August 18th, 2010 | Published in Northwest
|The 10 lanes of the Columbia River Crossing would ease congestion, which is projected to hit a combined 15 hours of delays northbound and southbound in 2030. Photo: Dustin Eppers/EnzymePDX|
“Consensus” is a word that has never been used much in regard to the Columbia River Crossing – even among its supporters. Ever since officials identified the need to alleviate congestion over the stretch of Interstate 5 that connects Portland and Vancouver in 2002, debates have raged about exactly how to go about doing that. Things didn’t get any less contentious six years later, when project managers decided the best option would be to replace the existing bridge over the Columbia River with a newer, bigger, more multimodal structure. It only spurred more arguments: Exactly how big are we talking? What’s it going to look like? How are we going to pay for it? Will there be tolls? What about Hayden Island, which lies in its path? Do we really need to make it easier for people to drive cars?
The resulting discussion has left a tangle of opinions that can be intimidating to sort through. For that reason, the CRC has often seemed more like an abstract, hypothetical concept than something that would ever materialize into an actual physical structure. But on Aug. 9, the plan took a step toward reality, as the Project Sponsors Council – an advisory committee assembled by the governors of Oregon and Washington – came to an agreement about a few key details, including the number of lanes and the design of the Hayden Island interchange. Large questions still loom, however, and the recent decisions are only going to push the timeline back further.
In an effort to unsnarl the mess of information for those just beginning to delve into the CRC and its potential impact on the region, EnzymePDX presents a breakdown of the major points of interest.
Use these links to navigate through the major elements of the project:
In terms of unclogging roadways, the size of the CRC has always mattered – perhaps more than any other single issue related to the project. Right now, the twin bridges that span the Columbia each have three lanes in one direction. As currently constructed, the bridge causes traffic to back up for about six hours a day, according to the CRC team; in 2030, the daily congestion on the northbound and southbound sides of the freeway is predicted to hit 15 total hours.
Transportation planners examined different lane sizes, the smallest being eight lanes (although The Columbian reported in January that planners briefly looked into the possibility of building a six-lane bridge). Based on the draft environmental impact study released in 2008, project managers recommended 12 lanes, which would ease congestion on I-5 to about three hours per day over the next two decades. Local environmentalists criticized the proposal, as did Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Metro President David Bragdon, both of whom sit on the Project Sponsors Council. (Bragdon is leaving in September for a job in New York.) In February, Adams commissioned a study by consulting firm URS that found a 10-lane bridge is “forecast to perform similarly” to one consisting of 12 lanes, and for about $50 million less. That satisfied Adams and Bragdon, who – along with the other eight members of the PSC – voted to back the 10-lane alternative at the board’s Aug. 9 meeting.
But scaling back the size of the CRC has not appeased the project’s opponents. Its most strident critic, the activist coalition Stop the CRC, called it only a “slightly less bad” compromise. The Portland Mercury quoted a member of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance as saying, “We clearly shouldn’t all just be singing kumbaya around a 10-lane bridge.” And a group made up of advocates from several green organizations released a statement urging officials to continue to explore alternatives and develop a solution that “includes only as many lanes as we need and no more.”
However, according to the Independent Review Panel (IRP) – a team of experts put together to examine the CRC’s functionality and make recommendations to the Project Sponsors Council – the worst thing planners could do in regard to sizing the bridge is to not see far enough into the future.
“In the context of the current 10-lane versus 12-lane discussion,” their report reads, “the IRP believes the greatest risk in the decision-making process is not over-sizing the bridges but not building enough capacity for the next 100 years.”