Opinion: What are they hiding? Why highway builders won’t show their $7.5 billion freeway?

Joe Cortright believes the proposed I-5 Bridge will blot out much of the reviving waterfront and downtown in Vancouver.
File photo

Joe Cortright believes the proposed I-5 Bridge will blot out much of the reviving waterfront and downtown in Vancouver

Joe Cortright
City Observatory

Oregon and Washington are being asked to spend $7.5 billion on a giant bridge:  Why won’t anyone show pictures of what it would look like?

The Oregon and Washington highway departments are using an old Robert Moses trick to make their oversized bridge appear smaller than it really is.

The bridge will blot out much of the reviving waterfront and downtown in Vancouver, and put Hayden Island in the shadow of a half-mile long viaduct.

The IBR has distributed misleading and inaccurate images of the proposed bridge, attempting to make it look smaller.

The agency is spending $1.5 million to create a “digital twin” computer model of the IBR, but is keeping it secret to avoid public scrutiny of its design.

Computer visualizations, complete with human-scale animations, are cheap and common for construction projects, such as Vancouver’s proposed waterfront public market – but ODOT and WSDOT have steadfastly refused to provide such visualizations for the IBR.

The proposed Interstate Bridge Replacement Project would be the largest and most expensive public works project in the Portland metro area’s history.  You’d think that if you were spending $7.5 billion, you’d be proud to show the public and elected officials what it will look like.  But in the case of the IBR, you’d be wrong.  What do the Oregon and Washington highway department’s have to hide?

While the IBR project has only released distant aerial photos that make the project look tiny, we obtained a copy of a preliminary version of their 3D computer model, and used it to show how the view from Hayden Island changes with the construction of the new bridge. 

The striking difference in the height and scale of the two bridge images shown above contrasts sharply with the official image created by IBR from the same digital model.  They use the well-worn trick of showing the bridge, not from anywhere on the ground, or where humans are likely to see it, but from a point suspended in the sky, high above the project.

The very, very short and small Interstate Bridge Replacement.

You’d have to be several thousand feet in the air to get this view of the IBR.  This false perspective makes the bridge look tiny.  It’s simply impossible to compare the height of the bridge, for example, to the height of buildings in downtown Vancouver, or get a sense of how much taller the freeway viaducts across Hayden Island are than any of the other structures on the island.

Blotting out the Vancouver waterfront

The proposed bridge will have a river clearance of at least 116 feet — the Coast Guard is asking for 178 feet — and the structure itself is a double-decker that will be between 35 and 40 feet tall, making the overall structure roughly 150 feet tall over much of the river.  Because of that elevation, the bridge requires half-mile long viaduct approach ramps to get traffic from ground level north and south of the river, up to the high level of the crossing (the lengthy viaducts and elevated intersections are more costly than the bridge itself).  This giant structure will tower over the Vancouver waterfront, which in the past decade has been the site of a remarkable urban redevelopment, with offices, shops, housing, and hotels.

Yet ODOT and WSDOT, who’s massive project will completely remake this part of the city has yet to provide a single illustration showing how the city would be affected.  Again, using the IBR’s crude digital model, we were able to produce this image showing how the view along Vancouver’s riverfront will change if the IBR is built.

Just as a point of reference for local residents, the proposed IBR river crossing will be the size of three of Portland’s I-5 Marquam Bridges side-by-side.  The massive new IBR bridge will tower over the waterfront, with associated noise and pollution.  In addition, the viaducts leading to the bridge will be as high, and in some cases higher than adjacent downtown and waterfront buildings.  Seattle just spent more than a decade and $3 billion to remove the Alaskan Way viaduct that blighted the city’s waterfront for more than half a century.  Vancouver appears to be signing up to create the same kind of roadway scarred landscape that Seattle is trying to fix.

Using manipulated drawings to make the new bridge look smaller

The IBR project has purposely avoided providing an elevation, or profile view of the proposed bridge, in order to keep its height and bulk a secret. But a year ago, it did produce a profile drawing, but one that was purposely inaccurate.   In March, 2022, when IBR as part of a navigation report with the US Coast Guard’s bridge permitting process, it produced an intentionally misleading drawing comparing the existing bridge and the new IBR.  

A $1.5 million “digital twin”

This agency has no need of crude, not-to-scale drawings.  It has detailed plans, and what’s more, buying a state-of-the-digital model of the bridge. IBR is spending $1.5 million to build a so-called “digital twin“ — a deeply detailed computer model of every aspect of the proposed bridge, that will be used for design, construction, monitoring and maintenance.  What, you might reasonably ask, is a digital twin?  It’s not a mere computer model, it’s really much more complicated (and expensive) than that.  IBR explains:

A digital twin, as envisioned in this project, is a portal (a 3D model of the bridge and other associated visual dashboards), through which authoritative data and information about the bridge and related road network can be accessed efficiently and quickly by authorized users along its entire lifecycle — from early project planning to real time operations. It is expected to not only serve as a digital record of the physical structure but also as a process twin whereby future “what if” scenarios related to design decisions, constructability, construction or maintenance activities, emergency operations, etc. can be simulated to a very high degree of precision.

The contractor IBR hired to build the “digital twin,” WSP, touts its modeling as being an example of the “metaverse,” essentially a digital alternate reality:

Also today, we can use IoT and artificial intelligence [AI] to add data to visualizations and make decisions across departments; we can put ourselves inside of the virtual model of a city, for example, and interact with it — a process now called the metaverse; we can better relate the design to the context of the world around us We can test and validate elements of infrastructure — bridges, roadways, transit, and buildings — before construction;. we can create dynamic models that simulate and predict how these assets will perform in real-life contexts. Three-dimension reality models provide the basis for visualizing, collaboratively managing, and monitoring changes to infrastructure during the project and when the asset is in operation. (Emphasis added)

WSP has been working on the digital twin of the IBR for nearly three years, since at least June, 2020, according to company documents.  WSP’s software vendor, Bentley, also flogs the IBR digital twin work in its promotional material, saying modeling tasks that formerly took months and months to do, can now be done instantly. In theory, the “digital twin” ought to be a way for the public to see exactly what the project will look like, from any angle,  It is fully possible with such a model to create realistic, on-the-ground images and “walkthroughs” of the project that convey exactly what it will look like.  But that’s just a theory, because IBR has explicitly chosen not to create or share such images or visualizations with the public.

The digital twin is a secret

But IBR is doing its best to keep the “digital twin” and the images it would show of the IBR project a secret.  At a March 16, 2023 meeting of a construction industry group in Seattle, IBR’s consultant, WSP, admitted that they were being told to keep the project under wraps so as not to provoke public outcry about the design:

Last night at Construction Management Association of America NW Chapter meeting Kevin Gilson, Director of Design Visualization at WSP USA, presented 3D/4D modeling. When he was asked about a 3D model for the Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR), he said “Yes, but it isn’t public yet. There is a model on the website. It’s being produced by the communications team. There is a very detail 3D model. I was going to try and show it, but I am not working on that project. It’s very, very, it’s kept under wraps quite a bit, and I think it’s because of their experience with the first round, trying to tread carefully.” – Personal communication from Bob Ortblad, who attended this meeting, March 17, 2023

City Observatory has filed a public records request to obtain a copy of the model.  IBR officials have declined to provide that model until no earlier than the end of April, 2023.

Concealing images of the proposed giant bridges is a calculated PR strategy

The Interstate Bridge Project has contracted for nearly $10 million in public relations and communications consultants, and they’ve kept a tight lid on project images. A little over a year ago, the IBR project showed its first sketchy images of what the IBR project might look like.  At the time, one of their public relations consultants, Millicent Williams, described the project’s desire to control the dissemination and interpretation of the images:

“Thank you, Commissioner Berkman.  I will share that the communications team has discussed,  first of all the fact that once images like this get shared, there will be the opportunity for people to develop a narrative and we’re working to manage that — making direct contact with media outlets to ensure that they have the accurate information and are clear about what these images represent.  Additionally we have asked that disclaimers drafts watermarks all the things that could make sure that folks know that this is not final.  This is concept.

“We recognize that there is the possibility that someone might have taken a screenshot of what we just shared and so hopefully, um, we can manage that messaging as well,  and i’m sure that the team is prepared to do that but um that those are things that we’ve thought long and hard about because we want to make sure that we are not stymieing the process or the progress based on our failures to fully disclose where we are in the process and what these images represent.” – IBR Executive Steering Group, January 20, 2022 (at 39:54 mark in video)

Much smaller projects have sophisticated visualizations

Computer graphic simulations of new buildings and construction projects are commonplace — often as a sales and promotion tool.  Developers want to let potential investors and local governments know what a project will look like before it gets built.  That’s exactly what’s happening on the Vancouver waterfront — just not for the IBR project.  The Port of Vancouver is building a new public market building — its take on Seattle’s Pike Place Market — at Terminal One (site of the now demolished Red Lion Hotel).  The port’s architects prepared a detailed model of the public market building and the surrounding area, complete with a video “fly through” showing what the area will look like when the project is complete in a couple of years.  You can even see the current I-5 bridge in their computer video.

The total cost of the public market is on the order of $10 million — roughly the same as what the IBR project has spent on public relations in the past few years.  Yet even though the IBR will cost about 750 times as much, and has such a copious budget for communication, it has not produced a comparable computer rendering, much less a human-level fly-through of the project.

Ironically, the public market modeling doesn’t include the new Interstate Bridge, which will slice through and tower over the Vancouver waterfront.  It will likely go right over the top of a particularly bucolic native garden:

City officials asked for a ground-level eye-view of the project, but were told it would be too expensive, and no renderings were produced. CRC official Carley Francis (now Southwest Washington WSDOT regional administrator), told Robinson that there was no guarantee they’d produce a street-level simulation of project before construction began in 2012, chiefly because the project — which at the time had spent about $134 million on planning — had “limited resources” to produce such a rendering.

Jonathan Maus, writing at Bike Portland (in 2013), reported much the same when he tried to find realistic and detailed images of the multi-billion dollar bridge project, as Oregon and Washington were being asked to fund the project:

You’d think that with all the support for the Columbia River Crossing down in Salem, lawmakers and their constituents would have a good idea about what their votes — and their tax dollars — will be going toward. But for some reason, CRC and ODOT staff have hidden the project from public view. Despite spending nearly $170 million on consultants and planning thus far, detailed renderings and/or visualizations of key elements of the project are nowhere to be found.

This is not typical of other large infrastructure projects across the country and it begs the question of whether or not CRC and ODOT staff are purposefully pulling the wool over our eyes. 

Our own work at City Observatory shows that the two state DOTs have been going out of their way to conceal what they’re planning to build, and to avoid showing how it will affect downtown Vancouver. For example, it took a public records request to learn that after promising to reduce the width of the CRC highway bridge from 12 lanes to 10 lanes, all the two DOTs did was erase all the references to the actual physical width of the bridge from the project’s environmental impact documents, while leaving in place plans to build a 180 foot wide highway bridge – enough for 12, or even 14 travel lanes.

A more extensive version of this commentary was first published by the City Observatory.

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  1. John Ley

    Thank you, Joe Cortright, for revealing one more part of the IBR project that legislators and citizens are being mislead about.

    As he pointed out earlier, Greg Johnson’s team lied about the 50 percent (plus) increase in the IBRs cost being due to “inflation”. Cortright correctly noted perhaps $300 million of the $2.7 billion increase would be due to our temporary increase in inflation.

    The IBR also lied about transit ridership. They originally told legislators and citizens that by 2045, the I-5 corridor would have 26,000 to 33,000 average daily riders. In December that number was quietly lowered to 11,000 riders. We know that is overly optimistic, as transit ridership has been in decline for a decade or more, in spite of growing population and increased “investment” in transit.

    The US Coast Guard has done us a huge favor, demanding the IBR evaluate a “movable span”. There are many, many aspects of this project that needs a “do over”. But in order to do that, we need a change in who is running the project. The WSP-led “experts” on Greg Johnson’s team need to be fired for all the lies and misrepresentations. Otherwise, the waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer money will continue.

  2. Danny Grogg

    I’ve been following this whole scheme very, very closely, and even wound up doing a 3+ hour live breakdown on it last year on my YouTube channel, and how much lying and withholding of critical information about the reality of what the IBR truly entails is.

    One of the key things they’ve been trying to withhold from the public is the reality that they’re really building a 12-14 lane bridge, so 6-7 lanes each direction, including the additional auxiliary lane each direction. The public is consistently told and given renderings of it with just the new aux lanes added, making it 10 lanes total, with five in each direction. Making it into a PNW edition of the Katy Freeway seems to be what they’re determined to do, and I would not be remotely surprised if they received no resistance from us, they’d probably keep increasing the lanes they’d add to it.

    They also intentionally produced a fraudulent report claiming a immersed tunnel option was not feasible nor environmentally safe enough to consider. And speaking of Bob Orblat himself, he has a incredible library of legitimate information, research and data to prove that, and that it actually would be the most environmentally sound, safe and even logistically simple format to make the replacement in, too. And considering it completely negates the Coast Guard clearance requirement disputes, and thus not having such excessively long ramps up to the bridge, and thus a excessive length and height bridge to boot, the immersed tunnel is clearly the superior option in every single way. It even clears up the views so all can thoroughly enjoy them without any interference from structures towering above the water.


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