In our view: Big Dream, Big Pipe

Portland’s new wastewater systemprovides lessons about mega-projects

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Consider the biggest and costliest public works projects in a community’s history. Consider also that the project’s complexities require precise collaboration by the most advanced engineers, and that two decades will pass from the time planning begins to the time the project is completed. Finally, consider that this project is all about a river that is divisive in some ways, but ultimately becomes a unifying force because of the project’s success.

Sound familiar? Yes, we could be talking about the Columbia River Crossing. But in this case, our mind is on the “Big Pipe,” a $1.4 billion endeavor that, according to The Oregonian, features “the overhaul of (Portland’s) antiquated wastewater system to divert raw sewage from flowing into the Willamette River and the Columbia Slough.” The project that was launched in 1991 was, for all practical purposes, completed last week. The system includes huge tunnels on both sides of the Willamette, a pipeline along the slough and expanded pump stations carrying overflows to a North Portland treatment plant. All of this “has been online since September, with final touches to be wrapped up by Dec. 14,” The Oregonian reports.

So, for all the hand-wringing and acrimony about the Columbia River Crossing, Portland instructs us that mega-projects can be undertaken and — get this — completed on schedule and within the budget. Let that be at least one example for the CRC’s work toward replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge. Fiscal and chronological standards can, indeed, be met.

Of course, building a bridge will be even more difficult. The Big Pipe was essentially a local public works project, whereas the CRC requires collaboration of multiple cities, counties, states and federal officials. And, whereas the Big Pipe meets the singular purpose of cleaning up the Willamette to meet federal standards, the CRC must satisfy the more extensive concerns of commuter and commercial car and truck traffic, plus railroad, aviation demands as well as the needs of commercial and recreational marine traffic.

Still, Portland’s waterworks triumph is impressive. Previously, storm runoff caused sewage to exceed the infrastructure’s capacity, and sewage flowed into the river and slough up to 50 times a year. An Oregonian editorial described how “the salmon-bearing Willamette — has worked for decades as a toilet. Good news: Problem fixed. Flush away. Take a dip.”

We look forward to the day when a new river crossing is presented and a headline proclaims: “Problem fixed. Cross the river more safely and more expeditiously.”

As the CRC’s work evolves, residents on both sides of the river should keep two thoughts in mind:

First, go big. The Oregonian calls the Big Pipe “a never-done-quite-like-it-in-America undertaking.” Again, sound familiar?

Second, big ideas can indeed lead to big triumphs.

That’s the lesson to the south for Clark County residents. Here’s one to the north: Tolling will begin before the end of the year on the old Highway 520 Bridge in Seattle, across Lake Washington. According to The Seattle Times, variable rates will range from no charge overnight to $2.25 midday on weekdays and $3.50 during rush hours. The goal is to generate $1 billion for a $4.65 billion replacement bridge. Other revenue sources, the Times reports, “are unfunded and years away.” How that project unfolds will also teach us valuable lessons about how the CRC should proceed.