor Tom Potter and Commissioner Dan Saltzman both say they have serious questions about its financial feasibility.

If global warming is a dire threat—as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and most climate scientists say it is—you might think there would be serious debate about spending $4.2 billion.

But this is a country in which sacrifice is for other people, as shown by two of the three remaining presidential candidates suggesting a summer gas tax holiday and most citizens' total disassociation from the Iraq war.

Burkholder says critics are coming late to a debate that started even earlier, with a 2001 bi-state freight mobility task force that also recommended bridge replacement. He says he's already asked all the questions his critics now want examined and found the greenest and most efficient solution is a big new bridge.

For his re-election bid this month, Burkholder accepted $500 contributions from the Portland Business Alliance and Oregon Truck Political Action Committee. Nobody is suggesting those modest checks bought his support, but they reflect a puzzling duality in a politician known for ideological purity.

Maybe, as Metro watchers suggest, he's moving toward the political middle in preparation for a bid to replace Metro President David Bragdon in two years.

Or maybe after dozens of meetings with highway builders, business lobbyists and the representatives of commute-weary Washingtonians, he's suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Burkholder says he's simply changed his thinking based on facts.

"I'm open to learning, and after three years on the task force, I'm convinced there's a serious problem," he says. "It may not affect Oregonians, but building a new bridge is the right thing to do."

His Metro colleague, Liberty, says the bridge is a litmus test, not only for Burkholder but for all politicians who've swaddled themselves in green.

"The fate of this project will tell you about whether Oregon is serious about reducing carbon emissions," he says. "Or whether all the talk is so much greenwash to help get politicians elected."

The CRC options are contained in a "draft environmental impact statement," a document required before the feds will approve and fund any project. To read the draft and other project documents, go to columbiarivercrossing.org. For more on critics' concerns, see smarterbridge.org.

The $44 million spent so far on CRC studies is nearly one-third of the projected $140 million cost for replacing the Sellwood Bridge.

The CRC's 70 staffers work in Vancouver. And the Washington Department of Transportation has kicked in most of the $44 million spent so far on studies.

In 2005, state figures show Clark County residents paid $145 million in Oregon income taxes.

The public comment period on the project ends July 1, 2008, after two open houses discuss the CRC options 5-8 pm Wednesday, May 28, at the Red Lion at the Quay in Vancouver, and 5-8 pm Thursday, May 29, at the Portland Expo Center.