Architecture Magazine

Columbia Crossing: the Freeway Frankenstein Lurches Closer to Life

By Brianlibby

CRC deck-truss design


Imagine if Portland's only bridge over the Willamette River was the Marquam, which carries traffic from Interstate 5. If we were going to address the congestion there, would we tear down the Marquam and build a new I-5 bridge, or would it make more sense to build a local bridge such as the Hawthorne or the Morrison?

It's a rhetorical question: of course we'd build a local bridge to complement the I-5 bridge, not simply waste all those billions of dollars to get us only slightly ahead of the traffic for a few years.

Yet this same logic has been completely missing from the Columbia River Crossing debate. A local bridge to Vancouver? Poppycock. Only the CRC can qualify for federal funding, and thus, the insane choice to replace instead of expand bridge options over the Columbia, and doing so at twice the cost, is the only option state leaders are taking seriously.

And now, this Mt. Everest of political and transportational folly is about to coagulate into an unfortunate future. Dr. Frankenstein's monster (actually, Dr. Gregoire-Kitzhaber's) is being lifted out of the castle and up to the roof, preparing for the lightning shock that will lurch it into a living breathing terror of concrete and wasted greenbacks.

Last Wednesday, the Columbia River Crossing reached a milestone in its quest to become the new concrete behemoth overtaking Portland, Vancouver, and the majestic waterway in between. A required environmental impact statement was delivered to the federal government for approval, a final step before it organizers can acquire property, and formally request federal funding.

Approval from the federal highway and transit administrations could come by December, reports Andrea Damewood of the Vancouver Columbian. If so, the project would be on track to break ground in late 2013. Federal  approval of the environmental impact statement also would lock into place the deck-truss-style bridge, the extension of light rail from Portland and seven interchange additions over five miles.

First, though, comes a comical move: CRC project leaders are forming a citizen advisory committee. "The group would provide input on road building issues as well as neighborhood concerns in areas near the new bridge," reports Andy Geigerich of The Business Journal. "The 30-member committee would take shape as the federal government mulls final approval of the project’s environmental impact statement."

Two words: rubber stamp.

The CRC has long sought imput from both citizens and local design experts, only to do the opposite of what is recommended. Its own Urban Design Advisory Group, for example, recommended a cable-stay bridge design and produced evidence of why it would be more popular with the public and better for the environment. Yet Oregon and Washington leaders moved forward with a flat deck-trust-style span instead.

More importantly, one of Portland's most esteemed planners, George Crandall, also offered a common sense option that would cost half the money, makes abundant sense, and has been completely ignored by state leaders pushing the CRC.

A Common Sense Alternative to the CRC from Spencer Boomhower on Vimeo.

The Pacific Northwest has long possessed an identity, a brand, of enlightened dreaming. Oregon is bringing back its "Pacific Wonderland" license plates from two gerations ago. It sponsors marketing slogans like "We Love Dreamers". Yet at the expense of common sense, we are simply chasing federal funding like some stereotype of a welfare mother choosing the easy cash over any sensible long-term solution. In the name of federal funding, our leaders, Democrat and Republican alike, continue to force the idea that anything other than laying down flat concrete with 30 lanes and 50 exits is naive, and that a good idea that doesn't seek a cut from the federal pie is unattainable. No wonder the country is choking on its own debt.

And yet, despite all the evidence that the CRC makes bad financial sense, who are some of its biggest proponents? The business community. "This is an important sign of progress,” Sandra McDonough, president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance, told The Business Journal. “This project is the right balance of offering alternative ways for people to get to work, improving our economic lifeline to freight movement and making this troublesome part of I-5 safer to travel.”

Of course we need to do all the things that McDonough is talking about. Yet the primary local business group is, in effect saying that spending $3.6 billion on one bridge is better than spending $1.8 billion to have two bridges.

What if we applied this logic elsewhere? Say your spouse just got a new job and needs a way to get to work. Would you trade the family sedan for an $30,000 SUV, or buy a second $15,000 sedan? Imagine the restaurant you own is overflowing with customers on a regular basis. Would you spend $20,000 to expand your existing space, or invest $10,000 in a lease on a second restaurant?

Luckily, there still may be ways to stop this highway-industrial-complex boondoggle. A report released by the Oregon State Treasurer last month stated that overinflated traffic projections have caused the project planners to overestimate its toll revenue by up to $600 million. Several federal representatives and state legislators have expressed reservations about being able to find federal money in the current economic climate of trillion-dollar deficits incurred by war and tax cuts during the 2000s.

It's too bad the Columbia Crossing plan wasn't put together more smartly and sensitively. With the right approach, even though a local bridge to Vancouver would still be a vastly more prudent option, a more compelling, economic design produced by actual designers (not off-the-shelf options from state traffic engineers) could have rallied the community behind the CRC. Instead, in a time of recession in which sensible public works projects could provide jobs and economic boost, we can only look to this bridge project as a post child for bloated, defiant mishandling.

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