The Columbia River Crossing: Sightline’s Greatest Hits

Why sustainability advocates should be skeptical of the CRC.

If you’re a keen observer of politics in Olympia, you may already know that the Columbia River Crossing—a massive highway expansion and rail transit project connecting Portland, Oregon with Vancouver, Washington—has emerged as one of the most hotly contested issues in the negotiations over the state’s transportation package.

But if you’re not from Portland, you may not understand how much local controversy the CRC has generated. Critics from the right think that the project is simply too expensive. Critics from the left…well, actually they tend to agree that the project is a budget buster, but they also quite reasonably point out that a wider bridge could boost traffic, sprawl, and greenhouse gas emissions. (The Economist has cleverly dubbed the right-left opposition the Green Tea party.) Both right and left are joined by a variety of more centrist critics who bemoan the serious flaws in the planning process—including early assumptions that traffic across the Columbia would continue to grow steadily (it didn’t) and that drivers would simply learn to love tolling rather than diverting to the I-205 span just down the river. These critics also raise concerns that toll revenues just won’t be there over the long haul—creating long-term funding burdens for both Washington and Oregon.

So amid all the controversy and the high stakes, I figured it would be a good time to recap some of the things Sightline has written about the CRC in the past:

  • CRC traffic volumes
  • Where Are My Cars: Columbia River Crossing — In which we point out that vehicle traffic across the Columbia has remained fairly flat over most of the last decade. See the chart to the right. I just looked at some newer numbers, and traffic on both I-5 and I-205 across the Columbia remains below its all-time peak—raising questions about whether we really need so much extra highway capacity.
  • Columbia River Crossing: Cutting Ped/Bike Projects — In which we point out that, in order to save money, project planners have started looking at ways to cut pedestrian and bike projects that planners had included to build political support.
  • How Not to Forecast Traffic — In which we look at the patently absurd forecasting methods that had been used to project traffic growth across the Columbia River.
  • Don’t Count on Toll Revenue Forecasts — In which we look at the spotty forecasting record of the company that’s been hired to estimate future CRC toll revenues.  (Hint: two toll roads they worked on in California are deep in red ink and may never have been financially viable!)
  • Rural Sprawl in Metropolitan Portland — This isn’t directly about the CRC, but it looks at Clark County’s rather disappointing record in allowing scattered, low-density development outside the urban growth boundary, which is just the sort of low-density development that massive highway projects can facilitate.
  • Our literature review on road tolling and traffic diversion — The quick summary: toll roads with toll-free parallel routes tend to miss their traffic and revenue projections!

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  1. dan kaufman says:

    Thanks for putting this together. It’s sad to think that it’s seems we can’t count on democrats to oppose this counter-productive freeway expansion.

  2. nuovorecord says:

    Great work, Clark. Just to add some perspective…If you take a broader look at the CRC, and in particular the number of lanes on the bridge, you can see how a much wider bridge creates the opportunity – and the political pressure – to widen I-5 through Portland. ODOT is already talking about widening it in other areas, including the Rose Quarter and between Hwy 217 and I-205. Ultimately, the goal is a minimum of four lanes on I-5 through the entire metro area.

    So, yeah. Don’t get hoodwinked by a light rail extension and a fancy bike path. The CRC will have huge and lasting negative impacts on Portland’s transportation system, land use, and livability.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Exactly right! For southbound traffic, the CRC is somewhere close to useless as a congestion relief. It mostly just pushes the bolus of congestion down the road a few miles—closer to the urban core. If a wider CRC generates more traffic, all it does is amp up the pressure for a wider highway in downtown Portland.

      • TOM CIVILETTI says:

        Traffic engineers are reluctant to discuss how changing congestion creates demand for new projects. It’s their bread and butter, after all.

      • Art Lewellan says:

        Clark, please. Do NOT neglect the more important issue of engineering and structural integrity of the currently favored double-deck bridge design, and, the accident-prone “spagetti ramp” interchange proposed for Hayden Island. Single-deck bridge designs add 30′ of river clearance necessary for Coast Guard mandate and maritime industry needs. And in 2010, ODOT finished a fine design for the Marine Drive interchange and included an Off-island Access to Hayden Island that ELIMINATED I-5 merge lanes and all spagetti ramps onto the island.

        Furthermore, the Port of Portland’s proposed marine terminal on West Hayden Island is questionable but absent from all public reporting, including yours. Installing two rail spurs there creates a terrible “chokepoint” that restricts freight and passenger-rail use of the bridge, and risks complete closure in predicted derailments. The Port of Portland is near as guilty as Wsdot for engineering incompetence.

      • Clark Williams-Derry says:

        Art — you’re right, there are a lot of other issues that I haven’t covered. Partially because others have done so, and part because I simply haven’t had the time to become familiar with the details.

        But you raise very legitimate issues!

  3. TOM CIVILETTI says:

    It’s been challenging to oppose the CRC along with anti-light rail activists, many from SW Washington, but quite a few from my home county of Clackamas. It’s a situational alliance.

  4. Val Alexander says:

    I didn’t see any mention of the safety issues. Will we be wondering what we should have done about the old wooden posts and sand that will liquify during an earthquake as we’re pulling bodies out of the river?

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Legitimate problem, but it could be solved at a much lower cost and without boosting traffic or sprawl. From the CRC project website:

      What is the cost to seismically upgrade the existing bridges?

      The Panel discussed and developed their opinion of estimated raw bridge construction costs to retrofit both bridges. This opinion ranges from $88 million to $190 million. This opinion of cost increases from $125 million to $265 million when design, permitting, right-of-way, construction inspection and management, agency oversight, and contingencies are added. (Note: The Expert Panel determined an opinion on ranges of construction costs and did not estimate the added costs.)”

  5. Dave Peeler says:

    How about explaining why there is such opposition to adding light rail to the bridge? Seems like a natural if done right. But at least one legislator from Clark Co. would rather kill the project altogether than let it be built with light rail.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      I’m not sure I can speak to all of the opinions here.

      * Some people just don’t like transit. Their constituents, or at least the ones they listen to, don’t ride buses or trains.

      * Some are ideologically opposed to subsidies of any sort (though those sorts of folks often have massive blind spots / biases about what counts as a “subsidy”).

      * Some think that this particular transit project is too expensive — that is, looking at the costs and benefits, they think there are much cheaper ways to get the same transit benefits. (I happen to be in that camp: trains are expensive, and if we were willing to spend that much money on transit there would probably be better buys, both from an environmental and an equity perspective.)

      * Some folks like the light rail, but think the rest of the project is broken.

      I’m sure there are other reasons — what am I missing?

      • Dave Peeler says:

        Thanks for your comments on light rail. It would seem that the city of Portland, which has all types of transit (light rail, bus, etc.) should have experience, ridership, and cost comparison information among the different transit choices. I haven’t checked with them, but in the long run light rail might be no more expensive and more energy efficient. Beefing up either one would reduce the number of vehicles on the freeway, but the buses are stuck in the same regular or HOV lanes with cars. Up north, Sound Transit is busy expanding it’s light rail as fast as it can given available funding, but I am sure there are multiple perspectives on that as well.
        Yeah, subsidies — like autos aren’t subsidized!

      • Clark Williams-Derry says:

        Dave –

        I think that evaluating light rail vs. other modes gets pretty complicated, for lots of reasons.

        One reason is light rail’s potential effects on land use. Some research suggests that developers like to concentrate jobs and houses near rail stops — with positive ripple effects that reduce driving and boost walking in those neighborhoods. That’s probably true — but sometimes that’s because planners and zoning boards select those locations for upzones, and not only because rail is inherently more attractive than other forms of transit or transportation. Others think that we’d see similar land use effects with well-designed bus rapid transit. (But really good BRT tends to approach the cost of rail, undermining the argument that bus is more cost effective than rail). And still other folks think that transit’s ability to change land use, at a large enough scale to matter, doesn’t hold up.

        Needless to say, there’s lots of academic debate and no firm resolution on rail & land use.

        Then there’s the analytic problem that rail tends to be built in dense, high-ridership corridors — and high ridership means more cost effective service. But in cases like that, it’s the *neighborhoods* surrounding the rail service, not the rail per se, that may be making the rail service more cost effective.

        Regardless, Trimet in Portland says that rail has lower operating subsidies per boarding than bus does.

        That covers operating costs, though, not capital costs. Adding the capital costs into the equation might change things pretty substantially. And it also doesn’t reflect the fact that bus often serves dispersed destinations; bus service serves a social equity function, providing mobility to people who don’t/can’t drive. That drives up costs, which makes bus look bad.

        Anyway, I think rail is great — and it especially has a valuable role in a transit system that serves densely populated destinations with capacity constraints. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of solution. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes not, depending on the context.

        I could talk about this for a long time, but I’ll stop here.

  6. Bill Robison says:

    Thank you for compiling and summarizing these articles. Another argument regarding the CRC is why making it easier to get through downtown Portland is a good thing. A better solution would be to assure full utilization of the 205 by widening it throughout its length, from Salmon Creek to I-5 south of Portland and requiring trucks passing through Portland to use it. On those occasions when I drive to Seattle it appears that park and ride space is at a premium at every interchange. Stopping at La Center several weeks ago I noted a long line of cars and trucks parked along the Paradise Point State Park road. There are far more than I saw on my previous trip north. I assume these people are car pooling and or riding the bus. At Ridgefield, Woodland and Kalama the lots looked to be over full. That is the solution to traffic congestion.

  7. Darise Weller says:

    Once again I will bring up the solution for public transportation that many have voiced, but no one seems to listen. “Commuter Rail” the price estimates are 70% less than light rail. The tracks and bridge already exists(the tracks most likely will have to be upgraded for high speed)The time to implement the program is less than light rail. The commuter rail could connect to Max at the downtown rail station. In fact commuter rail is an answer instead of building an extension to 405 through NW Portland to address sustainable traffic solutions. A line from Astoria to Eugene, from Linnton(NW Portland) to Hillsboro, I hear there is even a spur in SW Portland, could connect the city and outlying areas.

    • Levin Nock says:

      I concur with Darise. Commuter rail could provide express lines for trips where the MAX is too slow–not just to Vancouver. The Amtrak routes between Oregon City, downtown Portland, and downtown Vancouver would make wonderful commuter lines, if predictable schedules could be negotiated. A commuter line direct from Gresham to Union Station would ease rush hour crowding on the Blue Line.

  8. Charlie Weiss says:

    In all the tolling discussion, it seems untouchable yet obvious that tolling should happen on both I-205 and I-5, so the which-bridge choice would be more about efficiency than about toll-avoidance. Tolling all the north- and south-bound traffic would dramatically shorten the tolling period, or reduce the tolling charge, or both, and leave everyone grumpy about it, instead of creating a “smart” vs. “unlucky” divide. Again, doesn’t that seem obvious? Why isn’t it a given?

    • Levin Nock says:

      Further, why isn’t all of the north and south bound traffic already tolled, this year? Congestion pricing (higher tolls during rush hour) would alleviate much of the congestion, and provide a realistic estimate of toll income.

      • Clark Williams-Derry says:

        Absolutely. Toll first, then plan accordingly.

  9. Mike O'Brien says:

    Thanks, Clark, for the summary. I wonder how the CRC would look in a carbon-constrained future, for example if there were a carbon tax that lowered driving and promoted transit? If a project like the CRC is for the long haul, why doesn’t planning take climate change responses into account?

  10. Ritxard says:

    Increasing traffic between Portland and Vancouver — and sprawling growth into Washington-state. Isn’t this just a not-so-clever method of avoiding Portland’s famous growth boundaries?

  11. steve coyle says:

    Mr. O’Brien: Why raise annoying externalities like increased tailpipe emissions and other forms of CO2 that follow highway expension? Not to mention how it will incentivize Clark County’s drive-’till-you’qualify” development pressure while de-emphasizing bike, ped and rail transit. Proponents of bigger, longer highways (and arterials) prove that global warming mitigation may be futile, thus adaptation becomes the default. So, make the wider bridge developable for future buildings on the sides, the Cascade’s giant Rialto Bridge.

  12. Anna Becker says:

    Totally correct–it’s only the bicyclists Democrats promoting the huge cost of expansion that the media (Oregonian) publicizes as MOST Democrats are opposed to this happening. Also, the bike corporates in Portland pay some Dems in Oregon Congress big monies in their campaigns to represent them.

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