Columbia River Crossing Freeway Project Is Back

16
A rendering showing the Columbia River Crossing project at Hayden Island. (WSDOT)

For the second time this century, the states of Washington and Oregon are gearing up to attempt to replace the I-5 bridge over the Columbia river between the two states. The current set of two bridges, one built in 1917 and the other in 1958, has “significant seismic vulnerabilities,” but a previous plan to replace the bridge ended in 2013 when the Washington state legislature failed to include the project in a transportation funding package.

That iteration, called the Columbia River Crossing, was pegged at $3.4 billion and with such a high price tag because the project wasn’t simply a one-for-one replacement, but a doubling of the highway with numerous new interchanges, as well as funding for light rail from Portland to its fast-growing suburb Vancouver, a haven for those seeking to avoid Oregon’s income tax while still living close enough to take advantage of its lack of sales tax. Vancouver is the county seat of Clark County, which has seen its population more than double since 1990, when it was just 238,053 to today when it’s approaching 500,000 residents.

Opponents of the bridge, often at odds with each other, included light rail opponents like then-state senator and later Trump staffer Don Benton, and environmental advocates opposed to highway expansion. It was largely the price tag and lack of desire in Clark County for light rail, though, that caused the project to meet a dead end, with many high profile regional environmental groups staying out of the fight yet cheering its demise.

Current configuration of the two I-5 bridges between Washington and Oregon. (WSDOT)
Proposed configuration for the bridge portion of the Columbia River Crossing. (WSDOT)

The design of the CRC would have taken the current six lanes of I-5 between the states to ten lanes plus four shoulders, and “optimized” seven interchanges on either side of the river. A full 40% of the cost of the project would have been for those interchanges, significantly more than the 30% that would have been for the bridges themselves, showing how much highway expansion was included in the CRC under the guise of replacing aging infrastructure.

Map showing the planned elements of the CRC (WSDOT)

Last autumn, following legislative moves on the Washington side in 2017 to restart planning and a funding allocation matched by Oregon in early 2019, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed a Memorandum of Intent to resurrect the project. The memo specifically notes that “the project office shall assume any plan for a new bridge will include high capacity transit”–notable because light rail was a big reason that the CRC met so much opposition in Clark County.

Last week, members of the legislatures of both states held a committee meeting to get an update on the project, where they were told that absent a significant increase in federal funding for the project, each state’s unfunded share of the project could end up being an additional $750 million to $1 billion. They were shown early cost estimates ranging from $3.17 billion to $4.81 billion for the entire project. Those numbers should be taken with a boulder of salt at this point, though.

Rendering of the Columbia River Crossing. (WSDOT)

The project manager, Greg Johnson, who has a long resume in nationwide bridge projects, told the committee that the new project isn’t CRC 2.0, using the new name: Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) program. Yet those cost estimates are based on the old project, because there aren’t any concepts to estimate costs for on the IBR project. It was Washington State Representative Jake Fey, chair of the house transportation committee, who was so eager to get that price tag for each state’s share to include in a possible state transportation package in this upcoming legislative session. More accurate cost estimates aren’t expected for another year.

Clearly the need to distinguish this project as a clean slate stems from the reasons for the CRC’s demise. Yet the agencies will clearly be looking for any elements they can salvage from the previous planning process, and have said as much. When asked by a legislator if they might be able to speed up the process to take advantage of a federal infrastructure package expected in 2021, Johnson was clear that the entire environmental review process was being completed again, with no corners cut. “If we do cut corners, the people who are adverse to this will be there to knock us back to square one,” he said.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) apparently already has nearly $100 million ready for one of the interchange expansions in the CRC, at Mill Plain Boulevard in Vancouver, allocated from a 2015 transportation funding measure. This certainly makes it look like WSDOT assumes many of the elements of the CRC are set to return with the IBR project. WSDOT has funding for an element of the project that it’s currently telling the public doesn’t exist yet.

Mill Pain Boulevard’s expansion in Vancouver is already funded by WSDOT even though there’s no project yet. (WSDOT)

A surprisingly low proportion of the vehicle trips across the Columbia on I-5 are not using any of those interchanges: only 25% for southbound traffic and 32% for northbound. This explains the heavy focus for the project on those interchanges, but also underlines how much of the traffic driving the highway expansion, which will be discussed as a “nationally important” chokepoint, is local and suitable to be addressed through other transportation demand management options, including transit and tolls.

Chart showing destination pairs for the vicinity of the Columba River Crossing. (WSDOT)

Tolls were always part of the CRC project, despite sharp opposition from the Washington side to tolling I-5. Oregon is moving forward with tolling I-205, another route between the two states in the Portland metro. A 2010 tolling study showed that tolling both I-205 and I-5 would reduce trips across the river by 23-27% depending on the rate of toll. Tolling, which is absolutely going to be considered again as part of the funding structure, weakens the argument for expansion even further.

The Oregon Department of Transportation’s director, Kris Strickler, served as the director of the entire Columbia River Crossing project from 2011 to 2014 and as deputy director of the project before that, most recently serving as a WSDOT Regional Administrator. He’s had the job for just over a year now, and during his confirmation he connected the idea of relieving congestion to reduced emissions. “Because we know that, cars sitting in traffic, emitting the emissions is not necessarily the best way to manage greenhouse gas reductions,” he told an Oregon State Senate Committee. His view on that lines up with that of the highway building lobby, but not the data. The idea that widening roads lowers emissions because of decreased idling has been thoroughly debunked.

What’s the impetus to re-start the project now? The state transportation agencies have long maintained that if they do not utilize $140 million in federal dollars by 2025, they will have to repay that amount. This has created a sense of urgency that others argue is false: Joe Cortright at Portland’s City Observatory maintains that Federal Highway Administration doesn’t require repayment of dollars if the agencies complete their environmental review and select a “no build” option. That didn’t happen with the CRC project, but it could happen this time. As for right now, the agencies are fixated on getting a Federal Record of Decision for the project by mid-2023.

That means 2021 will be a pivotal year for those watching the project to ensure that the worst elements of the CRC aren’t locked in again. Right now, the project office is convening both a Community Advisory Group and an Equity Advisory Group, which will be providing input to update the stated purpose of the project, and what needs it’s addressing, as well as the vision and values that go along with it. That will make up the first half of next year, with the second half devoted to looking at project alternatives that come from that. Once that happens, the environmental review will get underway with a Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) set to be presented in 2022.

Early next year, the project will get its own website and outreach will begin in earnest, and we will be following this megaproject very closely as that happens. You can sign up for emails about the project on WSDOT’s website.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the blog since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. In December 2020, Ryan started a three-month stint as editor of Seattle Bike Blog.

16 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
A maritime fan

This design still doesnt seem to be high enough for maritime traffic…Didnt last time around the design was too low for the Coast Guard standards?

sirkulat

The Coast Guard ‘minimum’ river clearance standard is 125′ — 10′ higher than the CRC clearance of 116′. It may be that the bridge could be raised, but double-deck design should be rejected in favor of single-deck design favored during the first 4 years of planning 2004-2008. Single-deck bridge design should meet the clearance standard.

In 2011, the first double-deck design was peer reviewed and rejected as “structurally unsound.” The ‘3’ double-deck designs that followed were likewise structurally unsound; the final bridge design clearly like balancing a bowling ball on a golf tee.

For good reason, a single-deck design also solves the light rail question. A transit/ped/bikeway span – furthest west and seamlessly connected to the southbound span – forms an emergency access corridor. Wsdot chief then and ODOT director now (ahem, Kris Stricker) in effect grumbled, “We don’t need no stinking emergency access corridor!” In an accident, buses could maneuver around stopped emergency vehicles, but a light rail train would stop. Vancouver’s BRT line could extend to a Hayden Island junction with the MAX line extended from Expo Center to a “surface” terminus there.

Wsdot’s original Hayden Island Access proposal Concept “D” must rejected as a “death trap” or serious “traffic hazard” to put it delicately. Both exits had to first clear a new central underpass and then descend a steeper and less visible ramp to ‘T’ stops. In the southbound direction, if a motorist didn’t or couldn’t stop, they were in the water. “No problem” quipped Strickler. “Future cars will all be “driverless” and never get into accidents. Never never, repeat after me, never.” What utter BS.

I produced a detailed access design for Hayden Island and submitted it to complicit agencies, but I’m someone they can throw under the bus, which they did by casting me as an “obstructionist meddler” despite my detailed renderings. Basically, my design eliminates the new central underpass, raises the south underpass for proper clearance. Exit ramps are longer, less steep and ‘curve’ east and west with room for emergency maneuvering. Southbound entrance to I-5 would occur at Delta Park after crossing the local access bridge to Expo Center. Northbound entrance is straight forward enough.

ODOT’s Marine Dr X-change was essentially completed in 2010 and looks good. Of the ‘7’ interchanges in the project, Marine Drive is MOST in need of replacement and must occur FIRST for construction staging via the local access bridge. The only Interchanges in Warshington that actually need to be replaced are the SR 14 East and access to downtown Vancouver. The other ‘3’ interchanges there are another DOT ripoff of the public treasury.

Kris Strickler should be removed from the position of ODOT director. He should take quite a few DOT department heads from both states with him.

Tony77

Can they just continue to do nothing? That plan won’t cost anything, won’t introduce a new environmental impact, and traffic gridlock will have a mild dampening effect. Despite most of the traffic being local, locals didn’t want to pay for it last time around, and the funding state hasn’t improved since then. Am I missing something, or isn’t the easiest cheapest least-worst path forward to do absolutely nothing?

Nathanael

The traffic’s local.

Build the light rail extension. It’ll be swamped with customers immediately. The ideal situation for a rail line, in terms of attracting passengers, is crossing a bottleneck, like a river. Just build it by itself and watch the freeway traffic evaporate.

Daniel Thompson

Where would you get the money? A rail only bridge would likely cost $1 billion, at least. How would you split the costs between WA and OR? This idea might appeal to OR but not WA, and probably not Clark Co. What kind of fare recovery percentage would you shoot for. Would $10 each way be too little? $20? Where would the rail line begin and end in each state? How would light rail compete against existing train service to Portland? How do you sell such an expensive rail project to dense Seattle neighborhoods like West Seattle and Ballard whose light rail projects were just extended five years?

What would you do when the existing bridge needs replacement?

Freeway traffic would evaporate if all the freeway/bridge traffic was going to the same place light rail would go. For freight a light rail bridge won’t do anything to alleviate bridge traffic. For those driving from one state to another for some destination other than Portland or Vancouver light rail would not serve their needs. Plus the cost of a rail trip could be much higher than driving using the existing non-tolled bridge.

From the article and posts the first impression I get is there isn’t the money for a new bridge, even a slimmed down bridge, so this discussion is pointless. And even if there were the money, the different states, and different groups, have big differences in what they want from a bridge.

When it was assumed the Federal Government would fund most of the bridge replacement, and each side got their desires, there was an uneasy harmony. But once that funding went away, and any bridge replacement had to prioritize different bridge needs and desires, each side became more interested in stopping the other side’s bridge vision from being built than building a new bridge. It seems like each side’s goal is to “kill” a new bridge.

RossB

Excellent article. It is amazing how many issues can be improved by simply avoiding overdoing it. A SR 99 tunnel. A freeway through the Central Area, or across Puget Sound. Replacing the Pike Place Market with a a hotel, an apartment building, four office buildings, a hockey arena, and a parking garage. A new major airport in Arlington, Bremerton or the Tacoma Narrows. All bad ideas; some were avoided, some weren’t, and some we can only hope to avoid. Stop thinking big — think small.

There is simply no reason why the new bridge should have more general purpose lanes or more ramps than the old bridge. I’m not convinced that it is worth worrying about light rail. Adding a lane for HOV (which includes buses) is probably wise, and will increase capacity dramatically. Just do that, and call it a day.

Adding more lanes won’t help. They will fill up, and the traffic mess will just spread to more areas. Light rail would be nice, but it would be expensive, and few would use it. For the same amount of money, you could dramatically improve transit in Clark County. This is not a county with good transit. Not to Portland, or anywhere. Build a decent bus system, then talk to me about a train.

Thinking small is difficult. We are Americans. We love big. But sometimes big is stupid. This is one of those times.

JimK

RossB–“Adding more lanes won’t help. They will fill up”
Please don’t give us that econutter garbage – adding capacity to match population increases stops/reduces congestion. It takes decades for it to fill up AFTER accounting for traffic that stops using neighborhood streets in favor of newly decongested freeways. see debunkingportland dot com/roads/BuildWayOut.htm

RossB

You’ve obviously never been to L. A., or for that matter, crossed the I-90 bridge. Induced demand is real — it is a scientifically studied concept (see the references here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Induced_demand or just search for the term). Oh, and it is kind of hard to use neighborhood streets to cross the Columbia.

Michael Andersen

It’s great to see skeptical coverage of this proposed freeway expansion coming from Seattle urbanists! It was one of the ingredients I felt was missing from the opposition last time around.
http://portlandafoot.org/issues/TheCrossingIssue_email.pdf#page=4

That said, a few notes from someone who covered the CRC as a daily-newspaper reporter in Clark County and then as a transit-magazine reporter in Portland:

1) Despite the many many claims to the contrary, mainstream Clark County opposition to the project was not really about the light rail. Light rail triggers some conservatives, including the very loud former state Senator Don Benton from east and exurban Vancouver. He and other conservatives were obsessed with light rail because they saw it (not without reason) as something progressives were irrationally attached to. But light rail was generally irrelevant to most normies in Clark County, in part because under the prior plan, it would have been paid for entirely by the feds.

2) Instead, the main thing giving the river crossing political salience in Clark County was (as Ryan’s piece mentions later on) tolls. One in three Clark County employees crosses the river for work. Few of them will be served by transit, and most don’t want to have to start paying to do so by car. (This was often irrational on their part! Decongestion pricing saves everyone time! But people are irrational.)

Opposition to tolls is VERY strong, enough to singlehandedly topple a 20-year incumbent mayor of Vancouver and install multiple right-wing loonies in county government in the otherwise blue-wave 2008 and 2012 elections.

3) Both Portlanders and Seattlites like to refer to Vancouver as a “tax haven,” maybe out of some sublimated frustration with the taxes they themselves pay? I think neither group realizes that for the relevant population (people who live in Vancouver and work in Portland) Vancouver is the opposite of a tax haven. You pay Oregon’s income taxes even though you have no representation in Oregon’s legislature, and you also pay Washington’s sales taxes unless you cross the bridge to shop, which you generally don’t because crossing the river is generally a nightmare. (Vancouver is however an efficient tax haven for retirees who do all their shopping at 10:30 am.)

Vancouver-to-Portland commuters REALLY feel this tax burden, and it definitely fuels the sentiment against tolls imposed by Oregon as a condition of freeway widening.

4) Facts (2) and (3) are relevant because the one material thing that might potentially persuade Clark County voters to tolerate tolls is freeway widening. THEREFORE urbanists’ best strategy for opposing this project is to bargain down the number of freeway lanes. If Clark County residents are presented a choice between paying tolls in exchange for light rail + small or minimal freeway widening or doing nothing, they will choose nothing.

This is exactly what Portland urbanists Sam Adams and David Bragdon did during the previous project: bargained the freeway down to three through lanes (plus a bunch of auxiliary lanes). That was a crucial step in creating the circumstances by which Don Benton and the other Clark County right-wingers were able to finally kill the previous version of this project.

Michael Andersen

Bargaining down the number of freeway lanes has the added benefit of being the generally correct way to do freeway bridge replacement projects, of course.

JimK

Michael Anderson–“Bargaining down the number of freeway lanes has the added benefit”
What do you have against people traveling?
Do you want to go back to the times when few people traveled more that a few miles from their place of birth?
Or are you advocating for transit which takes twice as long a cars to get people to work? Transit that uses MORE energy (and emits moreCO2) than cars per passenger mile? Transit that is far less convenient that a car? Transit that can only get to 8% of the jobs in a 45 minute commute!!!

Daniel Thompson

Thanks Michael for such a thorough analysis. Without sounding too obtuse, just who is in favor of a new bridge, and why? Your replies seemed to support stopping any new bridge. Do you support just keeping the current bridge, and what is its life expectancy. Obviously we need a bridge across the river, and freight is a huge part of that traffic and supports a lot of WA jobs.

Depending on who is paying, what is the problem with more lanes for cars and buses? Or is that opposition more ideological in nature? To me Vancouver/Clark Co. to Portland doesn’t sound like it has the density for a $3.4 billion bridge and light rail, but at the same time we have to have a bridge. Are you suggesting a new bridge with fewer car/truck lanes then currently despite the traffic jams?

I also wonder why folks who work in OR/Portland choose to live in Vancouver and deal with both the commute over the bridge and the tax burden. Why not live in OR?

I can understand commuters not wanting to pay tolls. We went through this on Mercer Island on I-90, even though our tolls would have been the lowest since we are the closest to Seattle or Bellevue, and of course tolls would reduce congestion because so much traffic has migrated to I-90 since 520 was tolled. But tolls were adamantly opposed. Plus HOT lanes could have preserved our SOV access to the HOV/HOT lanes.
Residents in West Seattle don’t want tolls if they get a new bridge (which it looks like they won’t).

I can understand Clark Co. residents not opposing light rail if the Feds are paying for it, but not if the price is close to $1 billion for light rail and local residents have to pay. Who would light rail benefit? Would WA residents actually drive to Clark Co. and then catch light rail to Portland, or some other spot along the rail line? Would Vancouver residents who work in Portland and who drive currently use light rail? How many Portland residents actually travel to Vancouver to shop, visit or work? Would they be willing to pay a pretty hefty round trip fare on light rail to commute back and forth, rather than driving even if there was a toll? Would express buses accomplish the same thing as light rail at a much lower cost, and could additional car lanes be dedicated to express buses.

Right now it seems both “sides” are intent on stopping any new bridge out of ideology, although neither State has the money for any new bridge, despite number of lanes or rail.

Daniel Thompson

https://www.clarkcountytoday.com/news/2-billion-funding-shortfall-for-replacement-interstate-bridge/

Thank you for the article. The article above is the last one I read before this article on the Columbia River Bridge, and its alternatives. The biggest obstacle right now is OR has reserved $15 million for the bridge, whereas WA has identified $100 million, both amounts nearly a billion less per state than necessary for even a scaled down bridge.

The second issue as the author notes is a feeling in WA that the $3.4 billion Columbia River Crossing benefits OR and Portland much more than WA. Also I would add Clark Co. does not have a lot of political clout with the Governor and current legislature, and I doubt the county at large supports such a bridge, or could meaningfully contribute to it.

As the author notes, neither state wants to do nothing and return $140 million to the Federal Government, which makes OR’s $15 million current allocation seem more like bargaining (although OR’s budget is in dire condition). But in the end (2025) each state might have to decide whether to return $70 million each to the federal government for nothing, or pony up at least ten times as much each for dramatically different visions of the bridge, one a highway for interstate freight, and one a transit corridor to Vancouver. Which is why interstate ventures rarely work out.

Michael Andersen

Relevant to my other comment: Clark County Today is a news outlet founded and funded 10 years ago by moneybags telecom entrepreneur / right-wing nut job / future Clark County Commissioner David Madore, seemingly with the primary mission of killing the Columbia River Crossing. (Madore, who was voted out of office a few years ago after doing lots and lots of wacky stuff, possibly believes that government transportation investments in anything except cars is some sort of collectivist plot. He had his own pet plan: a new freeway-scale bridge between Camas and Troutdale, deeper into the suburbs. http://eastcountybridge.com/ )

This might capture both the depth of opposition to the project among Clark County conservatives and the fact that their motivation is more about political theory (cars = prosperity and freedom) than fiscal responsibility.

RossB

Politics makes strange bedfellows. I’ll make my bed with them, just as I will with libertarians who want to legalize pot (as Samantha Bee said, “I like Gary Johnson a lot. He’s a good guy, I agree with half of what he says.”).

If anything, the problem with politics these days is that we don’t listen to the other side when they have a point. Liberals ignore conservatives when there is a project that is stupid. Conservatives ignore liberals when there is a sensible spending project (that will ultimately save money). Spending a fortune on the Columbia Crossing is stupid — we should all be able to agree on that.

kimberlykinche

Daniel Thompson: Joe Cortright at City Observatory has noted that there is no $140 million repayment liability. https://cityobservatory.org/the-real-3-4-billion-hole-in-the-i-5-bridge-project/