It is past time to restart discussion over replacing the I-5 bridge between Oregon and Washington, business leaders agreed during a Regional Transportation Summit held last Tuesday, Aug. 28.
The summit drew more than 185 people to the Red Lion on the River, located on Hayden Island near the southern end of the bridge.
"The I-5 bridge is an aging bottleneck," said Ron Arp, president of Identity Clark County, at the beginning of the summit. Identity Clark County is a business organization whose No. 1 priority is the replacement of the I-5 span.
Arp congratulated both state legislatures for investing heavily in transportation in recent sessions, but said there was more to do, most importantly the replacement of the I-5 bridge. Unfixable design flaws that slow traffic include the required bridge lifts, lack of shoulders for even minor accidents, poorly spaced entrance and exit ramps, and inadequate access for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Corky Collier, executive director of the Columbia Corridor Association, a business organization whose members work along the Oregon side of the Columbia River, said it was time for the two states to put the failure of the Columbia River Crossing project — the previous bistate effort to replace the bridge — in the past and move forward with a new replacement project. Republicans in the Washington Legislature refused to fund their state's share of the project after years of study and planning.
If a new project does not get underway in the near future, Oregon and Washington could have to repay the federal government $140 million they received for the previous project. Oregon Department of Transportation Director Travis Brouwer says the Federal Highway Administration already has extended the repayment deadline to September 2019, but significant progress must be shown on a follow-up project before then to satisfy the federal government.
Altogether, Oregon and Washington spent around $200 million planning the project over 10 years, before the effort collapsed in 2013. Total construction costs were estimated at $2.8 billion at the time. Brouwer says preliminary work now is underway to bring leaders from both states together to discuss next steps before the federal deadline.
Participants at the summit included former Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, who has just gone back to work for the HDR Inc. consulting firm, where he worked on transit projects before being elected mayor in 2012. Hales said he came to the summit to get up to speed on discussions about the bridge.
Congestion worse than ever
Presenting the "situation overview" as the summit started was Angela Salerno, a consultant with Seattle-based INRIX consulting firm. She said Portland was the 12th-most congested major city in the country and 40th-most congested big city in the world, according to a congestion index developed by her firm.
"Portland has a lot of congestion and, on a year-by-year basis, it is increasing as well," said Salerno, noting the congestion is increasing faster than the population is growing. "It will continue to increase without some kind of intervention."
Dale Robins, senior transportation planner for the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, said average weekday bridge crossings are higher than ever before, even prior to the Great Recession, which caused crossings to drop for several years until the economy recovered.
"We once thought that 125,000 crossings a day was the most the bridge could handle, but it's now around 140,000. What's happening is, commuters are leaving even earlier than before to beat the traffic," said Robins, who said 75 percent of the trips need to occur in the corridor and cannot be diverted to other routes. Those include 10 percent of the daily truck trips in the region.
"We've identified the I-5 corridor as the need. That is where our investments need to be made," Robins said.
Giving the Oregon perspective was Sorin Garber, a transportation consultant with the SGA consulting firm. Garber focused on the results of recent population growth in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.
"We are becoming a very big city now, and with that comes higher congestion," said Garber, who noted the crash rate in the I-5 corridor also is increasing during the afternoon commute. "Population plus employment growth equals increased stress on the bridge."
Garber disputed the claim made by critics of the Columbia River Crossing that replacing the bridge with a wider one will encourage people to drive more, offsetting any predicted reductions in congestion.
"There are many reasons why people drive, including multiple trip destinations," Garber said. "We're not so sure that just building them will make people drive more."
The Oregon Transportation Commission has voted to ask the Federal Highway Administration for permission to impose tolls on I-5 in Portland to reduce congestion. It is not known when the FHWA will make a decision, and, if they approve, when such tolls will be imposed.
The opening presentations were followed by a "reaction panel." Reacting for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability was senior economic planner Steve Kountz, who said studies done during the Columbia River Crossing project showed the benefits of a replacement bid outweighed the cost.
"Only 41 percent of the people who work in Portland live in Portland. The economy depends on people being able to access jobs," said Kountz, who noted that increasing housing costs are pushing more workers outside of employment centers like downtown.
Maps prepared by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality show high levels of pollution associated with the most congested portions of I-5, Kountz said.
"We're stuck in the traffic, too," said Shawn Donaghy, CEO of C-Tran, which provides bus service linking Clark County to Portland. "The presentations spoke to the need that something needs to be done," Donaghy said.
Reacting for the Port of Portland was strategy and research director Scott Drumm, who said the corridor was important to the port and its customers. "Time is money, and in an increasingly global world, access to our facilities is increasingly important," Drumm said.
Ironically, Drumm said some of the port's customers have put more delivery trucks on the road as congestion has increased. "Each truck serves fewer customers, so they can maintain their schedules," he said.
"People said time affects freight, but where I work, time affects life," said Scott Johnson, division manager of Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency. "All burn victims and the majority of pre-natal cases in Clark County go south," he explained. "That's the way our hospital system is set up."
Johnson also said the current bridge will collapse during the catastrophic earthquake expected to hit the region, making recovery even harder.
Although there is no guarantee a new project will be launched, Garber said the majority of the data generated by the Columbia River Crossing project is still usable, and that some of the previously issued permits are still valid, making it potentially quicker to start construction on a replacement bridge.
By the numbers
- 12th worst out of 297 major cities in the U.S.
- 13th worst out of 319 big cities in North America
- 40th worst out of 1,360 big cities in the world
(Source: INRIX Score Card)
I-5 bridge daily crossings:
- 1981 (before I-205 bridge): 110,000
- 2005 (before Great Recession): 130,000
- 2018: 140,000
Portland growth, 2005-2017:
- 268,000 more residents (up 17 percent)
- 147,000 more employees (up 18 percent)
- 206,000 more passenger vehicles (up 21 percent)