Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Another bridge, another government council: More sprawl & climate pollution?

In Seattle, the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Evergreen Point Bridge replacement projects get all the hot press. But there is another project of comparable size in Washington State. Or rather, connecting Washington to Oregon. And progressive Washingtonians should be taking notice of it.

The Columbia River Crossing (CRC) will connect Portland, Oregon, with Vancouver, Washington. It will either be built alongside the existing Interstate 5 bridge or replace it outright. The crossing's size could range from six to twelve lanes with light rail and bike lanes - and maybe even wind turbines.

The CRC is an undertaking of many state and local government entities and stakeholder groups. On Wednesday, the City of Portland passed (4-1) a resolution supporting the construction of the full twelve lanes with light rail, a "Columbia River Crossing Mobility Council" that will recommend an annual Mobility Operations Plan, and 13 performance standards to serve as a "performance warranty."

Passage of the resolution was a rare success for Mayor Sam Adams early in his tenure - and hopefully the start of many good things to come.

However, not all that is good for Portland's progressive mayor is good for the environment and progressives. Every environmental group that has weighed in during the process has expressed dismay at the bridge's likely potential to cause sprawl and contribute mightily to climate pollution.

And given the history of Clark County's allowance for sprawl and farmland loss, we should all be very concerned about the increased traffic that would a twelve lane bridge would bring, which could spark the conversion of more farmland and forest into subdivisions filled with McMansions.

The Sightline Institute recently released its annual Cascadia Scorecard highlighting the sharp contrast between Multnomah County's and Clark County's protection of farmland. All the purple dots north of the Columbia River make Clark County look like an LED billboard.

The Columbia River Crossing project managers published a Draft Environmental Impact Statement suggesting bridge expansion would reduce congestion and amazingly not lead to sprawl.

Many local progressives (admittedly, mostly Portland progressives) have argued the DEIS paints an overly rosy picture. Research from other local think tanks suggests we need a more realistic assessment of the consequences.

(See Todd Litman's Smart Transportation Investments series and Clark Williams-Derry's analysis at Sightline's website).

Progressive Washingtonians should lead the charge to ensure the crossing will not negatively impact working farms, healthy forests, and livable communities.

So where to begin? At this point, a twelve lane bridge seems likely, so arguing for a smaller bridge may seem pointless. The finances also stack in favor of a twelve lane bridge. (The estimated cost of an eight lane bridge is $3.77 billion while a twelve lane bridge is $4 billion, so full build-out is merely six percent more - and probably within the standard deviation for the estimated cost).

Meanwhile, building twelve lanes instead of eight lanes provides fifty percent more travel capacity - but therein lies the problem. Bigger, wider urban canyons contribute to greater sprawl. They encourage people to drive more and live further away from where they work. That's not what we want.

So how do we convince decision makers to make the bridge smaller?

The current leverage seems to be through the City of Portland-endorsed "performance warranty." Here's the 13 standards:
  • Financial Responsibility
  • Construction Funding
  • Affordability
  • Safety
  • Health
  • Freight Speed & Reliability
  • Transit/HOB/Mode Split
  • Mobility
  • Diversion
  • Economic Growth Incentives (Transit-Oriented Development)
  • Vehicle Miles Travled / Greenhouse Gase Emissions
  • Land Use
  • Regional Mobility
So there's a possibility we can get our foot in the door. Unfortunately, the door may be cracked too little to exert much influence.

There are two problems I can see.

First, the members of the Columbia River Crossing Mobility Council (there's a mouthful) have no direct representation to local constituents.

Its members will be from: the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation, City of Portland, City of Vancouver, Tri-Met, Metro, Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, Port of Portland, Port of Vancouver, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and Washington Department of Ecology (it is troubling to me that Clark County is not included).

Granted, their annual Mobility Operations Plan will have to be approved or considered by both the Cities of Portland and Vancouver, but this approval or consideration process is not will understood.

Second, the performance standards are ill-defined with no procedure for accountability. It is not clear whether these will be minimum standards or serve merely as an annual score for the crossing's success (or lack thereof).

And although "Attachment B" to the City of Portland's resolution indicates the bridge must also meet both Oregon's and Washington's vehicle miles traveled and global warming pollution reduction goals, it is unclear whether the project will be required to purchase offset credits or take other actions.

And there is no indication how the "land use" performance standard will be used to prevent the otherwise likely sprawl in Clark County. All the document says regarding the land use standards is that it is "being developed."

Hopefully the eventual land use element is innovative enough to permanently stop sprawl in Clark County.

Here's my solution: Clark County enters a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Columbia River Crossing Mobility Council that it will not expand its urban growth areas (UGAs), or upzone its rural, agricultural, or forest lands.

If Clark County fails to live up to its Memorandum of Understanding, then bridge tolls for passenger vehicles should automatically increase and the revenue be invested in new light rail and bike improvements. It's one option - an option I hope the Crossing Mobility Council seriously considers.


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