It’s light rail along I-5 to Evergreen Blvd. – a resurrection of the CRC


Morning commute times could double after $5 billion expenditure

The resurrection of the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) is now complete. Administrator Greg Johnson and his Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) team is proposing an extension of TriMet’s MAX light rail into Clark County as part of a new bridge over the Columbia River. The details were revealed during meetings of the Executive Steering Group (ESG) and the 16-member Bi-state Bridge Committee of legislators Thursday.

Citizens on both sides of the river have expressed their desire for traffic congestion to be reduced to save time in their travels. The bridge replacement proposal will only provide three through lanes for vehicle traffic, exactly what is present today. Yet to be decided is whether there will be one or two auxiliary lanes added for merging and weaving at interchanges, and interchanges at Hayden Island.

For the morning rush hour, the IBR team projects travel from I-205 on the north end of Vancouver to I-405 would go from 29 minutes today, to either 60 minutes with one auxiliary lane or 57 minutes with two auxiliary lanes.

An Oregon Supreme Court Justice had previously labeled the CRC nothing more than “a light rail project in search of a bridge.” The failure of the $3.6 billion CRC nearly a decade ago was for many reasons. Those included light rail, tolling, a bridge too low, and providing only a one minute improvement in the morning, southbound commute.

The IBR team is recommending light rail as the high capacity transit mode chosen for the project. The proposal is for the light rail to run along the west side of I-5 all the way to Kiggins Bowl, on the northwest side of the SR-500 interchange. Graphic courtesy IBR
The IBR team is recommending light rail as the high capacity transit mode chosen for the project. The proposal is for the light rail to run along the west side of I-5 all the way to Evergreen Blvd. Graphic courtesy IBR

What is different today? Apparently, not much.

The IBR team is proposing a light rail extension along I-5 to Evergreen Blvd. They believe a light rail stop at Evergreen Blvd. near the Vancouver library is the best location to connect C-TRAN with TriMet. In the previous proposal, light rail ran through downtown Vancouver. 

“Light rail represents the best investment opportunity for the project,” John Willis of the IBR staff told the ESG this morning. Shawn Donaghy, CEO of C-TRAN said this project presents the best opportunity to connect C-TRAN with TriMet. He believes the “running I-5” scenario is best, rather than going on downtown Vancouver streets.

The proposal cites a 14-year old analysis from 2008 indicating light rail had 19 to 25 percent more riders than bus rapid transit. Proponents say the difference has increased today, which flies in the face of the facts. In July 2008, TriMet’s MAX ridership was 784,700 for the month. Eleven years later, ridership was 755,330, or nearly 30,000 fewer boarding riders.

There was no BRT service offered in 2008. Today, C-TRAN is operating The Vine and has broken ground on its second line along Mill Plain. TriMet is working to provide its first BRT line along Division street.

The IBR team has previously said building light rail would stimulate demand. Yet TriMet built two new lines, the Green Line in 2009 and the Orange Line in 2015.  Ridership peaked at 820,400 in 2016, and has then dropped by 8 percent to 755,330 just three years later. In the pandemic ridership dropped 56 percent to 332,000 in July of 2021.

TriMet only offers MAX light rail service at 15 minute intervals. A recent analysis indicated the most people the MAX Yellow Line could serve during the three-hour morning commute would be 4,000 people. They would be traveling an average of 14 mph.

The “modeling” cited by the IBR team indicates transit ridership will increase from 4 percent to 11 percent by 2045. Yet their own data shows transit ridership only carries 1.7 percent of people today. There is no evidence cited to verify the 11 percent transit ridership number in their projection.

The presentation flies in the face of the 2018 PEMCO travel survey. It showed that 94 percent of people prefer to use their private cars for travel. That was before the pandemic lockdowns triggered a significant decline in transit ridership locally and nationally.

The IBR comparison was only along similar alignments for BRT and light rail. They ignore the potential that BRT can depart from different locations and travel many different pathways to serve transit riders.

The recommendations by the IBR team are summarized to show light rail for transit, one or two auxiliary lanes, and either a partial or a full interchange option for Hayden Island. The latter two will be decided in the next month or two, prior to selection of a modified LPA. Graphic courtesy IBR
The recommendations by the IBR team are summarized to show light rail for transit, one or two auxiliary lanes, and either a partial or a full interchange option for Hayden Island. The latter two will be decided in the next month or two, prior to selection of a modified LPA. Graphic courtesy IBR

Cost estimates for transit were also shared by the team. They appear to have updated CRC data estimates from 2012, offering a “high” and “low” estimate for both light rail and BRT costs. Light rail cost estimates run from $770 million to $1.3 billion. Bus rapid transit cost estimates run from $640 million to $1.01 billion. 

Estimates are also provided for how much federal money the project team believes could be received from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Both projects indicate the states would need to fund anywhere from $280 million for BRT to a high of $470 million for light rail.

The proposal would extend the Yellow Line MAX line from the Expo Center station to Hayden Island, and then along the west side of Interstate 5 up to Evergreen Blvd. This option would remove an unspecified amount of WSDOT-owned land along the corridor. That would limit the ability to add additional lanes for vehicle travel in the future.

The IBR team indicates its comparison of BRT with light rail would require all BRT passengers to get off the BRT buses and transfer to MAX at the Expo Center. This added time, making BRT less desirable for passengers.

Why would one end all BRT lines at Expo in north Portland? People want to go to the Lloyd Center or downtown Portland area to transfer to other transit or get off at their destination in these locations. A required transfer at an undesired location to a slower mode of travel appears counter intuitive.

The IBR team appears to have only used vehicle capacity rather than system capacity in its comparison of light rail and bus rapid transit. MAX light rail only runs every 15 minutes in two-car trains on fixed rails, limiting their ability to carry people. BRT can depart from multiple locations and increase the frequency of its bus service, essentially providing significantly more total service than MAX light rail. Graphic courtesy IBR
The IBR team appears to have only used vehicle capacity rather than system capacity in its comparison of light rail and bus rapid transit. MAX light rail only runs every 15 minutes in two-car trains on fixed rails, limiting their ability to carry people. BRT can depart from multiple locations and increase the frequency of its bus service, essentially providing significantly more total service than MAX light rail. Graphic courtesy IBR

Saving travel time and reducing traffic congestion is people’s top priority. The IBR surveys indicate 78 percent of Washington residents have that goal and 70 percent of metro area residents overall share this goal.

The proposal estimates the morning southbound commute times will get worse, doubling travel times from either 99th Street or I-205 going into Portland. 

In the evening, the proposal indicates travel times will be reduced by 23 to 25 minutes if two auxiliary lanes are added. If the decision is made to add only one auxiliary lane, the travel time improvement is reduced to just 11 minutes. The IBR staff estimates no change in travel time between I-405 in Portland to I-205 in north Vancouver in the “no build” scenario comparison.

The study clearly shows the addition of new lanes (auxiliary) does save time in the northbound direction. Why wouldn’t they propose to add new through lanes to the entire 5-mile “bridge influence area” to save further travel time?  Why does the addition of auxiliary lanes not save time in the morning commute?

That question was asked by Senator Lynda Wilson (Republican, 17th District). The answer was the Rose Quarter bottleneck continues to be the problem for southbound traffic congestion that backs up into the 5-mile bridge influence area. That restriction didn’t impact their northbound traffic study which began north of the Rose Quarter. The IBR team didn’t reveal impacts for broader areas of the I-5 corridor.

Overall, the IBR team estimated the project cost would range from $3.2 billion to $4.8 billion. The ESG and the 16 legislators overseeing the project will now have roughly two months to weigh in with concerns and suggestions and possible changes. 

There was no mention by IBR staff members of the fact that they have asked the Coast Guard for permission to offer a bridge providing 116 feet of clearance for marine traffic. That triggered “mitigation” payments of $86.4 million in the failed CRC. Citizen Dave Rowe brought up the issue during citizen communication.

There also was no mention of a double-stacked bridge versus a two-bridge option. 

A modified Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) will be recommended by July. There is a scheduled meeting July 21 of the 16 legislators where the IBR staff will be seeking approval to move forward with the modified LPA.

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