Today Portland’s city council will take its first public vote on the $4.2 billion plan to replace the current I-5 bridge over the Columbia River.
According to an article by Dylan Rivera in today’s Oregonian, the council is expected to approve only parts of the project while calling for more analysis (that factors in higher gas prices) and a “signature distinctive design”.
I was especially glad to see the second point made. Hopefully local leaders understand that a flat slab of concrete like the I-205 bridge should not be allowed to happen here. But it has to be more than talk. To succeed as a design, the bridge must not be hampered by height regulations because of the nearby Pearson Field in Vancouver. And the selection process needs to be sound: either a design competition or some kind of blue-ribbon panel that understands why a bridge by Santiago Calatrava (his bridge in Valencia, Spain is at left), Norman Foster (a bridge of his in France is pictured below) or Renzo Piano or other designers of that caliber is vitally important.
I’ve also wondered if there is any chance of Portland being able to take some of the federal dollars that would be pledged and use it on another transportation project. Instead of $4.2 billion on an entirely new bridge, what if we spent a fraction of that cost adding rail, bike and pedestrian access to the existing spans and then used the remaining funds elsewhere. I believe that’s more or less what happened when the proposed Mt. Hood Freeway was scratched and the funds from that project were applied to the city’s first light rail line.
Let me put this another way. If you had to decide between (A) the new Columbia bridge and (B) having the east bank overpass removed from its spot along the Willamette and that portion of the freeway buried underground, which would you pick? Even though I’m not necessarily against the Columbia span, I’d much rather have the east bank overpass removed.
I also can’t help but think of the bypass highway for Highway 99W at Newberg and Dundee that has been desperately needed for more than 30 years. I’m biased because such a road would make visits to my hometown of McMinnville a lot easier. But many thousands of people living down in the Willamette Valley feel the same way. What if you could drive from Portland to Lincoln City or Newport without hitting a stoplight? After all, I’ve spent vastly more time in stop-and-go traffic moving through tiny Dundee than I’ve ever spent in gridlock trying to cross the Columbia on Interstate 5.
One other quandary I’ve felt about supporting the bridge project. Both lawmakers and local press have emphasized that a major impetus for the new bridge is that it would ease things for freight. But freight could in many cases be better served by rail transit. I’d love to see a campaign to get more freight off the roadways. Giant 18-wheel trucks are a dangerous hazard to other motorists. I can’t go along with a bridge plan if the overriding principle is that it serves freight. There are way, way too many big trucks on the road as it is.
In an op-ed from today’s Oregonian, city council member and mayor-elect Sam Adams cautioned that the council’s vote today “is not the ultimate or final ‘yes’ to begin building the new bridge. Approval today will only move the bridge project proposal from one phase of evaluation to the next.” If we are to go forward, though, Adams will need to show leadership in ensuring that if we commit to this bridge, that it’s the right one.