An upstream alternative for I-5 bridge

Architect says his Columbia crossing would be more attractive and less expensive

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

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Bridge architect Kevin Peterson had his first impression of the proposed Columbia River Crossing earlier this year. He was appalled.

A new bridge carrying the West Coast’s major north-south thoroughfare across its greatest river shouldn’t look like an elevated parking garage, he decided. Peterson, who consults on projects across the world from his home office in Friday Harbor, wanted to see if he could come up with a better solution for a new Interstate 5 bridge.

Correcting the crossing

Currently estimated to cost $3.6 billion, the Columbia River Crossing project would replace the two existing three-lane drawbridges across the river with 10 lanes, revamp six interchanges along five miles of freeway, and extend Portland’s light-rail transit system into downtown Vancouver.

The project is intended to address six broad categories:

• Growing travel demand and congestion.

• Impaired freight movement.

• Limited public transportation operation, connectivity and reliability.

• Safety and vulnerability to collisions.

• Substandard pedestrian and bicycle facilities.

• Seismic vulnerability.

“I said, ‘If I can’t come up with a better way of doing it, I won’t say a damn thing,’” he said.

By early June, Peterson proposed his alternative: A single double-deck span upstream of the existing twin three-lane drawbridges between Vancouver and Hayden Island. Peterson’s proposal would effectively straighten the freeway’s existing bend at the river’s north bank. Peterson contends it will meet all the main goals of the overall CRC project — alleviate congestion, improve safety and enhance freight mobility — with the added bonus of being less expensive and more attractive.

But it’s a major departure from the current CRC proposal, which envisions twin double-deck bridges bending downstream from the existing bridge. Perched atop a dozen piers, the river crossing proposed by the project team carries an estimated price tag between $740 million and $820 million. Peterson believes his proposal could shave $70 million to as much as $500 million from those costs, largely because it would employ fewer than half as many in-river piers.

Project planners have until recently declined to specifically respond to Peterson, having ruled out an upstream alignment three years ago.

However, at that time, engineers anticipated a much wider footprint impinging on the Fort Vancouver National Site and the airspace of Pearson Field than the current twin-bridge proposal. At the time, planners were considering three bridges with a separate span for an extension of Portland’s light-rail transit system.

In contrast, Peterson’s proposal would carry traffic across two decks on a single span across the Columbia.

The idea recently got a high-level endorsement.

Tom Warne, a transportation consultant who chairs the Bridge Expert Review Panel convened by the Washington and Oregon transportation departments to help resolve lingering conflict over the bridge design, invited Peterson to present his idea during the panel’s first meeting a month ago in Vancouver.

“Straight would be simpler,” Warne said after that meeting. “Straight would likely be cheaper.”

It’s far from a done deal, though.

Shifting gears

Peterson’s proposal is one of several ideas being considered by the panel headed by Warne, who indicated the group may end up recommending elements from a variety of proposals when it finishes its work next month.

“The upstream alignment has some interesting aspects to it,” Warne said. “It also has some issues.”

Local political and business leaders are wary of endorsing a new direction after so much time, energy and money has been invested in the current plan. Sponsoring cities and state agencies have arrived at the current proposal after 15 years of discussions involving a variety of bistate panels.

They’re reluctant to reconsider the entire project in light of Peterson’s idea.

“It’s just not the direction that the task force, the sponsors, the Project Sponsors Council has gone,” said Don Wagner, Washington co-director of the CRC project office. “I do think there are some good points that he puts in.”

Even though an upstream alignment would free up several blocks of downtown space west of the bridge for urban redevelopment, representatives of the historic reserve are wary of a proposal that would move the crossing closer to the old fort site.

Yet, Peterson’s idea has life because the current proposal remains mired in controversy despite years of work and more than $108 million spent in planning.

The current open-web stacked design bends in a curve downstream of the existing Interstate 5 Bridge, with automobiles on the twin upper decks and pedestrians and light-rail tracks below. Warne described the appearance as “underwhelming,” an assessment echoed by the mayors of both Vancouver and Portland. Worse, independent bridge experts have lately questioned the cost and durability of the complicated design.

Jugesh Kapur, Washington state’s bridge and structures engineer, raised concern about the design during the expert review panel’s meeting a month ago.

The open web enables pedestrians and transit riders to peer out to the river, but it will require more than 1,000 connections between V-shaped steel joints and the concrete bridge decks above and below. Kapur said a similar bridge in Japan developed cracks after only a few years.

“The performance of this type of bridge has been less than stellar,” Kapur said. “In addition, there’s a lot of uncertainty with the cost.”

‘Getting this right’

A straight alignment would simplify the design.

Peterson said any number of elegant designs could be easily employed. He even commissioned a couple of renderings that depict an arch design and an “extrados” cable-stayed design, which The Columbian is publishing today with the current CRC proposal.

Peterson’s two-deck proposal would carry light rail, pedestrians and slower shore-to-shore automobile traffic between closely spaced interchanges at state Highway 14, Hayden Island and Marine Drive in Portland. The upper deck would allow autos headed between, say, Seattle and Salem, Ore. to bypass the area at faster freeway speeds unfettered by merging traffic.

It represents another radical departure from the CRC proposal, which would carry all 10 lanes of automobile traffic together on the same vertical plane.

Warne said Peterson’s bilevel “collector-distributor” model is not a new concept, but it would complicate the design of on- and offramps.

“This isn’t an unheard of traffic management approach,” he said. “The disadvantage you have in this corridor is so many people are getting on and off within the corridor. I-5 sort of serves as a local street for many people.”

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, a professional engineer, said he would want to know more about how an upstream alignment would be linked to I-5 while minimizing traffic disruption during construction. CRC officials say they can keep three lanes of I-5 moving in each direction during construction of their downstream proposal. No analysis has been done on an upstream alignment.

Even so, Leavitt said he’s open to the idea.

“My primary concern is getting this right,” he said. “This project is going to long outlast any of us in elected office, and I want to make sure we’re doing this right for generations to come.”

Leavitt has been badgered by constituents irate about a laundry list of complaints: The multibillion-dollar price tag; inclusion of light rail; the imposition of tolls for the local funding share. For all that public angst, Leavitt said he still believes replacing the existing drawbridge is crucial to the region’s future economic prosperity.

The current design of the new bridge may be functional, but it’s not one to rally around.

“If I could show folks a picture of what this crossing could look like or might look like, and it’s something that generates a sense of pride … I think folks will be more embracing of the project,” Leavitt said.

The CRC’s current curving downstream alignment will cover a broad swath of Vancouver’s waterfront. Even though the city recently paid for a set of conceptual sketches depicting trails and park land in the shadow of the bridge and associated ramps, critics contend this amounts to hammering a square peg into a round hole.

“The underside of a freeway is the underside of a freeway,” said George Crandall, a Portland architect critical of the project. “You can’t kid people about what’s going on down there. It’s noisy and in the shade.”

Peterson’s straight-line approach minimizes the area covered by concrete, but it also has some disadvantages.

Project planners have cited cultural and historic sensitivities in shying away from an upstream alignment. Officials say there is a greater risk of finding human remains, for example, along the shoreline where Fort Vancouver established a fur-trading empire two centuries ago. However, the area for 30 years has been given over to a Joe’s Crab Shack and Who Song & Larry’s restaurant, and before that was the home of Vancouver Ready Mix Concrete Co.

Doug Wilson, archaeologist for the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, said he has other concerns revolving around the noise and visual effect of scooting the bridge closer to the fort.

“We’ve gone through four or five years of analysis,” Wilson said. “We’d have to start over and do quite a bit more analysis.”

Aviation concerns

Wilson is not the only local resident questioning whether it’s too late to change course.

Mark Masciarotte chairs the city’s Airport Advisory Committee and has served on two advisory groups related to the Columbia River Crossing. Masciarotte, who is leery of a bridge infringing on the airspace of Pearson Field, spent years serving on a 14-member urban design advisory group chaired by Portland Mayor Sam Adams and then-Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard.

“Where the hell was Kevin Peterson?” Masciarotte said.

Peterson, a private pilot, said he has been careful to analyze the effect his alignment would have on Pearson Field, a general aviation airport which in itself has historical value. He’s also reached out to the city’s airport manager, Willy Williamson, and he said he’s certain his bridge would have no effect on Pearson.

For his part, Williamson said he’ll defer to the Federal Aviation Administration — if and when that agency gets a specific proposal.

“At this point, there’s just not enough information for me to be able to say one way or the other,” Williamson said. “If he decides to build the thing across the end of my runway, then I’m going to raise a flag.”

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or erik.robinson@columbian.com.