The proposed new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River has been in the news a lot lately, with much debate not only about what form the bridge might take, but whether there should be one at all.
Considering how Portland is and wants to be a pedestrian and transit-oriented city, to keep reducing our emissions, and to honor our history of fighting freeway projects such as the Mount Hood Freeway and others recommended for Portland by Robert Moses, it's natural for many to bristle at building a new bridge. If anything, the argument often goes, there should be a bridge just for pedestrians and MAX trains. But having adequate highway infrastructure, another pro-sustainability argument has been argued, is a way to encourage additional high-density development, which in itself makes a great contribution to greener living.
While I wish it had better pedestrian and MAX accomodation, I'm not sure having more lanes there would make traffic that much better. To me it's the Rose Garden and downtown area that really causes a slowdown on Interstate 5. That's where it not only becomes two lanes in each direction, but also merges with Interstates 84 and 405. You're never going to really change that unless you drastically re-route things and spend billions of dollars there too.
However, the Portland/Vancouver area is looking at many billions of dollars in federal money for the project, and if we add auto lanes, that'll also bring the opportunity for MAX and pedestrian/bike connections. Most all of us don't want to encourage auto use, but quality infrastructure is beneficial to the economy and to the life of the city.
It seems the chance for a landmark design, something we should absolutely demand of a Columbia crossing bridge if it gets built, will probably be severely hampered by height restrictions due to the nearby Pearson air field in Vancouver. Even so, creativity can overcome those restrictions. You can build something flat as the I-205 bridge but still (unlike that banal concrete span) make it beautiful. Architects like Norman Foster and Renzo Piano come to mind as wish-list design candidates, as do engineers like Arup and Battle/McCarthy.
Or by the same token, rather than salivating about a famous designer of today, what if instead we imagined something with the elegance of Portland's St. John's Bridge (pictured above)? I'm not saying we should go for a retro design, but if new modern-looking spans like Foster's Millennium Bridge don't get you jazzed, there are still lots of very elegant if more classic options out there, such as the suspension bridge. What I'm saying is don't forget to make it beautiful, too. Remember, we'd be looking at this bridge for a good half-century at least.
I've read a lot of opinions about sustainability and the bridge, such as how the bridge should be carbon neutral and, again, that it shouldn't be built at all. But where do the majority of architects and engineers stand on this? After all, it's a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a great design that defines and symbolizes the city, but it also is largely, no matter how you spin it, largely about moving cars, which any good urbanist cringes at. To bridge or not to bridge?