Interstate Bridge Steering Group gets update. Will Portland stay involved?

Reducing vehicle miles traveled debated by group

The Executive Steering Group (ESG) that oversees the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project (IBRP) met this week and also received an update. Among the items briefed were the results of recent citizen outreach and community surveys. The meeting gave the group its first look at a draft of the Purpose and Need and Vision and Values statements being crafted for the project.

IBRP Administrator Greg Johnson stressed the importance of the meeting, as the ESG members got their first look at a “snapshot of language” for the Purpose and Need statement, as well as the Vision and Values that will accompany it. Johnson said this could be the most important meeting the group has had to date.

In briefing the ESG, Johnson shared that there are many difficult decisions to be made, as he attempts to forge consensus around the two documents and the process forward. “We had a very contentious staff meeting yesterday,” he shared. 

“The staff-level meeting referenced involved a discussion on process related to the continuing work to update the draft Purpose and Need and establish the community Visions and Values statements,” Johnson said in an email to Clark County Today. “This was largely a clarification of next steps and reiteration that the documents are currently working drafts that will continue to be refined as additional feedback is considered, as was presented at the Executive Steering Group meeting.”

This shows survey results of both citizens who participated in the community surveys and the members of the Community Advisory Group in setting priorities for the project. Both groups have traffic congestion and trip reliability as their top concern. Graphic IBRP
This shows survey results of both citizens who participated in the community surveys and the members of the Community Advisory Group in setting priorities for the project. Both groups have traffic congestion and trip reliability as their top concern. Graphic IBRP

“We’ve all agreed to pursue a bridge replacement,” Johnson said to the ESG. “We’re talking about how it’s addressing the problems and issues that affect our region. This is an opportunity to make an investment in our local community and in the region to make the economy stronger, to assure ourselves that going into the future we will have reliable infrastructure to cross the Columbia River.”

Johnson shared that they are “close” when it comes to the language in the Purpose and Need, and the Vision and Values statements.

He noted that the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) has approved an additional $30 million to keep the project moving forward. In response to an inquiry by Clark County Today, Johnson provided the following breakdown of current funding for the IBR program.

As of March 2021, Oregon and Washington have committed a combined $80 million to the Interstate Bridge Replacement program planning efforts. The Washington State 2019-2021 Transportation Budget (ESHB 1160) included $35 million and the Oregon Transportation Commission has approved allocating a total of $45 million ($9 million in 2019, $6 million in 2020, and an additional $30 million at their March 2021 meeting). 

Citizens might recall that part of the motivation to replace the Interstate Bridge is that Oregon owes $93 million and Washington owes $46 million to the Federal Highway Administration from the failed Columbia River Crossing (CRC) effort. 

Regarding overall funding, Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny Ogle mentioned that both houses of the Washington legislature have placed the IBRP as their top priority. She further mentioned that one body has $1 billion in their legislation, and the other has $1.2 billion. In the failed CRC effort, each state was responsible for $450 million, and the project collapsed when the Washington legislature refused to fund their $450 million.

The CRC collapsed over tolling issues and light rail being included in the project. A significant issue was project mismanagement, where a $50 million maximum contract was allowed to balloon to over $200 million.

Johnson provided additional perspective on funding to Clark County Today. 

“Additional funding will be needed from each state to advance to construction as part of a comprehensive funding package that is anticipated to include a diverse range of sources, including federal funds, tolling, and state funds from both Oregon and Washington. Each state will need to determine the appropriate timing and avenue for discussions regarding potential state investment to occur. 

“The WA State Legislature currently has several transportation package funding proposals under consideration that include funding for the IBR program. Specific proposals that include potential IBR funding have not yet been introduced in the Oregon State Legislature, that the program is aware of.”

Julianna Marler, CEO of the Port of Vancouver mentioned the change in administrations and the power shift in Congress. She said there is renewed optimism for a federal transportation package.

Community Surveys

In discussing the online, interactive community survey, Johnson shared they had over 15,000 comments. The staff is currently reading each and every comment and hopes to have a report compiled by the middle of April. They shared this level of participation is roughly four times community participation in other regional transportation project surveys.

In summarizing the surveys and the “community conversations,” the ESG was briefed that there were 9,155 total participants. There were 78 Spanish language participants and 58 Vietnamese language participants. The briefed items were not reflective of open-ended survey comments; nor statistically significant within a margin of error.

The number one priority was traffic congestion and trip reliability. It was the top issue by a wide margin, for both the community survey and by the Community Advisory Group (CAG) members who also completed the survey. One graphic compared the responses of the citizens and the CAG, which were fairly close in priorities. This report mirrors the results reported earlier by Clark County Today — The People Speak.

Staff member Chris Regan briefed that CAG and EAG conversations have touched on 14 of the 17 items in the draft Purpose and Need and Vision and Values statements. He mentioned the area’s role in regional congestion. It was important to maximize how we move people and goods, and address bottlenecks rather than simply move them.

Funding and cost effectiveness is also important. They need to “address concepts of affordability; recognize future funding challenges in our financing (e.g., gas tax is declining); create something sustainable and future-proof.” 

Citizens would likely object to the statement that the gas tax is declining. Rep. Ed Orcutt (Republican, 20th District) reminded voters in January “since 2003, the gas tax has already more than doubled from 23 cents to 49.4 cents per gallon.”

This graphic was created to show survey results of citizens priorities and values for the project. It showed reducing traffic congestion to be the people’s number one priority by a large percentage. Seismic vulnerability was their next concern. People valued congestion reduction and efficient use of their money. Graphic IBRP
This graphic was created to show survey results of citizens priorities and values for the project. It showed reducing traffic congestion to be the people’s number one priority by a large percentage. Seismic vulnerability was their next concern. People valued congestion reduction and efficient use of their money. Graphic IBRP

The other top priorities were transportation safety and earthquake vulnerability, with citizens choosing transportation safety as their second highest priority whereas the CAG members chose earthquake vulnerability second. Inadequate bike and pedestrian path was the lowest priority of both groups.

Limited public transportation was the 4th choice of both groups in this part of the survey and impared freight movement came in 5th. The citizens placed a higher emphasis on freight than the members of the CAG.

The IBRP staff summarized the input on Purpose & Need this way. There was widespread agreement the previously identified problems still exist today, with the following consistently identified as the highest concerns:

  1. Congestion and reliability
  2. Earthquake vulnerability
  3. Addressing safety concerns

Additional priorities identified for consideration were considerations of greenhouse gases, the climate and environment, and a commitment to equity, underrepresented and underserved communities.

Vision and Values

Survey participants were asked to identify opportunities and benefits for our community and share values most important to them for the Vision and Values document. They were asked to select the top three priorities within each of these identified values: equity, environment, safety/reliability, cost/funding, transit/multimodal, economy/community.

When it came to safety and reliability, the people wanted “less time sitting in traffic (vehicle or transit),” and to “make sure the bridge is earthquake-ready.”

In the “cost” category, taxpayers will be happy to hear an emphasis on restraining costs. They wanted to “limit funding options (such as tolling) that will directly impact users.” They also wanted to utilize previous planning work to maximize past investments and support efficient decision making.

For the transit category, survey participants wanted to extend light rail across the bridge. They also wanted the project to “provide public transit options that are direct routes between Portland and Vancouver/Clark County.” This might be surprising to many, given the huge drop in transit ridership in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which just continued a longer term decline. (See our story here).

The survey showed a strong interest in prioritizing future generations transportation needs and priorities. Our freight haulers will appreciate a desire to support the efficient movement of goods and services along the coast.

There is a strong commitment to equity in this effort, as reflected by the creation of an Equity Advisory Group (EAG) offering input. The survey showed the desire for a “strong focus on transportation for low-income travelers, people with disabilities and non-drivers,” and “minimizing impacts on neighboring communities.”

With many news reports and the IBRP talking about the need for “ensuring the bridge is safe”, one might think the bridge is not unsafe. Yet neither ODOT nor WSDOT list the present two bridge structures as “unsafe”. One might ask how safe is the Interstate Bridge? Read our story here.

The ESG was briefed on discussions among the CAG. Vancouver’s Sam Kim was quoted for his comment: “The best bridge is the bridge that gets built.”

Survey results showed 39 percent of respondents listed growing travel demand and congestion as the top problem to be solved. Seismic vulnerability was second at 29 percent. The “growing demand for public transportation” was a distant 3rd, with 14 percent support. Travel demand and congestion relief were nearly three times as important as public transportation, and seismic vulnerability was twice as important as transit.

Open discussion

The IBRP staff scheduled time for an open ended discussion by ESG members regarding the details in the Purpose and Need as well as the Vision and Values statements. Surprisingly, there was no word-smithing by ESG members regarding either document. Instead, they touched on broad themes.

Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who runs the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), sent a letter to the ESG laying out her concerns. 

“As I continue to evaluate Portland’s involvement and the extent to which the city can support this effort, I am aware how important it is to hear all perspectives and listen to community,” said Hardesty. Will Portland stop supporting the effort to replace the Interstate Bridge? Will they stop participating in the ESG?

Last summer, the city of Portland and Mayor Ted Wheeler withdrew their support for the I-5 Rose Quarter project after the Albina Vision Trust dropped their support for the effort. 

A news report at the time said “ODOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project is not currently aligned with the values of the City as articulated in Central City 2035, the Racial Equity Plan and the Climate Emergency Resolution,” the July statement read.

Hardesty listed several concerns regarding the IBRP. First was community engagement. “We know that highway projects have wrought incredible harm on our communities, disproportionately impacting BIPOC neighborhoods and people. We must not make the same mistake or further exacerbate these impacts.”

Her second concern was climate and equity. “These are two of the most urgent needs of our time,” she said. “Within this NEPA process, the Purpose and Need will be the most influential element in driving the creation of alternative solutions for this program. Therefore, I would like to see climate and equity centered within the Purpose and Need.”

She does not believe the current framing of the Purpose and Need is proper. “I know we haven’t solved the needs articulated within the previous Columbia River Crossing project,” Hardesty said. “However, relying on the same framework as the CRC is not serving us well today.”

Hardesty believes we can come together and acknowledges the core need is “replacing the existing bridge to provide for efficient movement of people and goods in order to access places on both sides of the river and beyond.” She wants to consider holistic solutions to serve person‐trips and goods‐movement instead of solving for each travel mode in isolation.

Prior to leaving the meeting early for another obligation, Hardesty shared her desire to limit vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Johnson responded by saying they are creating options for people, via transit and active transportation (walking and biking) for people who want to get out of their cars.

Later in the discussion, limiting vehicle miles traveled received some pushback. Transit officials seemed to indicate they didn’t want to limit their miles traveled. Others mentioned electric vehicles and the fact that people could be “green” and still drive privately owned vehicles. 

C-TRAN CEO Shawn Donaghy spoke against the Purpose and Need being a driver to reduce VMT and vehicles on the road. He agreed with Johnson’s statement about trying to find the correct mode of transportation. “The idea of less service miles, less vehicle miles, less vehicles on the road is not the way to address that conversation, especially with a growing community that we all want,” he said.

Metro’s Lynn Peterson reminded the ESG that they lost $750 million in federal funding last time. “We lost it because we didn’t have the consensus, because we did rush it,” she said. Peterson urged finding a balance in how fast they are moving and finding potential funding sources. 

Peterson offered a different perspective than Donaghy on VMT. She said that reducing VMT is part of Portland’s efforts for greenhouse gas emission reductions. “VMT as a measure is a really important part of climate change”. 

The TriMet representative Steven Witter also asked for “a little extra time” and said “you guys are moving really fast”.

Johnson said he expects to update the bi-state committee of 16 legislators from Oregon and Washington later in March or sometime in April.

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