Interstate Bridge, photo by Brian Libby
Depending on your point of view, it can be called either an "Independent Review Panel" or, as David Osborn prefers, the "Rubber Stamp Panel".
Either way, Osborn's grassroots organization, the Stop The CRC, is planning a protest for the the first meeting of the Columbia River Crossing Independent Review Panel on Wednesday. The meeting is scheduled for 9:00AM at the Portland Expo Center in room D201. Opponents will be gathering outside at 8:45 for the protest.
Officially the CRC Independent Review Panel was created by the Governors of Oregon and Washington, who "believe that the CRC Project is essential to maintain our region’s economic vitality, enhance community livability and strengthen the economy. They recognize that the investment required to replace the I-5 bridge, connect to the metro area’s light rail system and improve I-5 is significant," says the IRP's website. Doesn't sound very "independent" so far in terms of approach, does it?
The purpose of the panel, the website goes on, "is to assure that the basic assumptions underpinning the planning and financial studies of the project are reasonable and sound." But the Independent Review Panel is comprised of transportation industry veterans, and it does not include a single Oregonian.
But here's where it gets more biased. Members include people like Panel chair Thomas R. Warne, a civil engineer from Utah with over 30 years of experience funding and delivering light rail and highway infrastructure projects, specifically as a consultant to public agencies and private companies. Clients include the Federal Highway Administration, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
"These people who rely on a lot of DOT funding for their work," Osborn of the Stop the CRC Coalition says. "They’re not going to want to be critical. For them to criticize this project is not really a professional option for them. It's a conflict of interest."
Transportation industry officials also will be blinded to one of the fundamental problems with this project besides its gargantuan scale and suburban mindset: that there has never been a real designer associated with the project. We're treating the CRC as a slab of highway instead of a prominent gateway bridge.
As Osborn notes, the concerns of locals have been routinely ignored - not just local citizens and activists, but even elected officials who have expressed opposition to the proposed bridge's scale, environmental impact, (sub) urban planning, and overall design. Worse yet, both the Independent Review Panel and the overall CRC process are set up to not even be able to consider alternatives.
For example, one alternative idea to the massive CRC that has been suggested is a local bridge for freight travel. The bridge could be tolled, which would not be a great concern to the freight industries, because time stuck idling in congested traffic is more expensive. But this option has never been seriously considered during the CRC process because the review area is restricted to within a quarter-mile of Interstate 5. Stop The CRC's bridge opponents also argue that studies have avoided looking at other primary choke points on I-5 that do more to congest traffic, such as the Rose Quarter interchange with I-405.
Once the idea gains a head of steam, these massive highway projects can be hard to stop. But some upcoming elections could change that, particularly the Oregon governor's race and the race for Metro president. Democratic candidate Bill Bradbury has come down against the CRC, while John Kitzhaber seems critical without yet outright opposing the project. One assumes the Republican candidates like Alvin Alley and Chris "I couldn't make a free throw if my life depended on it" Dudley would presumably oppose the CRC for its obvious cost, but it's funny how the GOP not so secretly loves pork barrel spending when it benefits their districts. That said, a new Oregon governor would have the power to stop the CRC.
Just as importantly, Osborn argues, "As long as there is significant disagreement at the local level, the federal government will never fund it. The transportation departments know this, but they don’t want to talk about it. But Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) has recently said if there isn’t local consensus they can’t include it in the next funding package."
Of course there are reasons to argue for a new bridge. The current one is old and does not include light rail or proper allotments for bicyclists and pedestrians. And while it's not as much of a choke point along I-5 as the Rose Quarter, I-84 or I-405 interchanges, it is indeed a choke point. Building the bridge would provide jobs and improve the metro area's urban infrastructure. You can find more arguments at the Columbia River Crossing Coalition website.
But unfortunately the way in which this project has been (pardon the pun) railroaded through, with no sensitivity to design, the environment or local concerns has made it very difficult to support. Here's hoping this "Independent" review panel and the governors pulling their marionette strings will hear the growing consensus's concerns.