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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Inside the Columbia River Crossing project

Stepping off the elevator on the third floor of 700 Washington Street in Vancouver, one is immediately struck by the fact that this is no small time operation. A well-appointed reception area sits in the center of the office, which takes up the entire floor. Clearly, the Columbia River Crossing is a big project.

Dozens of cubicles reside in the center, and nearly every cubicle sports various bits of information in the form of maps, charts and drawings on the outside wall. Offices of project officials and conference rooms ring the floor.

A sign of how seriously Washington state views the issue is to be found in some basic funding numbers provided by CRC. While funds are not disbursed all at once, and in fact CRC may face some "cash flow issues" in 2007, Washington state's "Transportation Partnership Funds" show a total funding of $50 million through the end of the 2011 biennium.

A similar contribution from Oregon is a relatively modest $5 million. Combined with federal funds amounting to around $14.2 million and some prior allocations, the CRC says that in excess of $74 million could be spent.

That's for planning and engineering, to put it simply. (The bridge is extra. But you knew that, right?)

Cost estimates to build the project are preliminary and well, sometimes frightening. For a long time $2 billion was tossed around. Lately, when all the ancillary improvements to interchanges, transit and such are completed, you get something like $6 billion being quoted in the press. Not exactly chump change.

Lora Caine, President of Friends of Clark County and one of the members of the task force formed to advise CRC, arranged a "tour and discussion" with two staff members. Our hosts are Danielle Cogan, Communications and Outreach Director for CRC, and Kris Strickler, Deputy Project Director.

We visited them at the CRC offices last Friday.

We step into one of the conference rooms, where a stack of oversize technical drawings rest in a neat roll on the table.

A 3-D map that shows how the river has scoured pockets around the existing bridge piers adorns part of one wall, and Cogan leaves and quickly comes back with the requisite glasses. I make a dumb joke about Disney World and we sit down for an hour-long discussion about the project.

And what a project it is. The 39-member task force, co-chaired by WSU-Vancouver Chancellor Hal Dengerink and Henry Hewitt, past chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission, is composed of officials and citizens representing a wide range of interests and government entities, from local cities and counties to neighborhood, business and environmental groups. They meet once a month and are scheduled to vote on a staff recommendation on Feb. 27.

The staff recommendation (PDF file) on what proposal to move forward to a "draft environmental impact statement," or DEIS, is a key decision. Past that point it's fairly unlikely any major changes could be made.

While there is a federally required "no-build" option that is intended to be used as a baseline comparison when construction funding is sought, the two other options are basically one bridge option, the difference between the two being what kind of mass transit to use.

The two transit choices are light rail or what is called bus rapid transit.

In CRC parlance, the proposed structure is a new "mid-level span," indicative of how constraints imposed by river and air traffic will impact the design. A new bridge can't be too tall nor so short that a drawbridge would be required, as is the case with the existing spans.

The current bridge, which is actually two bridges, features one span built in 1917 and one built in 1958. A host of safety, congestion and seismic concerns are cited by CRC as justifications for building a modern replacement.

Acccording to Caine, the task force is advisory in nature. The two state transportation departments from Oregon and Washington are lead agencies. But other key players include the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the Coast Guard and the cities of Portland and Vancouver.

Definitive answers on what a new bridge will look like, where it will go and how much it will cost are not yet available. But you can talk about it.

Where would it go?

In the conference room, we dive into a discussion of where a replacement bridge could be built. Strickler, a friendly and self-effacing engineer, walks us through some of the obvious challenges to the alignment of a new bridge (or bridges.)

One easy to understand example involves what would happen if a replacement was situated immediately upstream of the current spans. The greater height of a new bridge would present design challenges in creating a ramp to SR-14 eastbound.

The design would be constrained by a pedestrian bridge under which it must go. "We're already pushing the envelope" said Strickler, referring to how steep such a ramp would need to be on an "upstream" bridge.

Downstream a design would create impacts on downtown Vancouver and its efforts at redevelopment. Caine, the Friends of Clark County president, asked Strickler about the idea floated by Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard to "cap" part of I-5, which would allow the joining of downtown Vancouver to Officer's Row and environs. Again, elevation changes present design issues as the bridge lands on the north shore. According to Strickler, caps might be most feasible in the vicinity of Evergreeen Blvd., as opposed to further south.

What about an earthquake?

The discussion turned to concerns about what would happen to the existing spans in an earthquake. I brought up how the pilings on both the 1917 and 1958 structures are wooden, and Strickler took to the white board and explained that this was a form of soil stabilization.

What I took away was not so much that people should be alarmed that the pilings are made of wood, because according to Strickler wood doesn't rot very quickly at all if it stays submerged under water. More to the point, current pilings don't reach to bedrock. Strickler noted that the length of the pilings in 1917 was limited by "the length of a tree, or 40 to 80 feet." Modern pilings would reach anywhere from 80 feet to bedrock near the Washington shore to over 200 feet near the Oregon side.

Strickler explained about liquefaction, which many people are familiar with. In layman's terms, in an earthquake certain types of soil become less solid and behave more like a liquid, which can lead to side-to-side shaking that can destroy structures.

Strickler said the current truss bridges are very good at resisting top-down force, i.e. the weight of the structures, cars, roadway and everything else pushing straight down, but not so much at "side-loading."

Another factor with the existing Interstate Bridge is the counter-weights used for bridge lifts. In a strong earthquake, they could swing wildly and cause tremendous damage. According to Strickler, we just don't know what could happen to the existing bridge in a strong earthquake, but the damage could render it inoperable for long periods of time.


Currently, there is no treatment of stormwater on the I-5 bridge nor some of the nearby interchanges, according to Strickler.

A new facility would comply with modern environmental laws to catch and treat stormwater before it goes in the Columbia River.

Mass Transit

The staff recommendation offers either light rail (LRT) or bus rapid transit (BRT) as the two mass transit options.

As Strickler noted, the staff recommendation finds that running BRT all the way to downtown Portland would result in those vehicles facing significant congestion. So CRC staff is suggesting BRT would connect to the existing MAX yellow line at the Expo Center in north Portland.

Strickler says both BRT and LRT would be difficult to design. The CRC's position is that LRT has a lower operating cost but costs more to build.

Another consideration is how favorably federal officials would view LRT; if the Feds view LRT more favorably and can provide a greater share of dollars, that could influence the decision.

Cogan provided, at my request, a summary regarding predicted mass transit ridership from Portland to Clark County during the afternoon commute. It's a prediction of the "transit market" in the year 2020, and it shows that a fairly significant number of people could be riding mass transit from areas adjacent to I-5, about 25,000 rides in all.

Given that current vehicle trips across I-5 are in the 130,000 range, transit could provide some portion of capacity to the I-5 corridor. These numbers are not exactly huge, but nonetheless represent a small portion of commuters riding mass transit instead of driving. Whether these numbers can be improved is a question worth answering.


One question on my list that we didn't get to because of time constraints involves tolls. But I think it's fair to quote what the staff recommendation says about them:
Early review of funding and financing options for this project suggest that tolling will be required to fund any new Columbia River Crossing. As such, additional work is needed to refine and test various tolling structures and assess how tolling influences at least the following three issues: 1. revenue generation 2. congestion management, and 3. facility design
So not only are tolls an option, they are fairly integral to the project, and Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard has said as much.

The Process

One thing that tends to frustrate some folks is that the CRC staff proposal seems like a fait accompli. And in some ways it is.

The "I-5 trade Partnership" study by Oregon and Washington developed a plan in 2001-2002 and dealt with a lot of the same questions being raised by the public and others during the current CRC process.

The recommendations on page 29 of the "Final Strategic Plan" from the trade partnership study are fairly similar, if not identical, to what CRC is proposing. That may be irksome, as the eyes of regular citizens probably glazed over pretty quickly at the mere mention of a "trade partnership," but it's worth recognizing that it was a key part of the bureaucratic planning process for the replacement of the I-5 bridge. To the planners, a lot of this has already been decided.

Caine suggests that the partnership study did not preclude the use of the existing bridges, an option pretty much not on the table with CRC.

In an email a few days later, Caine said, "That old study did not eliminate the option for using the old bridges but recommended modifications if the bridges were to be left intact. The task force, at that time, recommended basic project results and expected the details to be honed with further study. The new data has brought the staff to the point of recommending a replacement bridge." said Caine.


In trying to follow the CRC, we hope to generate interest and participation by citizens in Southwest Washington and in affected areas of Oregon, especially Portland. There exists a dedicated group of citizens who diligently follow these kinds of projects, and there are a wide range of views to be found. One example is from a panel discussion held earlier this month in Portland. You can find the audio file here.

This project is too important to our region to ignore. A decision that does not enjoy broad support on both sides of the river could very well lead to significant political ramifications, as elected officials are quite aware. That being said, honest people can debate their differences in an honest fashion.

It's easy to to accuse people of having bad motives. It's ironic that the people who tend to hurl such charges are usually the ones acting in bad faith.

Simplistic and unrealistic demands for a third highway corridor do nothing but cloud the issue and sow discord. This project is about the I-5 corridor, and we can't do anything until we get a handle on it. Criticism is expected and a Constitutional right, but cynical, hysterical criticism for partisan gain is not helpful.

That being said, the CRC is spending public money and the public deserves to know what they are doing on the third floor of that nice office building in downtown Vancouver. Future posts will examine some of the critiques being issued by those involved in the process.

While we tend to present a Washington state viewpoint on this blog, we're cognizant of the fact that there are legitimate concerns on the Oregon side about a new bridge bringing even more traffic into Portland, with all the consequences that could entail, and wish to be open to presenting those views.

It's a complex challenge, and the CRC staff has been most welcoming and willing to answer questions. Communication can be tough even with lots of good will; Cogan, the communications and outreach person for CRC, joked at one point about being charged with translating things "from Engineer to English."

A significant number of citizens can find the array of jargon and acronyms downright puzzling, so we urge the CRC to keep up its worthy efforts at community outreach and education throughout the process.

There are many sound engineering reasons, from what I can tell as a layman, for what CRC proposes. That being said, there is a political and community component that is an equal challenge, and we encourage all citizens to learn more at the CRC web site. While to those involved in both this process and the trade partnership it must seem that eons have gone by, the larger public is still learning about the CRC and what form a new bridge could take. We applaud the patience and diligence of both CRC staff and task force members, and thank them for their work.

The CRC gladly accept comments and questions via email, so the effort required to get involved is fairly modest. We encourage you, our readers, to get involved.

UPDATE: There are two CRC open houses left. One of them is this evening in Portland, and the other is Feb. 5 in Vancouver. Details can be found here.

UPDATE TWO: Chris Smith of Portland Transport co-wrote a guest editorial for today's The Oregonian with economist Joe Cortright of Impresa Consulting which you can now read here.

The Columbian editorializes in favor of a "cap" on I-5, as suggested by Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard.

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