Facing the Facts on the CRC

On March 16, 2012, I testified before the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Columbia River Crossing about three changes that could be made in the proposed CRC that would greatly reduce adverse effects on the community and the environment, while saving a billion dollars or more. My testimony is below:

Testimony of Bob Stacey
Before the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Columbia River Crossing
March 16, 2012

Co-Chairs Beyer, Bentz and Read, and Members of the Committee:

I join other witnesses before you today in urging the Committee to stop ODOT spending on the CRC pending the development and approval of an affordable and effective design to replace the oversized, $3.5 billion current proposal. 

I am not here to advocate for a specific alternative design. I am here to point out ways to simplify the project and reduce its cost, while ensuring that the fundamental purposes of the Columbia River crossing project are realized as soon as possible.

The project’s fundamental purposes are: (1) moving freight more reliably and efficiently over the Columbia and along I-5; (2) increasing the overall people-moving capacity of the corridor, by improving transportation choices; and (3) improving safety in the project area.

That’s a short list. And those outcomes are achievable. By fixing the traffic snarls caused by interchanges spaced too closely together, by charging higher peak-hour tolls to reduce congestion from single-occupant cars, and by adding transit and safe walking and bicycling paths, we can move more freight and more people more safely over the river. And we can do that affordably and quickly.

Unfortunately, we can’t do it affordably or quickly with the current design, because the project sponsors have a much longer to-do list than more freight, more passengers and more safety. These additional items don’t help meet the goals I’ve listed—in fact, they tend to get in the way—but they do add over a billion dollars in construction cost, and huge environmental and community costs, as well. 

There are at least three unnecessary and costly project elements that are delaying and endangering the CRC’s success:

1. Keeping a freeway interchange on Hayden Island

The worst traffic problem with the current I-5 crossing is that there are three freeway interchanges in the space of a mile: Downtown Vancouver, Hayden Island, and Marine Drive. Much of the massive cost of the CRC is caused by keeping the Hayden Island interchange, and trying to avoid the traffic snarls with a $575 million tangle of ramps and weave lanes. Local traffic to and from Hayden Island doesn’t need a huge interchange. It needs a local bridge. In fact, the CRC project includes a local traffic and transit bridge connecting Hayden Island to Marine Drive, which will make it unnecessary for residents to use I-5 to reach the rest of Portland. Removing the Hayden Island interchange and providing local access to the island saves hundreds of millions in project cost, and gives residents a big chunk of their island back.

2. Tearing down and replacing the existing bridges

If you’re trying to get six lanes of through-traffic across the Columbia River, plus local traffic to and from Hayden Island, plus transit, pedestrians, and bicycles, why would you start by tearing down two existing bridges that have six lanes and two sidewalks? According to ODOT, these bridges have at least 50 years’ useful life remaining in them. They can be seismically strengthened. Unlike their proposed replacements, they are not an impediment to tall ships. And tearing them down while maintaining navigation and protecting salmon will cost $100 million or more. We should be supplementing these bridges with an additional bridge, not throwing away an investment that’s still working for us, or spending hundreds of millions unnecessarily replacing their capacity.

3.  Increased capacity for peak-hour car traffic

I-5 south of the bridge is six lanes wide. But the CRC staff, predicting a massive growth in traffic, has insisted on building a 10-lane bridge, with room for at least 12 lanes through re-striping in the future. Disregard for a moment the fact that in nine of the last 10 years traffic in Oregon has gone down rather than up, and many experts now say that traffic is much less likely to grow in the future than we once thought. If more cars use a new 10-lane I-5 crossing, where will they go south of the bridge? During rush hour, the freeway network in our region is already over capacity. Pushing more cars over the Columbia every morning will mean NE and North Portland streets flooded with cut-through traffic and worse congestion throughout the freeway network, blocking and delaying freight movement on that network. Peak-hour congestion pricing on the bridge will help move trucks. But hundreds of millions of dollars for extra bridge lanes won’t.  

Conclusion

The late Senator Everett Dirksen is best remembered for one of his quips about government spending: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” It’s safe to say that the cost of building the proposed CRC is real money. 

I’ve tried to show that we can achieve the purposes of the CRC for far less money than the two DOTs propose to spend. That’s important, because I don’t think it will be easy to find $3.5 billion; and I know if we find it, it will come at the expense of other needed projects, higher taxes, or both. So I urge you to send the DOTs this message: Keep the existing bridges. Build a smaller new bridge to supplement them. Cut out a massive, unnecessary interchange. Get this project moving again. And save a billion here, a billion there.