A review of Interstate Bridge transportation issues in 2021

Number of lanes, tolling, transit and money all part of IBR discussions during the past year

In the midst of the pandemic, Portland metro area citizens have witnessed significant changes over the past year related to transportation. Vehicle traffic has returned to near pre pandemic levels on area roads and highways. The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program (IBR), the Rose Quarter and I-205 Abernethy Bridge programs moved forward, along with Oregon’s plan to toll area roads.

Transit ridership picked up from pandemic lows, but TriMet predicted it will take six years for ridership to return to pre pandemic levels. C-TRAN made significant cuts in its 2022 service, including big cuts in their cross-river “express” bus service into Portland. Yet, it broke ground on the second $50 million “high capacity” Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line while planning for a third.

The federal trillion dollar infrastructure package was passed, raining “free” federal money on both states. This caused transportation agencies to scramble to evaluate how much they would get, and how much more they might be able to compete to receive. 

The IBR team identified roughly $50 Billion in discretionary funds they could compete for related to the project, expected to cost between $3 billion and $5 billion. They had previously identified a potential $2 billion funding gap for the program.

Number of lanes, tolling, transit and money all part of IBR discussions during the past year.

All the above-mentioned transportation projects increased their cost projections, while ODOT said it still needed tolling dollars to pay for things in the future. In Washington, the legislature had to bail out their tolling system with taxpayer dollars from the general fund. 

Both the Oregon and Washington legislatures failed to pass new transportation taxes in their 2021 sessions, and are unlikely to do so in the coming election year cycle. The Democrat-controlled Washington State Legislature did propose a “largest ever” package that failed to gain traction.

Tolling continues to be a major concern for the 70,000 Southwest Washington residents who normally commute to work in Oregon. In the failed Columbia River Crossing (CRC) it was revealed Washington residents would be paying up to 60 percent of the $8 daily tolls. ODOT says it’s congestion pricing tolling will be part of behavior modification efforts to persuade people to take transit or drive at other times.

IBR Administrator Greg Johnson promised to be “data driven.” Yet his team downplays citizens’ overwhelming desire to save travel times, and data indicating I-5 would need five lanes in each direction by 2030 and over eight lanes by 2050. They ignore the precipitous decline in transit ridership which has been dropping for years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While significant numbers of people were able to work from home in the pandemic, getting across the Columbia River to Oregon remains the number one transportation issue for Clark County and Southwest Washington residents. Seventy percent of metro area people want reducing traffic congestion as their top priority for transportation dollars. 

Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio made headlines, saying light rail must be part of the IBR solution.  

The IBR Program moved forward with a host of meetings. Their four major groups held seemingly constant zoom meetings. The Community Advisory Group (CAG), the Equity Advisory Group (EAG) and Executive Steering Group (EAG) met almost monthly. The 16-member Bistate Legislative Advisory Committee of Oregon and Washington legislators met less often.

Public outreach appeared to be at the top of the agenda. It was revealed that one quarter of IBR spending was on communication and community outreach. The Hayden Island community was provided their own outreach effort, since they are at ground zero for the project. Yet many in that community felt their voices were drowned out by the multitude of other “outreach” efforts.

How much time will be saved?

Oregon Sen. Lew Frederick asked the most appropriate question of the year. “How much time will people save?” as a result of the planned $3 billion to $5 billion program. Administrator Johnson’s response was not much, indicating they plan to replace the current three through lanes in each direction with three through lanes on their as yet undefined proposal. “We know that we cannot build our way out of congestion,” he said.

Portland City Council Member Jo Ann Hardesty and Metro President Lynn Peterson pushed hard to limit the program to only three lanes, citing climate change and the impact on minority communities. “The Portland region has a policy of only three through lanes in each direction,” said Peterson, who had previously served as secretary of transportation in Washington. The IBR team is evaluating how many auxiliary lanes to put on the bridge to facilitate traffic merging on and off the highway.

“We have a commitment to getting people out of their automobiles as much as possible,” Hardesty said. Her focus is on racial justice. She wants to prioritize the impacts of any policy decisions on black, indigenous and other communities of color. “We’re absolutely committed to climate mitigation, and looking at green technology that we are prepared to put in place for the future.”

That directly contradicts what citizens want, especially here in Clark County. FM3 Research conducted a citizen survey for the IBRP. The results appear to mirror other government agency surveys on people’s priorities, and were reported to the ESG in February.

Traffic congestion tops people’s concerns

Traffic congestion tops voters’ concerns, with 68 percent saying it is very or extremely concerning. A major earthquake was second with 51 percent very or extremely concerned. The survey canvassed 917 registered voters in Clark, Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties. According to IBR staff, they over-sampled people of color and Clark County citizens.

One of the transportation challenges with the current freeway system is there are four interchanges within a two-mile area as the bridge crosses the Columbia River. This exceeds federal highway design guidelines, as pointed out by transportation architect Kevin Peterson. He advocates for a collector-distributor design, also pointing out that the failed CRC effort used an incorrect glidepath assumption for Pearson airport which resulted in the westward curved design. The IBR team has narrowed their focus to three major design options.

Johnson said they are seeking to answer four key questions by next March in his remarks to the 16 members of the two state legislatures.  His team appears to favor replacement of the north Portland Harbor Bridge.

  • What is the mode of high capacity transit? 
  • How many lanes, both through lanes and auxiliary lanes, will be carried across the bridge and through this corridor? 
  • Will there be an interchange directly on Hayden Island; either a full interchange or partial interchange? Or will the island be accessed from Marine Drive on a separate, new bridge? 
  • Will the North Portland Harbor Bridge be replaced or get a seismic retrofit?

The Hayden Island community was shown three options for interchanges on the island by the IBRP team, one of which included no direct access to I-5. The Vancouver City Council wants a highway cover over I-5 to “reconnect” the area near Ft. Vancouver with the downtown area. This would be similar to Portland’s demands for an expensive highway cover at the Rose Quarter, but no costs were mentioned for the Vancouver highway cover..

Members of the Vancouver City Council weighed in providing their desires with emphasis on light rail, mobility and downtown development. They unanimously approved tolling as a means to help pay for the bridge, in spite of Councilor Bart Hansen worrying about “roads for the rich” when citizens are forced to pay multiple tolls, in reference to Oregon’s plan to toll I-5 from the border with Washington.

In contrast, the Clark County Council pushed for no tolling, a low cost bridge replacement, and planning for 3rd and 4th bridges across the Columbia River. They cited the fact that overwhelmingly, citizens want traffic congestion relief and are dismayed that the current discussions appear to focus on everything but solving traffic problems and saving people time. It’s been 40 years since a new bridge was built across the Columbia River.

Because of pushback late in the year, Johnson and his team have delayed offering a final “solution” in terms of a specific design, until perhaps July 2022. 

It was revealed that a tolling and traffic analysis won’t happen until late in 2022, likely after a final design option is proposed. 

Seismic concerns continued to be touted as the major reason for replacing the bridge, rather than doing a seismic upgrade. A seismic retrofit has been cast aside, in spite of a 2006 WSDOT report indicating it is technically feasible. It was revealed that Oregon needs $5.1 billion for seismic repairs and upgrades on their statewide highway system, which begs the question why spend that much on one bridge? 

IBR team member Chris Regan briefed legislators that they would design the bridge for a “500 year” seismic event, a much lower standard than required for a magnitude 9 Cascadia Subduction Zone quake. The risk of that large a quake happening in the next 50 years was pointed out to be in the 10 to 14 percent range by Washington’s M9 project experts. 

Bridges for $1 billion

Separately, it was shown there have been many bridges built around the country for $1 billion or less, including one by primary consultant WSP USA in Charleston. The Arthur Ravenel Bridge is 13,200 feet long, has eight lanes for vehicle traffic, and provides 186 feet of clearance for marine traffic. It was built for $632 million without tolls to pay for it.

The region’s major bottleneck and accident site is the two-lane stretch at the Rose Quarter, just five miles south of the project’s “bridge influence area.” Oregon is presently engaged in a battle over their $1.25 billion I-5 Rose Quarter project and how many auxiliary lanes will or won’t be included. They appear to have roughly an $800 million funding shortfall, before a shovel of dirt has been turned.

In spite of initial discussion about possibly changing the “problem statement” that defines the problems needing to be addressed, the Purpose and Need statement was not changed by any of the leadership groups. Therefore the same six “problems” in the failed CRC’s Purpose and Need will move forward to define the IBRP. 

The IBR team eliminated four often discussed proposals for crossings of the Columbia River. The overarching reason — “these four options do not meet Purpose and Need for this program,” said Johnson. The decisions were reviewed during a meeting of the Executive Steering Group and again at a meeting of the 16 legislators on the Bi-state Bridge Committee. 

The discarded proposals were high speed rail, a tunnel, a third bridge in conjunction with a seismic upgrade to the current bridge structures, and the Common Sense Alternative II, were laid out in a 4-page memo.

“The “common sense solution” to addressing the I-5 traffic across the Columbia River will not be implemented or even given any additional consideration,” shared Hayden Island resident Tom Gentry. He’s had a front row seat to the entire process, as a member of the Community Advisory Group.

“The remaining options endorsed by the bi-state legislative committee each encompass three northbound and three southbound through lanes,” he said. “This is the current configuration and does not alleviate traffic congestion. The most expressed need in every survey on this topic is a reduction in travel time. None of the remaining options address this to any degree.”

Some members of the community wanted climate change and equity added to the Purpose and Need statement. The IBR staff pointed out that it would require a new Environmental Impact Statement, adding time and cost to the project. The team believes they can address those concerns without them being a formal part of the Purpose and Need statement which defines the problem to be solved by the project.

Overall, Johnson’s team says state legislatures will need to identify funding for the project by 2023 so they can break ground in 2025 for the replacement bridge. They will need to get a new permit from the US Coast Guard and complete a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement before proceeding.

Clark County Today editor Ken Vance had an excellent lengthy discussion with Johnson about the project, yet remains skeptical the current effort will result in success.  Mark Harmsworth of the Washington Policy Center emphasized that relieving traffic congestion and improving mobility for the greatest number of users should be a top priority for this corridor. He too asked if the demands for light rail would cause the current effort to fail.

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