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Traffic plans are ready for unveiling

Citizens will see ideas for I-5 bridge, couplet for Burnside, Couch streets
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Portlanders will get their first formal look at two major and potentially controversial transportation projects today.

City Commissioner Sam Adams will unveil his proposal for rerouting traffic on West Burnside and Northwest Couch streets at a morning news conference. Adams will propose running one-way traffic on each street between Northwest Second and 19th avenues.

He also will call for building a new Portland Streetcar line along the route from Northwest 24th Avenue - and then running it across the Burnside Bridge to a similar new Burnside-Couch couplet on the east side of the Willamette River.

'Streetcars are development-oriented transit, and this project could spur millions of dollars of private investments along the street,' said Adams, noting that Portland once had several streetcar lines, including one that ran over the Burnside Bridge in the 1930s.

The next step is for the public to weigh in on the proposal, after which Adams will ask the City Council to approve a formal, detailed study.

The second project to be discussed today is much bigger - the replacement Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River. The current recommendations for the project will be presented to the Metro Council during a 2 p.m. work session at the agency's headquarters, located at 600 N.E. Grand Ave.

Metro, the regional government charged with managing growth in the tricounty area, must approve the work on the Oregon side for the project to proceed.

The Columbia River Crossing task force approved the staff recommendations last Wednesday evening. It called for the existing bridge to be replaced with a far larger structure that also would accommodate a yet-to-be-determined mix of light-rail trains and express-bus lanes between Portland and Vancouver, Wash.

'There are a lot of concerns that need to be addressed,' said Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder, who serves on the task force and made the motion to accept the recommendations.

Bridge could be pricey

Adams said the westside Burnside-Couch couplet project could cost $80 million or more, with half the money for the road work and half for the streetcar. Much of the funding could come from the Portland Development Commission, Adams said.

The replacement I-5 bridge would be much more expensive, making it more potentially problematic. Although Burkholder said he considers a large replacement bridge the only logical option, Metro Councilor Robert Liberty - who does not serve on the task force - already is preparing to question why the staff believes it is necessary.

'People say you have to sometimes take things on faith, but when you're talking about $2 billion or more, I'm not going to take anything on faith,' Liberty said.

The task force will not formally approve the options for detailed study until February. Even so, there is no doubt that bridge-area congestion is a serious problem - a problem that only will grow worse as an expected 1 million more people move to the region over the next two decades.

Wednesday's staff presentation painted a grim picture of future travel over the bridge unless action is taken. According to the presentation, the population growth will increase the number of trips over the bridge from around 130,000 per day to 180,000 per day by 2030.

The resulting congestion will create rush-hour-level traffic for most of each workday. Delays of a half-hour of more will become common because of increasing accidents caused by too many vehicles trying to use a hopelessly insufficient and outdated bridge.

One option rejected by the staff was keeping the existing bridge and building a smaller supplemental bridge to carry light-rail trains, express buses and short vehicle traffic between Portland and Vancouver.

TriMet also balked at the idea, arguing that such a bridge would need a lift span to allow river traffic to cross under it - the same structural flaw that causes frequent and lengthy delays on the I-5 bridge.

Multnomah County Commissioner and task force member Serena Cruz said public support for a supplemental bridge could prompt the task force to approve further study of it, however.

Progress is a good thing

After the task force accepted the staff recommendations, co-chair Hal Dengerink called the unanimous vote a major step forward in a process that began more than five years ago with preliminary studies of growing congestion on the bridge.

'We've accomplished a lot,' said Dengerink, the chancellor of Washington State University's Vancouver campus.

Much work remains to be done, however. An indication of the unfinished work surfaced at the very end of the meeting when Adams and Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard - both of whom serve on the task force - asked that an urban design committee be formed to ensure the new bridge fits into the communities it will serve.

In making the request, Pollard said that the current interchanges in Vancouver to the I-5 bridge cut the city in half when they were first built more than 50 years ago.

Although Pollard does not expect the new bridge to undo that damage, he believes it can be designed to minimize future harm and perhaps even free land for redevelopment.

The task force unanimously approved creating the design committee before adjourning.

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To read the Nov. 28 Rethinking Portland issue entitled "Destination unknown: our transportation future," click on www.portlandtribune.com/rethinking/index.php