BY BRIAN LIBBY
Now that our leaders have failed in every step of the Columbia River Crossing planning and design process, the rebellion against this multi-billion-dollar boondoggle of freeway and pork-barrel politics can get fully underway. Luckily it's not just a rebellion to stop something, though, but to find a better way - whether with the help of George Crandall or Norman Foster.
After Monday of this week saw Washington Governor Christine Gregoire and Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber announce that the planned Columbia River Crossing is set to be a composite-deck truss type - going against the recommendations of its own hired experts in order to insist on the cheapest, ugliest bridge to span the waterway Lewis & Clark took to the Pacific - the calls to end the CRC project altogether have begun in earnest.
"Since I believe this project is necessary," writes commentator Jeff Jahn of PORT, "I believe killing the wrong bridge now will make room for the right bridge, when this project can be undertaken the right way to garner true support. Expect fireworks (and lawyers) as the design savvy and politically connected join forces with the kill the bridge crowd for a common purpose."
Nevermind that The Oregonian ran a story explaining the Governors decision without quoting the opposition. And then its editorial board endorsed the CRC plan. Given how the paper has been on the wrong side of nearly every major issue in the last several years - from endorsing George W. Bush for president to advocating historic Memorial Coliseum's demolition to retaining their editorial page editor after a DUI arrest even though they tried to crucify Sam Adams for a lesser transgression - perhaps the paper's support of the CRC is the ultimate proof that it is a black hole of money and folly.
As Jahn notes, there is now one way to save the integrity of the CRC design in its deck-truss form: hiring a major architect or engineer to design it. Jahn suggests celebrated local architect Brad Cloepfil, but the Allied Works founding principal has never designed a bridge. On the other hand, the great Renzo Piano has already shown that a flat bridge can still be beautiful with his bridge design in Japan. Sir Norman Foster has done wonders with the Millennium Bridge in London, essentailly a flat bridge. There is also the Portland Aerial Tram designer, Sarah Graham of AGPS, or internationally renowned architects who were finalists for the tram competition like UN Studio. Miguel Rosales, the Boston designer initially slated for Tri-Met's MAX bridge over the Willamette, would also make a fine choice. But more than ever, only one of the world's great designers can save the Columbia Crossing from itself.
As things stand now, Gregoire and Kitzhaber have assigned a rancid taint to our generation. Each era is a product of the people who build it. And the Columbia Crossing, as these governors imagine it, is poised to become the biggest concrete embarrassment that Oregon has constructed since the Robert Moses-esque Marquam Bridge.
However, rather than simply arguing over the bridge type, or over the need for a bridge versus only a do-nothing option, what if there were a smart CRC alternative that did just as much to address future traffic congestion while better infusing Hayden Island and both sides of the Columbia with a range of transit options?
Thankfully, there is just such an alternative, offered by internationally renowned urban planner George Crandall, FAIA, of Portland firm Crandall Arambula. Crandall suggests keeping the existing Interstate Bridge and instead investing in two new railroad and pedestrian/light rail bridges. The total cost? $1.8 billion instead of $3.6 billion for the CRC. Crandall's plan would not add any freeway, but it would vastly improve freight-related congestion by giving big trucks a way to avoid the Interstate altogether.
Crandall's timely and brilliant plan is detailed in this short video by Spencer Boomhower:
Essentially, the Crandall plan is to reduce congestion on the existing Interstate Bridge not by replacing it but by alleviating the biggest reasons for its congestion: a lack of any additional local Columbia bridges for cars, mass transit and pedestrians.
Be it a bridge or a regular stretch of highway, Interstates become clogged particularly when locals start using them for small stretches, which in turn combines with pass-through vehicles to make the road space overstuffed. It's no wonder I-5 at the Columbia bridge gets clogged. There's no other way to get to Vancouver or to Hayden Island.
It goes to show why highway building ultimately doesn't help address traffic very well: such endeavors never get to the source of a problem.
Imagine of the Willamette River as it passed through the center of Portland offered only the Interstate 5 crossing at the Marquam Bridge and a railroad bridge as the only ways to traverse the two sides of the city. That's essentially what we have along the Columbia. Rebuilding the I-5 crossing would be like pumping iron to muscle up one arm when what we need is the help of a second arm. And as it happens, this solution is only about half the cost of the CRC plan in its current form.
You'd think Oregon and Washington's transportation departments would have come up with such a plan years ago. What exactly are they doing in these offices? Are they merely staffed with former highway construction engineers? It's all but ridiculous that an outside planner would have to be the one to show us that we not only don't need the CRC, but that there is a way to address all the traffic needs the governors' bridge plan does for half the cost.
If you think about it, the Columbia Crossing isn't just crossing the Columbia but is part of a highway span over Hayden Island, a major shopping area as well as a pass-through for countless freight trucks. Yet the CRC does very little to creatively address the freight menace other than to add freeway ramps and lanes. Crandall's plan, on the other hand, has found a way to vastly improve both river-traffic efficiency by reducing 95 percent of the existing Interstate Bridge's drawbridge raisings while also creating much better connections between the island and Portland and Vancouver. In fact, the Crandall plan would allow a much shorter MAX ride between downtown Vancouver and downtown Portland someday.
This plan is so much better than the Kitzhaber/Gregoire billion-dollar boondoggle that it forces one to ask once again just what the two states were spending $130 million in reasearch on. Were the highway gurus studying whether teens prefer Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus? or perhaps the hydrogen and oxygen content in the water passing under the bridge? The rules of cricket? One half expects the governors' prepared remarks on Monday to have demanded, "No really, I demand to know: who is on first?"
At the same time, all the ridiculing in the world won't stop the $3.6 billion CRC from being built in its horribly flawed current form. It will take a massive wave of citizen-led political demonstration and involvement to make Kitzhaber and Gregoire agree to spend half the amount on a better solution. Such is the titanium-strength grip of the highway-industrial complex's grip once they have decided to lay concrete. The CRC is like a blind elephant running wildly and fearfully through the jungle, and only we Liliputians, joined together with every thread we can puster, can lasso it under control.