BY BRIAN LIBBY
In an era of depleting budgets and limited resources for infrastructure, nothing could be more heartbreaking than a region committing billions of dollars to the wrong project. But yesterday the horrifically ill advised Columbia River Crossing took another step to reality when a joint Oregon Legislature/Senate committee voted Monday night in favor of the $3.4 billion bridge proposal, which now sends it to the full Legislature.
Those on the 16-member committee cited the jobs that will come as a result of the construction. They pointed to seismic concerns about the existing Interstate Bridge. They said 18 years of community meetings and planning had produced a viable project. "We have listened," Republican Senator Bruce Starr of Hillsboro told The Oregonian's Richard Read. "This is the art of the possible. It ain't perfect."
Indeed the Columbia Crossing is an imperfect project, but there is no artistry involved, unless you're counting the performance art of the highway-industrial complex, which has convinced our leadership to support a bridge project that will sap billions from other, more necessary transit projects around the state, all while accomplishing little in the way of improving congestion in Portland and Vancouver.
Unfortunately, highway building (including the bridges that serve these highways) is an almost unstoppable force because of the vice-like grip the associated construction industries have on Democratic and Republican leaders alike. Republicans wind up being swayed by companies poised to benefit financially from such construction, and Democrats by the unions that would gain temporary employment. As a result, they commit to a project that seems to have everything but what the metro area needs.
An article in today's New York Times about a similarly controversial bridge project proposed for Louisville and southern Indiana indicates how the CRC flies in the face of Portland's values. The proposed $2.6 billion bridge is the largest in Kentucky's history. And those opposed to the bridge are holding up Portland and its prosperity as an example of why not to build such a bridge. "The project comes at a time when some cities are moving in the opposite direction, dismantling downtown bridges and expressways in favor of public transportation," the Times' Bobby Allyn writes. "Among the most skeptical of the plan is the grass-roots group 8664, which has drawn nearly 12,000 supporters online. The group is asking that only part of the project be built and that Interstate 64, which runs along the river, be shifted to the edge of downtown so that the city’s sprawling waterfront could be revitalized with 'Portland-style vibrancy.'”
The Columbia Crossing is a move against 'Portland-style vibrancy' right here in Portland.
It's not to say that we don't need better bridge service over the Columbia. The current Interstate Bridge creates sizable bottlenecks when it's raised for river traffic. But an alternative plan - one that would build a local bridge to Vancouver - has been ignored by local and state leaders because it isn't favored by the highway building companies and their unions.
A local bridge to Vancouver would cost one tenth as much as a new Columbia Crossing replacing the Interstate Bridge, but it would produce the same results. Pairing this with upgrades to the existing nearby rail bridge, as Jim Howell of the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates argues in an Oregonian op-ed, would also elminate 95 percent delays from bridge lifts.
Think of it this way: if the Marquam and Fremont Bridges carrying freeways over the Willamette River in downtown Portland were the only bridges we had, would you replace them or would you build a local bridge like the Hawthorne, Broadway or Morrison Bridge?
The fact that Kitzhaber and newly elected Portland mayor Charlie Hales would support the Columbia Crossing over a better alternative at a fraction of the cost is disappointing. Kitzhaber is in his third term as Oregon governor and has gained a great amount of praise for his leadership in areas like health care, but the Columbia Crossing support is a stain on his administration. Hales has been a very laudable leader on behalf of mass transit during his previous tenure on Portland's City Council. During the campaign, he said what he supports is not this Columbia River Crossing but reined-in version of it. Yet even if the project were scaled down, it wouldn't change the fact that a local bridge would still be cheaper and would accomplish more integration between Portland, Vancouver and their economies.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not writing this as a Portlander who only walks, bicycles and takes mass transit. I own a car, and when I'm driving on Interstate 5 or any major highway, I'm hoping for as many lanes as possible, and praying there won't be a traffic slowdown. I see highways and their corresponding bridges as a vital component of the metropolitan infrastructure, something that ideally can pay for itself in greater ease of movement and, thus, economic activity. But even if one were to evaluate the Columbia River Crossing solely as a driver, it's still a bad idea. The project will cost so much that it will use up a lot of our state and federal transit funds. Yet because it's only replacing an existing bridge, save for a few extra lanes it won't give me much. The local bridge to Vancouver would give drivers in both cities easier access to the other side of the Columbia without having to get on a freeway. It would give us easier access to the waterfronts on both sides, and would save finite highway dollars for other places where it's needed, like for a third lane between Salem and Eugene on I-5 to the south, or to build a tunnel for I-5 drivers to replace the Marquam Bridge and related overpasses on Portland's east side. That, unlike the CRC, would dramatically transform the city for the better. On the Columbia Crossing, we're cashing in almost all our chips just to upgrade something we already have.
And that's not even getting into how ugly and banal the CRC design is from an aesthetic point of view.
Honestly, I believe it's likely too late to stop the Columbia River Crossing. Although the Oregon legislature has not yet voted on the project, the 14-2 recommendation by the joint panel indicates that Democrats and Republicans alike are guzzling the Kool-Aid. But theoretically there is still a chance to affect the legislature vote. It would require all of us to contact our state representatives and plea for them to come to their senses. If you're reading this, will you make the call or send the email? Right now we are our only hope.
In my 13 years writing about design and construction in Portland, I've long since gotten used to this city patting itself on the back for being different from other American cities: willing to eschew the domination of automobile-oriented planning, committing to promoting pedestrians and mass transit, choosing density over sprawl, and favoring common-sense transit projects over the tangled concrete spaghetti of Robert Moses-style freeways. (In all honesty, I do a lot of the civic back-patting.) But if we build the Columbia River Crossing, Portland should no longer be able to make such claims. The Columbia River Crossing puts us in the realm of Houston, Phoenix and Las Vegas, letting our metro area be driven by special interests hoping to pave our one-time paradise even when all the statistics and all the common sense shows a better alternative.
In a time of bitter partisanship, the Portland metro area has found a way for Democrats and Republicans to come together, but only in the shame of misleading and misspending on the biggest boondoggle of our time.