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Friday, February 16, 2007

Clark county commissioner Stuart on CRC

Today in Clark County, Democratic county commissioner Steve Stuart delivered the state of the county address. Here's what he had to say about the Columbia River Crossing project, the plan to build a new bridge on I-5 between Portland and Vancouver. From The Columbian, which posted a prepared text of his remarks:
Now it’s 2007 and we’re still tying to get people across the Columbia River. Currently, more than 65,000 county residents cross the river each morning to work in Oregon.

While I’d rather those people kept their time and tax money in Clark County, we still need to ease the congestion they deal with every day at the I-5 Bridge, which frustrates them and slows down delivery of goods throughout the region.

But when you’re looking at a multi-billion dollar project, it’s much easier to talk about a solution than it is to fund one. There are only so many transportation dollars to go around, and always more projects than dollars.

In Clark County, the focus has been on easing congestion in Salmon Creek, creating a new I-5 interchange for Battle Ground, widening SR-14 in Camas, and easing congestion on East Mill Plain and 18th Street in Vancouver, among many other necessary projects. These are road dollars spent IN Clark County, FOR Clark County residents.

This brings up an interesting question posed by an economist at a recent Columbia River Crossing town hall. He said, “If Bill Gates dropped by Southwest Washington … and said “you know, I want to help take care of your most pressing needs, so I’m writing you a check for $6 billion”, would you spend all of that $6 billion on the Columbia River Crossing?”

Before you “armchair quarterbacks”, “grassroots gurus”, and “sidewalk superintendents” take too much time thinking about that, I have two things to say to you.

Thank you, and keep it up. This is YOUR project, using YOUR tax money, to deal with YOUR commute and economy, and will only happen if YOU decide to vote for taxes and tolls to pay the bill. And let’s be clear – the Board of Clark County Commissioners believes that any bridge or high capacity transit that needs public funds from Clark County residents must go to a public vote.

But before you get your checkbook out, let’s have a reality check. I believe that we need to be honest with each other about this project, instead of painting an overly rosy picture just so we can get something built.

First and foremost, we cannot end rush-hour congestion on the I-5 corridor by building a new bridge over the Columbia River, no matter how much we spend on it. This is not opinion. It’s math.

Even with a new bridge, the Delta Park widening project, and eventual widening at both the I-5/I-405 split and Rose Garden, we’ll still only have three freeway lanes from here to downtown Portland. Each one of those lanes can handle about 2,000 vehicles per hour, so 3 lanes can handle a MAXIMUM of 6,000 vehicles per hour. As of 2005, there were already about 5,000 vehicles per hour traveling along the I-5 corridor during the peak travel hours. By 2030, that number will jump to at least 7,500 – more than I-5 can handle under the best circumstances. Put another way, Columbia River Crossing staff estimates that congestion during the commute southbound every morning will increase from 2 hours in 2005 to 4.75 hours in 2030. That’s WITH a new 12-lane replacement bridge, AND high capacity transit, AND likely a toll to pay the multi-billion dollar price tag.

Bottom line – Build a new 12-lane bridge. Build a new 30-lane bridge. Shortly after that bridge is built, congestion will return.

Let me be clear that I know doing nothing is NOT an alternative we should consider. If we do nothing, people and goods will be stuck in a rush “hour” that extends through most of the day. That’s not acceptable, for our commuters or the neighborhoods who will see greater health risks caused by the increased car exhaust from stalled traffic. Also, I recognize that there are safety and movement issues that would be helped by replacing the existing spans.

What I am saying is that because our carrying capacity is limited, we need to look at how to move traffic at different times, different directions, and using a variety of modes to clear that capacity for freight and commuters who have to drive.

That means an alternative that’s a complete departure from the business as usual approach of just building a big new I-5 bridge. But you know, sometimes bigger isn’t always better – it’s just bigger.

So let’s start looking at doing something different, with an eye toward a more positive result. An alternative to:

-Increase transit ridership with more efficient service that works for people’s busy schedules. And yes, that likely means pairing bus service with a new bridge structure for either bus rapid transit or light rail.

-Prioritize signals, ramp meters, and lanes for vehicles with more than one person.

-Fix the interchange system around the I-5 bridge to clear the congestion that happens when people try to weave on and off at Hayden Island, SR-14, and downtown Vancouver.

-Move the swing arm on the rail bridge to the center channel and make it a lift span. This $40 million fix would eliminate the need to use the I-5 Bridge lift for barge traffic.

-Work with employers to provide incentives for flexible schedules that allow workers to commute south during non-peak hours when there are no congestion issues.

-Aggressively bring jobs to Clark County so people can live and work closer together and avoid the hours of commuting that keep them away from family and community.

Only by changing how, when, and where we travel will there ever be hope for true congestion relief on the I-5 corridor. We have an opportunity right now to show true vision and leadership that addresses the root of our congestion instead of just putting a band-aid on it.

Please understand that I’m not giving you an answer to what the preferred alternative should be for the Columbia River Crossing project. I’m simply asking that we include an alternative in the study that shows vision, creativity, and lower costs to move more people.

If all we get from analyzing another alternative is a moderately priced solution that helps us better understand the corridor’s limitations and some ways to deal with them when we’re finally sick of banging our heads against the same wall, the money will have been well spent.

I’m asking all of you to think about that, and if you agree, to contact your elected officials and the Columbia River Crossing staff. Let them know what you think now, because this is YOUR commute, economy, and money that they’re working with.
The challenge facing those who want the CRC to pursue another alternative is that there doesn't seem to be an alternative that people are broadly rallying around. To generalize, you have your third bridge people, your "arterial bridge" people and various other viewpoints which range from crunchy granola to extreme wingnut. Somewhere there is probably a guy walking around with plans for a transporter people mover slash atomic atomizer that uses microwaves and hang gliders.

Stuart is right when he says we must change how and when we travel. And we're all concerned about the cost of the CRC project. That being said, it's not clear to me that folks who are talking about alternatives to the CRC staff recommendation have made much of a case to the public in terms of concrete alternative proposals. It's true that it's tough to get the public involved, and it's true that WSDOT engineers tend to build things. But vague talk about alternatives probably isn't going to result in much meaningful action.

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