WSDOT, ODOT, and their lead contractor David Evans & Associates (DEA) have waged a deliberate misinformation campaign since 2007 to frame the Columbia River Crossing Mega-Highway Project as imperative. It’s not.
Let’s look at each of the major points. By the end of this series, I hope you’ll agree that the CRC Mega-Highway is a giant mess, a waste of taxpayer dollars that could be better spent on almost any other project. Part 1 is here.
1. The CRC Mega-Highway is a 5-mile long freeway expansion project with 7 substantial interchange modifications.
The CRC Mega-Highway expands the existing I-5 freeway from its current 6 lanes to a total of 22 lanes at its widest. The expansion starts in Vancouver, Washington, 2.5 miles north of the Columbia River and extends more than a mile south of Hayden Island and the river into Portland. There are also seven substantial interchange modifications — representing 41 percent of the project costs — in order to make it easier for single-occupancy cars to get from suburban and rural homes onto and off the freeway. And yes, the current I-5 bridges that cross the Columbia River (and once carried streetcars) get demolished and replaced by a lower, bulkier mega-highway.
WSDOT, ODOT, and DEA would have you believe that it’s only a bridge replacement project. They went so far as to rename the project the “I-5 Bridge Replacement Project” in legislation recently passed by the Oregon legislature. As you saw in the contractor-created GIF yesterday: that’s misleading. More after the jump.
2. The CRC Mega-Highway will be expensive.
Since David Evans & Associates (DEA) was awarded the lead contract to plan and advocate for the CRC Mega-Highway, DEA has pushed their initial contract from $20 million to now $105 million.
Meanwhile, DEA estimates that the total cost of the CRC Mega-Highway will be $3.1 to $3.6 billion, with a stated 60-90 percent confidence that those numbers are accurate. $3.6 billion is a lot, enough to fund the SR520, SR167, and SR509 shortfalls in the Puget Sound and fix Metro’s deficit for about four years. Nevertheless, given that DEA is trying to sell this project to the Oregon and Washington legislatures as well as the federal government, and given their history of inflating their own initial contract, it’d be wise to minimize our confidence that the CRC project costs would be anywhere near $3.6 billion.
On the revenue side, tolling is supposed to cover 30-40% of the project costs. But no investment grade analysis of the CRC tolling projections has been completed yet, making these just pie-in-the-sky numbers. If the CRC’s traffic projections never materialize, the projected toll revenues will never materialize. This is happening right now to a private tollway project in California, and a similar problem faces the highway 99 tunnel.
Unrealistic projections are a feature of most megaprojects, and some are worthwhile even when they overrun. But when the I-5 bridges are structurally sound and meet future traffic needs, why spend more than $3 billion on a project that would take money from projects we want?
3. The CRC Mega-Highway diverts money from the projects we want.
These isn’t just a rhetorical question. Just a couple weeks ago, the Oregon legislature actually took money from transit, bike, and pedestrian projects in order to fund their state’s share of bond repayments, and they only have a plan to pay for the first three years of repayment obligations.
The Oregon legislature passed HB2800, moving revenue from their Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) to pay for the first three years of repayment obligations. Much of the STIP is dedicated to pedestrian, bicycle, and transit infrastructure. In addition, as part of a negotiated vote, a liberal urban legislator raided the state’s Federal Flux Funds account, also for pedestrians, bicycles, and transit.The Oregon legislature hasn’t determined how it could fund its repayment obligations past 2016. ODOT has said that unless the legislature approves new revenue, it will continue to take money from the STIP. This sets up a dynamic in three years where only pedestrian, bicycle, and transit advocates are calling for a statewide transportation revenue package and automobile and freight interests are fighting it.
Washington legislators and business & labor interests are now talking about doing something similar through the state transportation budget.
Here in the Puget Sound, that money could solve some or all of the immediate transportation shortfalls we have, and get a start on addressing the next wave. I’m sure that Clark County and other parts of the state have similar lists. Not all of the ideas are ones transit advocates should support, but there is more than enough maintenance and upkeep on this list statewide to keep WSDOT busy for a long time.
4. The I-5 bridges are already built to last.
The I-5 bridges across the Columbia River still have another 50 years of life in them, according to ODOT’s documents. Many other critical bridges would fall in an earthquake or other natural disaster long before the I-5 bridges.
WSDOT rates the I-5 bridges as in “fair” condition, which means that the bridge performs fairly in terms of both structural soundness and mobility. In contrast, thousands of other bridges across Washington State are rated as either “poor” or “functionally obsolete.”
On another rating scale that only considers structural soundness, WSDOT lists 366 bridges as “structurally deficient.” These are bridges with significant problems that put them at dire risk in the next earthquake, landslide, or other natural disaster. While many of these structurally deficient bridges are major freeways in the Central Puget Sound, the I-5 bridge isn’t on that list.
So before we demolish two good bridges, let’s fix the 366 bridges that will fall down first.
But WSDOT, ODOT, and DEA sound a misleading refrain: the I-5 bridges are old. The age of a bridge may be interesting trivia, but the current age of a bridge has little to nothing to do with how much longer the bridge will stand.
According to the CRC project’s own study, we could retrofit the I-5 bridges to stand the test of time – a whopping 2,500 years – at cost of a mere $193 million.
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is 21 years older than the I-5 bridges and is in a more earthquake-prone region. And yet no one is advocating for the demolition and replacement of the Golden Gate Bridge with a 22-lane mega-highway. So why would we?
5. There is, and will be, less traffic/congestion across the I-5 bridges.
Since 2000, traffic across the I-5 bridges has stalled out – with annual traffic increases of only 0.5 to 1.0 percent. And this isn’t just because the economy has been lackluster. This is now a well-documented regional and national trend of declining traffic that has to do with people’s choices to drive less, live closer to work and valued destinations, shop via the internet, and spend more money on computers and cell phones than car payments, licensing, and gas bills.
So, when the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) shows that the number of trips across the bridges will increase by 33.21% from 2005 to 2035, it’s wrong. As Sightline Institute and others have repeatedly called for, WSDOT and ODOT need to revisit their traffic projections and reassess whether mega-highway expansions like the CRC are actually needed to meet demand. (They aren’t.)
6. The CRC Mega-Highway will increase global warming pollution.
Empirical studies demonstrate that building more capacity results in more traffic. It’s a phenomenon often known as “induced demand,” or perhaps more popularly as “build it and they will come.”
The CRC’s EIS found that with the increased traffic, the bridge will increase global warming pollution by 32% over a 2005 baseline. And that’s even accounting for national fuel efficiency improvements, tolling the bridge, and new light rail, bicycle, and pedestrian options.
So when Governor Inslee, WSDOT, or anyone else claims that the CRC Mega-Highway will reduce global warming, their own study says it’s not true.
7. The CRC Mega-Highway will cause sprawl.
Like the I-90 and SR-520 bridges across Lake Washington, the I-5 bridges across the Columbia River run parallel to the I-205 Glenn Jackson Bridge to their east. And just as tolling 520 has caused people to divert trips from SR-520 to I-90, tolling only the I-5 bridges will cause some people to drive across the I-205 bridge instead.
This traffic diversion will have a long-term impact on how development occurs in Vancouver and Clark County.
Interstate 5 runs nearly straight from Downtown Vancouver toward downtown Portland. Interstate 205 was built as a freight bypass around Vancouver and Portland in 1982. This new interstate, combined with low urban and high rural densities have facilitated an enormous amount of sprawl in east Clark County.
When the CRC’s EIS looked at the potential of the project to result in sprawl, the study simply stated:
“Vancouver and Clark County follow Washington’s Growth Management Act regulations, and any Urban Growth Area expansions are subject to state oversight.”
I don’t think there could be a more disingenuous statement regarding growth management in Clark County. First off, no state agency approves urban growth area (UGA) expansions. Secondly, it’s not UGAs that control sprawl, it’s the allowed densities inside and outside of the UGA that matter.
Over the last two decades, despite the fact that Clark County’s UGA has more than adequate capacity to meet its growth projections, more development has occurred outside the Clark County urban growth area (UGA) than within it. And that’s not changing. Clark County’s comprehensive plan continues to project that more growth will happen in the rural area than within its UGA.
What’s going to happen when people who live in Downtown Vancouver are tolled for going to Portland while people who live in East Clark County aren’t?
I think it’s pretty clear. More people will be building and buying houses in East Clark County than Downtown Vancouver. More rural, agricultural, and forest land will be chewed up by cheap subdivisions.
8. There are easy ways to improve traffic here.
There are two low cost fixes that would substantially improve traffic: fixing a different bridge, and variable tolling.
In order to allow tall ships (or ships with tall equipment) to pass underneath, the I-5 bridges have vertical lift spans that provide 176-feet of clearance. About 600 times each year these lifts are raised, and a few of those times this is done during or near peak traffic hours.
Ninety percent of these lifts could be eliminated simply by creating a different path for boats to pass.
Downriver is a BNSF rail bridge with a swing-span that aligns with the I-5 lift-span. But most boats can pass under the I-5 bridge at a different high point toward the middle of the river. Unfortunately, these boats traveling downstream can have difficulty making an “S-curve” turn in-between the I-5 bridge and the rail bridge in fast moving water.
For approximately $100 million, a lift-span could be added to the rail bridge to allow boats to move in the middle of the river in a straight line, eliminating all but 50 lifts each year.
The second solution is to apply a variable toll to both the I-5 and I-205 bridges.
Besides some traffic diversion to I-90, the variable toll on SR-520 has caused people to choose different times of day to drive across Lake Washington. As a result, total traffic volumes are higher than expected but revenue is lower than anticipated because so many people are choosing lower-cost hours.
SR-520 shows that variable tolling works – we can efficiently manage congestion by making people think about travel as not just as time in a car, but money in the bank.
Variable tolls on both the I-5 and I-205 bridges could smooth peak congestion and keep people and goods moving.
I hope it’s pretty clear: the CRC is a risky waste that crowds out more important things. Based on Part 1 and the lessons from Oregon, the CRC going to be awfully hard to stop. In Part 3, I’ll try to paint a path forward.