BY BRIAN LIBBY
Imagine you owned a car that still ran well but was starting to age, and faced the choice of replacing it this year with the wrong choice or next year with a proper one. This year you could have a PT Cruiser with wood paneling. It's ugly, and it's got more room than you really need, but it runs and it's available. Or, next year you could have an ideal Ford Focus or Nissan Altima: a sedan that is better looking, fits your needs better, and costs about the same. Do you go for the ungainly eyesore this year or the right car next year?
That's essentially the debate taking place regarding the Columbia Crossing: wrong and ugly now versus right and beautiful in the near future. A bridge that our design community and ordinary citizens take pride tomorrow, or a slab of concrete now against the wishes of experts and populace.
The states of Oregon and Washington are eager to build a bridge that qualifies for the soonest available federal funding cycle. The business community is largely behind them, as this editorial from the Portland Business Journal indicates:
The Portland Business Alliance gets it. Aesthetic nitpickers don't...At $340 million, the [deck truss] design is by far the most affordable option. A handful of boisterous critics, though, insist the design isn't attractive enough...Some people will never be satisfied."
The writer marginalizes the critics as a "handful" when in reality this opinion arguably represents the majority of citizens. Not only is the design community in support of cable-stayed over deck-truss, but cable stayed has rated better with the public at large commenting in CRC meetings.
It's also an ironic stroke of the keyboard to suggest "people will never be satisfied" after the community outside of the transportation-industrial complex didn't like something it's been begging elected officials not to build for the last two years. People don't like the cheapest, ugliest concrete slab the traffic engineers could find? And have said so continuously? Oh my, they're being so uncooperative!
Perhaps the saddest and most significant part of the Business Journal editorial is the dismissive attitude toward design. If one thinks design is merely aesthetics, then it's forgetting that the discipline is about how something works. Beauty or lack thereof is, while a subjective feeling, inseparable from that idea. It's part of the working. And if this is such a fanciful idea, that our built environment should inspire us, why are the societies beating America economically, like China and Germany, handing over landmark bridge commissions to the world's best architects while our leadership insist these people aren't even needed?
Instead of complaining about a lack of consensus as if this is the problem itself, a truly admirable leader, I'd argue, would be likelier to look in the mirror. Why is there a lack of consensus? It's not because consensus is impossible or requiring a commitment our community is unwilling to give. There is a lack of consensus because the proposal in its current form is unacceptable to many people - including the Urban Design Advisory Group selected by the Columbia Crossing as its trusted advisors.
Highway builders and their allies across America have become an almost unstoppable juggernaut. They seem to suggest if the Columbia Crossing isn't funded in this current funding cycle, then somehow its fate will be sealed forever and Northwesterners will be forced to endure miles of stop and go traffic because we didn't follow their concrete road to a wide-laned Shangri-La.
The reality is quite different. The I-5 bridge over the Columbia is not even the choke point for the Interstate in the Portland area. That is clearly the Rose Quarter, where the road thins to two lanes in each direction and intersects with I-84. (Luckily attention seems to be planned for this interchange.) And it's scare tactics to suggest that the Columbia Crossing has to be built with funds from this funding cycle. Say we build a bridge in four years instead of two, or six years instead of four, with funds from the next funding cycle. Maybe we could actually reach consensus on a proper bridge without creating a civil war of words born from hasty bureaucrats and elected-officials. But to listen to the bridge lemmings, a catastrophe would ensue if we don't fast break with the basketball instead of setting up the offense.
Admittedly, there is the chance for debate on whether we choose a deck-truss design, like the much despised Marquam Bridge over the Willamette near downtown, or a cable-stayed design like most all of the region's design experts favor. (Let that sink in for a moment: all the bureaucrats and concrete layers want to rush. All the design experts want to wait. Whom is the greater expert?) Truly good or great design is in the execution within a set of parameters. Even if a cable stayed bridge is the better type here, hiring a truly masterful designer could make a composite deck-truss bridge work well and look beautiful.
If the governors and concrete layers actually went out and hired a master like Renzo Piano, or even Miguel Rosales or Sarah Graham, it would be easier to get behind that bridge type. But one can't imagine trusting the leaders of this process to actually make such a smart, thoughtful move. Everything Ted Kulongoski, Christine Gregoire and John Kitzhaber have indicated so far, and especially everything coming from their transportation bureaus, indicates that they are unwilling to acknowledge what most people see plain as day: that ugly won't do any more than an non-functional bridge would.
The business community (at least as represented by the Portland Business Alliance and the Business Journal points of view) is advocating for a deck-truss bridge as an economic decision under the notion that aesthetic concerns are frivolous folly. Aesthetics are not just empty values that we can discard when the purse strings get tight. Aesthetics has a major and lasting affect on economic viability. The Marquam Bridge's faulty design has hindered economic development on the Willamette for a generation. It's not just that it's ugly. It's that the ugliness is a hindrance that affects far more than personal taste.
As our elected officials and money people try and intimidate the people of Oregon and Washington into haphazardly laying down concrete over the river where Lewis and Clark floated toward the Pacific, and beneath the shadow of Mt. Hood, we must also consider the influence of the freight industry. Drive on Interstate 5 or any other freeway today and your sedan is likely to be surrounded by 18-wheeler truck traffic. Obviously goods and services have to be moved for the economy to function, but a huge portion of this freight could be move on our woefully inadequate rail system. If we really want to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on transportation, we could lay down separate rail tracks for freight and high-speed passenger rail. That would do as much or more to alleviate I-5 congestion as a bridge over troubled local waters.
It's disappointing when one is a believer in public works projects as a viable economic vehicle yet becomes turned off by the process and the product. If we committed to design excellence in the first place, the region would have already saved hundreds of millions of dollars and would be ending up with a bridge - regardless of whether it's a deck truss or cable stayed - that connects us in ways beyond just concrete, cars and bicycles.