Two weekends ago, while making an overnight trip to Seattle, I couldn't help but think about the proposed new Columbia River bridge as I crossed the existing Interstate Bridge on Interstate 5.
Today I was reminded of that ride as I read a blistering Oregonian editorial that takes the Bicycle Transportation to task for opposing the new bridge. The BTA is organizing a rally on Sunday, April 5 to protest the bridge.
"It shows an insularity in the thinking of the organization, just at a time when it ought to be broadening its reach," the editors write of the BTA. "The Alliance has decided to oppose what many freight, business and transportation advocates consider to be the No. 1 economic development goal for the region."
I've wrestled with the politics and parameters of the bridge for awhile. On one hand, a big new piece of infrastructure like this is a key investment in transit that will aid economic development and ease congestion. But I've been troubled by the focus on and debate about how many lanes the bridge might have: 10, 12, whatever.
To me, the lane discussion is almost wholly irrelevant, because the bridge is merely a small conduit between the freeway segments on each end. As one approaches the Interstate Bridge on the Oregon side, there are sometimes as little as two lanes in each direction, or three if you're lucky. Who cares if there are suddenly 12 lanes on the bridge? It doesn't help congestion unless the whole freeway throughout the area is that many lanes.
Honestly if transportation and highway advocates wanted quicker passage along Interstate 5 in the Portland area, they'd add more lanes further south from the Columbia: down near the Rose Quarter where there are just two lanes in each direction and, worse yet for congestion, an interchange with two other freeways (84 and 405).
At the same time, although I'm unequivocally a supporter of sustainable concepts, values, design and community building, I don't necessarily believe environmentalists' claims that widening the Columbia crossing will encourage sprawl. Being able to commute home with a little less headache isn't necessarily going encourage a sea of people to move further out. Transportation infrastructure is the circulatory system of a healthy city and region. If our land-use policies are sound with proper urban growth boundaries, and if highways are complimented by proper investments in mass transit, then proper highways are only part of a larger holistic transportation picture.
Given the economic and political climate, in which the economy is hurting and public investment is on the upswing, the timing is right for the Portland-Vancouver area to commit to a new bridge. It should of course have plenty of bike lanes in addition to car lanes, and space for light rail as well. It should be built as sustainably in terms of materials and energy use as possible. But sustainability and the amount of lanes aren't the only store here, nor are they the only factors in the design. If this project is to go forward, we need inspiration, a design that not only solves problems but adds beauty and imagination to this massive piece of concrete and steel.
Chances are the bridge will be completely approved in the weeks and months to come, regardless of whether a bicyclists advocacy group opposes the plan or a newspaper like The Oregonian advocates for it. It will be a hugely important juncture when approval happens, because that is when the community needs to hold the bridge to high standards of design: not just a series of quotas about lanes or the recycled content of the concrete, or the amount of wind turbines we affix to the sides.