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Bridge faces a wide gulf

Business, environmental groups have differing goals for I-5 river crossing plan
by: Courtesy of ODOT, An artist’s rendering (looking south) shows a plan to replace the current Interstate Bridge with a larger  bridge that includes transit, pedestrian and bicycle options.

Events have overtaken the Columbia River Crossing, the project intended to reduce congestion and improve safety on the freeway link between Portland and Vancouver, Wash.

Battle lines already have been drawn over the project options under consideration - even though a detailed study of them was released just today.

The study, called the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, looked at five options, ranging from doing nothing to a $4 billion-plus overhaul of the five-mile stretch of Interstate 5 from State Route 500 in Vancouver to North Columbia Boulevard in Portland.

The study is intended to help government officials in both states decide which of the five options to submit to the federal government for funding.

But interest groups already have started taking stands on the options.

The Portland Business Alliance is in favor of building a replacement bridge with a light-rail line and reworking the related freeway interchanges. The PBA, which represents businesses in and around the downtown core, also is working with a number of other business groups to form a Columbia River Crossing Coalition to lobby for one or more of the options.

The Coalition for a Livable Future - an umbrella group representing environmental, community and alternative transportation organizations - has come out against all five options, charging that none of them do enough to reduce greenhouse gases and climate change.

Even the Portland City Council has taken a stand, saying it will only support an option that includes a new light-rail line to Vancouver.

Rex Burkholder, a Metro Council member serving on the 39-member Columbia River Crossing Task Force that developed the five options, isn't surprised people didn't wait for the release of the study before making up their minds.

The most expensive option would cost more than all other currently budgeted freewa projects in the Portland area put together.

'It's a big, big target,' said Burkholder, who represents the regional government charged with managing growth in most of the tricounty region on the council.

The DEIS today said that if nothing is done, congestion in the study area will more than double by 2030 - increasing to 15 hours a day. Building a supplemental transit, pedestrian and bicycle bridge is projected to cut the increase to 10.75 hours a day. Building a replacement bridge with transit, pedestrian and bicycle options would cut congestion even further - down to 3.5 to 5.5 hours a day.

The replacement bridge also is the most expensive alternative, costing up to $4.02 billion, according to the DEIS. The supplemental bridge is only slightly less expensive, topping out at $3.95 billion, the DEIS said.

Today's release kicks off a 60-day public review process of the DEIS that will include numerous public forums in both the Portland and Vancouver areas.

The task force will make a recommendation that will be submitted to Metro to be included in the Regional Transportation Plan that governs transportation-related spending in most of Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.

The Oregon and Washington transportation departments then will submit the chosen project to the federal government for partial funding.

The goal is to have it declared a project of national interest and funded through the omnibus transportation spending bill expected to be approved by the 2009 Congress. Tolls imposed on the new bridge are being discussed to raise some of the local funds for the project.

Congestion only will increase

Much of the information in the study is not new to anyone who has been attending the Columbia River Crossing task force hearings.

The task force includes representatives from a broad range of communities in both states, including government agencies, businesses, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and freight, commuter and environmental groups.

Staffed by the transportation departments in both states, the task force has received numerous updates on the research related to the project on all five options at its January meeting.

'The DEIS is just the first time that it's all been pulled together so we can compare the options head to head,' Burkholder said.

Numerous studies going back decades have shown that the I-5 bridge is a bottleneck for freight traffic moving from Canada to Mexico. It is actually made up of two side-by-side bridges. The northbound bridge was built in 1917 and the southbound bridge in 1958. Both bridges have lift spans that are raised for river traffic. They are the only freeway drawbridges on the West Coast.

Congestion long has been a major problem at the bridge, which currently carries around 135,000 vehicles per day. Because freeway traffic is so heavy in the morning and evening commute hours, bridge lifts have been restricted during the weekday rush hour.

Despite that, congestion now lasts six hours a day and is expected to increase to more than seven hours southbound and eight hours northbound by the year 2030 - further compromising on-time freight delivery in the metropolitan region.

Safety is a major problem, both on the bridge and throughout the study area. About one crash already occurs each day - a rate that is two times higher than similar highways in Oregon and Washington.

Many of the collisions are attributed to short on-and off-ramps, inadequate spaces for merging and weaving, and poor sight lines on and near the bridge. The number of crashes is expected to grow as congestion increases.

The bridge does not meet current earthquake standards and could be damaged during a significant seismic event. The bridges were built on timber pilings, which still support them. Recent geotechnical studies have shown that the soil under the bridges likely will liquefy to a depth of 75 feet during a major earthquake, potentially causing the bridge to bend, buckle or collapse into the river.

Groups take sides

Despite these well-documented problems, interest groups disagree on what to do.

Business groups in the Portland area are lining up behind building a large replacement bridge and reworking all of the interchanges in the study area to ease the flow of traffic on and off the freeway. The new bridge would be high enough above the river that a lift span would not be necessary.

The PBA and its allies see such work as necessary to speed the flow of freight traffic throughout the region. A resolution approved by the PBA claims a replacement bridge with a new light-rail line would 'address the freight and commuter congestion and safety issues of the current bridge and allow for trade and commerce to flow more smoothly on I-5.'

Other Columbia River Crossing members include the Association of Washington Business, Associated Oregon Industries, Columbia Pacific Building Trades, the Legacy Health System, Identity Clark County, and NAI Norris Beggs and Simpson.

Opponents are taking the opposite approach. They argue that government should not be encouraging additional vehicle traffic between Portland and Vancouver.

Instead, the Coalition for a Livable Future and its allies want new public policies to reduce the number of cars and trucks crossing the river each day, arguing that is the only way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles and to fight climate change.

'Getting to our global warming goals means driving less, yet all proposed options encourage people to drive more,' reads a statement on the project on the coalition Web site. Its members include the Audubon Society of Portland, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, the Fair Housing Council of Oregon and Jobs With Justice.

In a proposal called Climate Smart Columbia River Crossing, the CLF and others argue that tolls should be immediately imposed on both the I-5 and I-205 bridges to discourage unnecessary trips and generate new funds for transit projects, such as a new light-rail line between Portland and Vancouver.

For additional information, visit the project's Web site at www.columbiarivercrossing.org.

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A brief overview of the alternatives

• No build - A No Build alternative is required by the National Environmental Policy Act to serve as a base line for comparison with other alternatives. Under this alternative, only smaller improvements likely to receive funding would be considered.

• Replacement bridge with bus rapid transit - The Interstate Bridge would be replaced with three through-traffic lanes, and with two or three auxiliary traffic lanes in each direction. This alternative includes a lane for bus rapid transit and a lane for foot and bicycle traffic, possibly on a separate bridge.

• Replacement bridge with light rail - Same as the above, except with a lane for light rail instead of bus rapid transit.

• Supplemental bridge with bus rapid transit - The existing side-by-side bridges would be saved and restriped to three through lanes and one auxiliary lane for northbound traffic, along with a lane for pedestrians and bicyclists. A new bridge would be built with three through lanes and one auxiliary lane for southbound vehicles, along with a lane for bus rapid transit.

• Supplemental bridge with light rail - Same as above, except the new bridge would include a lane for light rail.


Upcoming public hearings

Numerous public forums have been set on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Columbia River Crossing, including:

• 6 p.m. May 15, Q and A session, Jantzen Beach SuperCenter, 1405 N. Jantzen Beach Center

• 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. May 28, open house and public hearing, Red Lion at the Quay, 100 Columbia St., Vancouver, Wash.

• 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. May 29, Metro Council work session, Metro Regional Center, Council Chamber, 600 N.E. Grand Ave.

• 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. May 29, open house and public hearing, Portland Metropolitan Exposition Center, 2060 N. Marine Drive