Columbia River Crossing is the $4.2 billion project to replace two old, crowded and dangerous bridges connecting Washington and Oregon on Interstate 5 (pictured below left, courtesy of KATU-TV Portland). The old structures (one goes northbound-only, the other southbound) are to be supplanted with a new, two-way variably-tolled bridge, that will also extend Portland's light rail system to Vancouver, Wash., add bike and pedestrian pathways across the river, and fix six devilish bridge corridor interchanges near the crossing.
It's been announced recently that the bridge will be 12 lanes total, then the highway will narrow back to six. The wider bridge will be built to help handle crossing volume fed by longer-haul traffic and also by local and regional drivers, a goodly portion of whom may not travel great distances on I-5, but need to access the bridge, from safer new merge and exit lanes, to get between Clark County, Wash. and points south, in Portland and environs. Yet the bridge lane count is prompting considerable worries among some critics that the new facility will encourage more vehicle use, suburban residential development, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Another, but somewhat contradictory argument is that the 12 bridge lanes aren't going to be needed because more and more people will be taking transit - witness the slight increase in transit use nationally last year, and slight drop in vehicle miles travelled.
Let's back up for a quick minute. First, it's great to see more people using public transit. That's been encouraged by the gas price run-up of last year, the faltering economy, and growing concerns about greenhouse gas emissions. Metro region transit systems are in a good position to increase their market share, except that they're now scrambling to make up for sharply declining sales tax revenues which may force cutting routes that carry fewer passengers, at higher costs.
But even assuming transit systems successfully re-tool, and even with a slight drop-off last year in vehicle miles travelled, the nation's roadways are still strained after decades of explosive growth in use, while maintenance lagged. We can all agree - or should - on the need to create more incentives to expand ride-sharing, transit and tele-work. Yet the private vehicle is here to stay and to plan metro region transportation systems based on a hope against hope that auto usage will go into significant decline, is just plain....not smart.
Improving fuel efficiency, and in coming years, mainstream market penetration by electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles will help keep cars in heavy circulation. So too will the current daily realities of the driving life, for people who have pressures of limited time or longer distances to travel, or spread-out daily "trip chains."
There's hope, though, that Columbia River Crossing can be completed in a timely manner while successfully addressing mobility and environmental concerns. Now likely to be deployed on all lanes of the new bridge is electronic time-variable tolling - which rewards carpoolers, van-poolers and transit vehicles with free passage, but charges tolls to solo drivers, on a sliding scale determined by time of day or real-time congestion levels. (Lower tolls when traffic is lighter, off-peak; higher tolls when it's heavier, at peak hours.) Time-variable electronic tolling will help fund the project, and can help produce effective limits on peak-hour solo trips and congestion.
Last week, the CRC Project Sponsors Council approved a "mobility council concept" that paves the way for a high-level advisory body to help direct management of the new, tolled bridge and quite possibly, the parallel I-205 bridge to the east, across the Columbia.
That last part will be important because the two form a natural two-pronged highway corridor running north-south across the river, connecting Washington and Oregon. From the north, I-205 branches off from I-5 in Clark County, Wash., north of Vancouver and about six miles from the river, and then proceeds southeast across the river, parallel to I-5, but some four-plus miles apart from it, to the Oregon side. From there, I-205 connects with key arterial roads, and state routes, running approximately 24 more miles south, and finally back west before it rejoins I-5.
Joined At The Hip With I-5
Serving as a gateway to populous suburbs, plus commercial, business and leisure destinations, and providing an oft-utilized workaround to snarled I-5 in Portland, I-205 is literally joined at the hip to I-5. They can't be considered as anything less than a single corridor - where peak-hour solo driving must be priced and rationed, and transit, ride-sharing and tele-work further encouraged. If one bridge is tolled, but the other isn't, then there's great potential for exponentially more traffic diversions from one to the other. Corridor management is where things are headed in surface transportation, and defining corridors the right way is essential.
Here's the background to last week's action. The "locally preferred alternative" for Columbia River Crossing, set last July, established that the new bridge would replace, not augment the current I-5 bridges; and that design and planning should facilitate use of the bridge by light rail, bus, high-occupancy vehicles and bicycles while also taming "one of the most significant chokepoints" for traffic in the "nationally significant" West Coast trade and commerce corridor.
The mobility council concept agreement approved last week by the Project Sponsors Council represents part of the plan to make those aims reality. The agreement notes some important points of consensus as the project moves through the final phase of the Environmental Impact Statement and into design:
At its meeting this coming June, the sponsors council will create a technical group to develop performance measures and initiate public dialog on tolling strategies. This work will serve as at least a partial template for the mobility council, when it sets to work. Once formally seated, it would advise the two state transportation departments and local and regional transit agencies on how best to manage the 1-5 bridge and possibly also the I-205 bridge with tolls and other policies.
While the CRC Project Sponsor Council's mobility council concept does not specifically mention including the I-205 bridge in performance management corridor, a corollary resolution approved a week earlier by the Portland City Council does. The city resolution and an "attachments" backgrounder can be viewed here (click on the magnifying glass icon for each to access the MS-Word documents). The city resolution states, in part:
...the Columbia River Crossing is a project of great importance and unprecedented magnitude in our region, with far-reaching benefits for the city of Portland and the city of Vancouver; and...the physical capacity of a new bridge is inextricably linked to the issue of how it will be managed over time...the City of Portland supports the concept of performance-based management to maximize freight and personal mobility through the I-5 and I-205 Columba River Crossings using performance standards....the City recommends that a new bridge be built to accommodate up to three add/drop lanes and three through lanes in each direction, but that use of these lanes will be actively managed over time to get the right mix of tolling, HOV or HOT lanes, vanpools, and transit fare programs to reduce vehicle miles traveled and pollution...the City of Portland supports the formation of a Columbia River Crossing Mobility Council...
The Mobility Council would have a chairperson jointly appointed by the governors of both states, and one non-elected member serving a three-year term appointed by each of the two state DOTs, the two states, the two cities (Portland, and Vancouver, Wash.), the four designated transit or planning agencies, and the two ports. The two DOTs would provide staff to the Mobility Council, and the council would every year develop a Columbia Crossing Mobility Operations Plan on tolling, transit service, vehicle demand management and related measures, which the two DOTs and two transit agencies would then either accept or reject. Parts of each yearly plan could be rejected with comments, for re-submission. Stalemates would be broken by a meeting of the mobility council's chair with the chairs of both state transportation commissions or both transit agencies. The two DOTs and the transit agencies would retain the right to act without recommendation of the mobility council if deemed necessary, and the DOTs could also raise toll rates at a faster than recommended schedule if needed to satisfy bond obligations, including maintenance and operations costs.
Those seem reasonable caveats. Given the political and economic stakes, it would be mistaken to assume the mobility council would be just another paper tiger. Policy experts and everyday users alike will be watching the corridor closely to see if traffic flow and environmental objectives can be met. One thing is certain. The complex juggling act is one faced by scores of other major metro regions, on the West Coast and across the U.S. And at the root of it all are two clear realizations. Free peak-hour highway lanes for solo drivers carry huge social and economic costs, and failure to develop robust road pricing systems and better mobility choices will hobble surface transportation and the economy.
RELATED: "States Agree To Build 12-lane Columbia River Bridge," The Oregonian, 3/6/09
"Wide Bridge Would Have Watchdog," The Columbian, 3/7/09
"Council Votes For 12 Lanes For Columbia River Crossing; Formation Of Mobility Council Would Provide Project Accountability, Says Metro President," Daily Journal Of Commerce (Oregon), 3/9/09