Legislators want more involvement in transit and tolling decisions
The 16 legislators who make up the Bi-state Bridge Committee for the Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) program met Wednesday to receive updates on the various aspects of the project. There were in depth and active discussions on tolling and transit options, as the legislators delved into decisions being made. It had been roughly two months since they last met.
IBR Administrator Greg Johnson and his team introduced two new transit options that would bring light rail into Vancouver. The Purpose and Need statement calls for high capacity transit to be part of the solution on the bridge. Six of the options are light rail specific; three bus rapid transit; one hybrid option, and a bus on shoulder option as well. Johnson and his team have promised to be “data-driven” in their approach.
During his briefing, Johnson asked the legislators to keep the afternoon of April 21 free. He plans to hold a meeting of the Executive Steering Group (ESG) that provides more regular oversight earlier that day. The plan is to provide both of these key groups critical details of the project on the same day.
A great deal of concern was expressed about tolling and transit by legislators. Johnson assured them that his team will seek to do a better job allowing the leadership to provide input. The meeting ran long as the elected leaders asked for many more details than were provided.
The IBR team will continue to narrow down its proposed recommendations for the final bridge design between now and July. That will include whether there is one bridge structure or two. The specific alignment of the bridge, the mode of high capacity transit, and the Hayden Island interchange choice are also of critical interest to the community, as are the number of total lanes in each direction.
Johnson indicated that because the Washington legislature had committed significant funding in the recently ended session, this would allow the IBR team to move forward and begin seeking federal funding for the transit part of the program.
“We think that with the potential pledge of dollars from Washington, it aligns us very well with the Federal Transit Administration processes to get in line and to start their processes early,” Johnson said. “Before, we were going to have to wait until that significant pledge of dollars in 2023. Now we can start this summer.”
He also mentioned one of the larger “mega-grant” federal programs from the recently passed infrastructure bill. Johnson believes the IBR stacks up very well against other programs competing for those dollars. He specifically mentioned a new bridge in Cincinnati next to the Brent Spence Bridge, and that because the IBR has transit and active transportation components, the I-5 Bridge project was better positioned.
What Johnson didn’t mention was the $2.5 billion new bridge between Ohio and Kentucky would have no tolls. The two governors (Mike DeWine and Andy Beshear) believe they can get up to $2 billion in federal funding, which could cover up to 80 percent of the cost. Can Johnson and the IBR team get the federal government to fund 80 percent of the IBR?
That bridge is a critical freight corridor from Canada to Florida, carrying Interstates 71 and 75 traffic over the Ohio River. It would be the 7th bridge between the two states in the region, and the sixth more directly into Cincinnati.
Problems with tolling
Legislators expressed concern regarding a recent decision to allow ODOT to be the tolling administrator. This caused consternation at the ESG meeting last week as well. Sen. Lynda Wilson, (Republican, 17th District) started the questioning, which triggered a nearly 20-minute discussion.
Jake Fey, (Democrat, 21st District) spoke about significant “vendor performance problems” with the Washington tolling system. That caused the legislature to demand an audit. It is a big red flag for him.
“It did not discuss the many issues and delays and vendor performance problems that have occurred . . . on every occasion of setting up the tolling facilities in the state of Washington,” Fey said. “The delays and implementing this in Washington have been very problematic. There have been contract issues where the state ran out of remedies with the vendor.”
Rep. Jake Fey shares many concerns he has about tolling, as currently administered by Washington. Since Oregon has no current experience with tolling, he had hoped for more discussion and input about tolling administration before a final decision was made. Video courtesy TVW
Vancouver Rep. Sharon Wylie (Democrat, 49th District) agreed with and thanked Fey. “You articulated my concerns and exceeded the thoroughness,” she said.
Oregon Sen. Lynn Findley (Republican, Vale), said there had been no discussion by the Oregon Joint Transportation Committee to accept this responsibility. “ODOT doesn’t have the capacity to do it”, he said. He would vote against it, if given the opportunity to do so. He felt ODOT has their hands full with all the other obligations from 2017.
At least half the 16 committee members dove in and asked questions and expressed varying levels of concerns. One historic photo showed tolling gantries in north Portland that were seven lanes wide in each direction of I-5, just before the Interstate Bridge.
Frank Green, IBR assistant program administrator, briefed the legislators on the process between now and agreement on a modified Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) by July. Sen. Wilson asked if they would be given the opportunity to vote on the LPA. “What does an endorsement look like?” she asked. “Is it an up or down vote?”
Johnson responded indicating they would not be given a formal vote. Instead, the IBR team would be asking for a “sense of the will of this committee” and ask them to give approval for the team to move forward to the next phase. This is reminiscent of the Value Pricing PAC meetings where the staff rather than PAC members made the choices.
Transit gets intense discussion
John Willis, IBR deputy program manager, brought the legislators up to speed on the transit portion of the project. He called them “investment options” and mentioned the “the trade offs and performance of those investments” as he discussed their “draft findings.”
Key takeaways, according to Willis, was support for high capacity transit with “specific interest in light rail.” He said there was a desire for greater connectivity from Clark County into Portland and the regional transportation system. That is contrasted by the significant decline in ridership at both C-TRAN and TriMet.
The community surveys had 9,600 responses, including 1,700 open ended comments. Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis asked for more specifics on who responded to the transit survey. Willis told the legislators to look at information distributed last January.
Two new options have been added for consideration. Both bring the MAX light rail over the bridge and run along the west side of I-5 in a dedicated corridor. Willis indicated there were more light rail options than BRT options because C-TRAN had already invested significantly in new BRT.
Willis said they would be connecting with C-TRAN’s BRT system, which would imply a connection with the downtown Turtle Place hub. Yet most of the options run along I-5 real estate avoiding Turtle Place and the transit hub. One light rail option had a stop at Evergreen Blvd., near the Vancouver library. Two others continued north to either McLoughlin Blvd. near Clark College or Kiggins Bowl. There were BRT options to McLoughlin Blvd. and Kiggins Bowl as well.
The team looked at ridership demand out to 2045, for all of the options. It created 16 evaluation measures. “We’re trying to evaluate these (options) as holistically as possible,” Willis said.
Sen. Lynda WIlson triggered a great deal of discussion about transit ridership projections, and the inflexibility of light rail, once you lay down the tracks. She and other committee members wanted more data. She asked: “what is substantial demand” for light rail and high capacity transit? Video courtesy TVW
At one point, Willis said “if you build it, you do create demand.” Wilson pointed out that the IBR team had previously shared that there were only 3,200 transit riders using the bridge compared to 165,000 persons in general purpose vehicles.
“What does substantial demand look like?” she asked. “What does that mean?” Wilson wanted to see the information (data) that backs up the statements. She pointed out the 50 percent decline in transit ridership due to the pandemic. “It’s being underutilized,” she said.
Wilson asked if people were merely expressing “interest,” or if they were dedicating themselves to riding the new transit if it was built. She also wanted details on how they could project ridership out to 2045.
Willis indicated some feedback came from the community surveys and their advisory groups. But much of the projections on transit ridership came from the Metro and RTC modeling programs, “where we think the growth will occur.” “None of those (eleven) options fully meet the demand we predict for 2045,” Willis said.
Johnson followed up noting there were only two ways to cross the Columbia River. No solution would completely address all the needs and problems, but they are focusing on providing multimodal solutions to give people more effective options. He wants to spread the load on the corridor.
“We recognize that this corridor cannot only be serviced by single occupancy vehicles traveling through the corridor,” Johnson said. “We know that we have to create options for people and give them choices to ride an efficient transit service; to bike or walk in a safe and effective way.”
Fey followed up by saying “this is a hard time to predict the future.” He noted that people’s travel habits have changed, especially regarding work. “Will we be continually evaluating whether this has permanently changed people’s habits or needs related to travel for work,” he asked.
WIllis said there would be opportunities to “tweak” the high capacity transit system going forward to accommodate changes.
“Once you lay down the tracks, that’s permanent,” Wilson said. She expressed concerns about people being forced to live along the light rail corridor to access that form of transit. Whereas the BRT and even the express bus service is very flexible, she noted.
Rep. Brandon Vick (Republican 18th District) asked if people were told the costs before they made their choices on the community surveys. The response was the information was “generally available,” but Willis didn’t know the specifics of the surveys.
Economist Joe Cortright criticized the IBR team for failing to conduct a current traffic projection study, as promised by the Oregon governor. He wanted a serious financial plan and an investment grade analysis of tolling. Video courtesy TVW
Sen. Ann Rivers (Republican, 18th District) said the language being used was somewhat confusing. She noted language saying “The Vine BRT, LRT and express bus service will be needed.” “That’s our status quo right now,” she noted. “Could we just continue as we have it now?”
“When it comes to transit, there is maybe an inordinate optimism that exists,” Rivers said. “I hope that as we move on, we can get something that looks a little bit closer to reality.”
The discussion closed out with Sen. Annette Cleveland reminding the group that there is a limited amount of time to seek federal money. She doesn’t want to lose the opportunity.
During citizen comments, Ron Orblad made another pitch for a submerged tube tunnel. He indicated the IBR response in rejecting that option was flawed and should be retracted.
Economist Joe Cortright criticized the IBR team for not delivering on Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s promise to conduct traffic projection studies before making recommendations. “You’re using 15-year-old data,” he told the legislators.
Cortright also criticized the lack of a real financial plan. He noted what they have was based on the failed Columbia River Crossing project, and with a $5 billion price tag, it has a multi billion hole in the budget.
Cortright called for an investment grade analysis on tolling. He noted the previous effort caused the toll price to be doubled, which in turn caused a significant drop in demand to use the bridge.
Johnson responded to that by saying an investment grade tolling analysis for Wall Street would come much later in the program. For now, he believes everything is on schedule for a 2025 ground breaking.
Light Rail is a boondoggle… why do they keep pushing for a system that doesn’t work for the northwest. It doesn’t go to areas that people work and commute to, it is full of crime and grime, and wastes a lane of traffic that could accomodate the trafffic reality of the Northwest… that everyone drives!
Is the “solution” more equity?
everyone knows the solution is to build a third bridge! and do it before we need a fourth bridge!
Thank you, John. Sadly I think the Bi-State Legislative group as well as the Executive Steering Committee are not asking the right questions because they are being led to conclusions and not having the options addressed. For example, we continue to have the issue of “equity” trumpeted. At the last Bi-State meeting the basis for several updates was the “fact” Clark County has grown by almost 78,000 people in the last ten years of which 76% were people of color. Look at the real numbers as presented by the U.S. Census Bureau for Clark County.
2020 Total Population 503,311
Percentage White Alone 86.1% (433,351)
2010 Total Population 425,363
Percentage White Alone 85.4% (363,260)
Increase in Total Population 77,948
Increase White Alone 70,091
Percent of Total Population increase that was White Alone 89.9%
This is certainly different from the “facts” presented and used as the basis of decisions by the Bi-State Legislative committee, among others. This discrepancy has been brought to the attention of the IBR staff more than once. Does it now have a life of its own because it leads in the direction staff desires?
Recently we have been informed that the staff has identified lots of money that may be available at the federal level for this project. A year ago when the infrastructure programs were initially being debated, I wrote both governors and the federal representatives in this area (four senators and two representatives). The few responses I received (neither governor) informed me that these projects were local and that they had no influence on any current or potential projects. Apparently something has changed. I do not care who gets credit as long as this area is able to make improvements. But this does raise a question (or should). We have been told that if there were more than three through lanes in each direction travel times could be reduced, but that the budget does not allow for this. Since there is a great possibility that more fund will be available, shouldn’t the designs allow for this potential? If a delay of six months for final design approval would allow for a better bridge or two that reduces travel time, wouldn’t that be a good decision?
John, thank you for your informing us of the issues surrounding crossing the Columbia and for asking the questions. But, John, it appears that Greg Johnson could answer these questions in his sleep. He was hired for many reasons, but the major one was his experience. This is not his first bridge. Shouldn’t these questions be asked of the members of the Bi-State committee? Aren’t they the only ones who can truly make a difference? The rest of us have input only as far as the staff allows. Case in point – all the groups were asked for their input on a myriad of transit options (I think there wee eleven) and the desire seemed to be to decide on a first choice. Yet when the issue of Hayden Island access to I-5 was broached, staff put that together with Marine Drive access and reduced the options to two and again asked for the favorite of the groups. Does that make sense? The Marine Drive/Hayden Island access is being presented separate from the access at MLK and Delta Park even though they all feed into the solution. Perhaps the Bi-State committee could go to the top of the Pink Building on a weekday afternoon and look north and east. Would Marine Drive and Hayden Island being joined make a difference in the travel times for the metro areas?
Just thinking, John.
Thank you for the thoughtful response & especially for the research on the population growth details.
RE: “ they are being led to conclusions and not having the options addressed”
You are spot on here — the staff and Greg Johnson “lay down a path” that focuses the discussion on what is put in front of the ESG or the CAG or the Bi-state Bridge Committee.
Senator Lynda Wilson did a good job trying to focus the discussion on important issues. She should have had more “help” from fellow legislators.
“What is SUBSTANTIAL demand” she asked, relating to transit demand. The IBR team & Johnson did not provide an answer.
I have asked the IBR team for the specific numbers, and they refuse to provide them. They point the finger to WSDOT and ODOT; and to Metro and the RTC.
They appear to be able to make many, many unfounded statements of “fact” that simply are not true or accurate.
We all know “demand” for transit service fell off a cliff, due to the pandemic lockdowns. But as I have highlighted in many other articles, C-Tran ridership peaked in 1999 and is down over 1.7 million annual passenger boardings. And that was BEFORE the pandemic decline.
TriMet ridership peaked roughly a decade later, in the 2009-2012 time frame. That is both on buses and on light rail.
Portland area population has grown by roughly 250,000 in the past decade, yet actual transit ridership has declined. There is no “demand” for transit by the people TriMet and C-Tran are supposed to “serve”.
It appears you have exposed one more “untruth” made by the IBR team regarding people of color moving to Clark County. Thank you for digging into the details, via the US Census Bureau.
They have misled the people about the seismic risk — painting a picture of “eminent collapse” of the bridge when “the big one” hits. Yet as we have exposed, the real experts at the M9 Project inform us that the odds of a “mega quake” on the order of an 8.0 to 9.0 in magnitude, is only 10-14 percent in the next 50 years. A smaller quake off the coast of southern Oregon or northern California is only 37% in the next 50 years. And that would not impact the Interstate Bridge or the Portland metro area.
The one thing Greg Johnson and his team have been truthful about, is that THIS project will NOT save people driving in cars any TIME.
That SHOULD be causing all the politicians to throw out the STOP red flag. They should be saying, “I will NOT spend $3 billion to $5 billion of the people’s money, when you are not solving the #1 problem they want fixed!”
Sadly, the light rail special interests are driving this project. The failed CRC was “a light rail project in search of a bridge”. This IBR project is nothing but a resurrection of that failed project.
The failed CRC was “a bridge too low”. Last week, it was revealed the Johnson team is proposing another “bridge too low” at 116 feet of clearance for marine traffic on the Columbia River.
Keep the information and perspective coming. THANK YOU for serving on the Community Advisory Group, and trying to ask good questions and demanding answers. Sadly, “they” rarely provide anything but political spin rather than the “data” they promised.
Thank you, John. Is this the time to bring up a seismic retrofit and a third bridge for the same price to the Bi-State group?
Your instinct is correct — let’s actually “fix” the problem by adding NEW vehicle capacity. The existing bridge could be given a “seismic retrofit” for a small fraction of the $5 billion price tag they will potentially spend.
But Greg Johnson will respond that the MOU signed by the two governors, requires a “replacement” of the current bridge, in spite of the fact that it does NOT need to be replaced.
Johnson will tell you they can only focus on the 5 mile “bridge influence area”, which defined the previous project. A real leader would change the discussion, and talk about his team “could” design and build a new, 3rd bridge in the 5 mile bridge influence area, that would actually add vehicle capacity and help solve the traffic congestion problem.
Yet Johnson dances to the tune of WSDOT and ODOT. They are writing the checks to the IBR and Johnson.
WSDOT and ODOT are happy to deflect discussion, pointing to their legislatures, and to Metro and RTC, and Portland and Vancouver.
In the end, “nobody” will be responsible for this huge waste of taxpayer money.
The article highlighted “how” they are pushing this through. Johnson’s team will NOT give the elected legislators an up or down vote. He doesn’t want to show any opposition. He wants “a sense of the will of the body to go forward”. Pure politics, as in the July “non-vote” will be framed as “You don’t want to kill this $5 billion project that will create tons of jobs and bring economic wealth to our region”.
And the politicians will mainly be happy to rubber stamp the “choice” of the Johnson bureaucrats and avoid a tough “up or down” vote.
Lynda Wilson laid it down at the Bi-state Bridge Committee meeting. Now we will see if she follows up and can get any fellow legislators on the committee to support her call for an up or down vote on the “choices”, and an “up or down vote” on the final solution.