The Columbia River Crossing is one of the most complex transportation projects in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a two-state endeavor contending with roadway and transit elements in an urban setting, historic structures, endangered fish species, a major shipping channel, two international ports and two airports.
Can it be done? Is it really worth the investment?
The next time you are waiting for a bridge lift, or are caught in 10-mph traffic trying to pick up kids or get to work, consider these four key benefits of the CRC.
• First, safety: The ramps and merge lanes in the project area, such as those from state Highway 500 and state Highway 14 to southbound Interstate 5, have high crash rates. The I-5 Bridge has no safety shoulders and narrow lanes. When the bridge lifts for ships, you are four times more likely to be involved in a wreck — probably a rear-ender. The CRC project will fix the ramps, shoulders, merge lanes and sight lines so you can reach highway speeds before merging, have space to pull over to fix a flat, and never be surprised by stopped traffic due to a bridge lift. We’ll replace our current 1917-era bridge with one able to withstand a major earthquake.
• Second, economic strength: Freight industries support about 130,000 family-wage jobs at warehouses and distribution centers near the ports of Vancouver and Portland. More than $40 billion worth of freight moves across the Interstate 5 Bridge each year, expected to increase to more than $70 billion by 2030. Without action, freight trucks will get squeezed by congestion in nearly all daylight hours. According to a 2005 study, up to 6,500 jobs per year could be lost by 2025 without investments. A thriving economy needs a modern and reliable transportation system that the CRC project will provide. And while we are building the project, construction will support an average of 1,900 jobs per year for about 10 years.
• Third, a better trip: There are few travel options today between Vancouver and Portland if you don’t want to drive. Bikers and walkers must use a narrow path right next to the highway, and bus riders are likely caught in traffic. The CRC project contains a light-rail system to give people a reliable trip free of congestion, plus a vastly improved 16-foot-wide bike and pedestrian pathway. You will still have a choice of your car or a bus — traveling in a safer, more reliable corridor.
• Fourth, a vibrant community: Neighborhoods near I-5 in Vancouver and North Portland are hit with the effects of daily congestion backing up on city streets. Job growth is perking up, but remains sluggish in this region. The CRC project’s investment in light rail, improvements to the sidewalks and streets along the transit line and an upgraded transportation system will promote development around the transit stations and support regional business growth. These changes will lead to increased vitality in Washington and Oregon.
Last month, the federal government supported the CRC project by signing the record of decision, which validates the seven-year public process and allows CRC to be eligible for federal funds. We expect to compete very well for federal funds because of the project’s many benefits within an existing and critical interstate corridor. It is a project of national significance, given its location and role to move people, goods and services up and down the West Coast and beyond.
We reached this significant milestone after considering and analyzing many different options with the community. When there were questions about certain project elements, independent experts in bridge engineering, financing and project development were consulted. These experts provided valuable insight, which strengthened our planning, improved our designs and reinforced the local consensus that we have the right project to address our critical transportation problems.
We have a team with experience in delivering complex projects from throughout Washington, Oregon and the rest of the country to advance our designs and move — with the local community — from planning into construction.
The Columbia River Crossing will bring tremendous safety and economic benefits to this region. Let’s move ahead.
Paula Hammond is secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation.