Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Aug. 11, 2020

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Crossing planners weigh changes

Studies to look at lowering cost, land use, sprawl

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Downtown Vancouver will keep its freeway access, but Washingtonians might face a circuitous journey to Jantzen Beach under a new Columbia River Crossing plan.

Members of the CRC’s Project Sponsors Council on Friday nixed the suggestion of cutting out freeway access in downtown Vancouver but affirmed the city of Portland’s effort to come up with fresh alternatives for access to Hayden Island. Eliminating the freeway interchange on the island could reduce the bridge’s footprint while trimming the cost of the multibillion-dollar project.

The city of Portland is spending $100,000 to hire an engineering firm to develop options.

The idea, reported by The Columbian a month ago, came up during a workshop meeting of the advisory council Friday at the Vancouver office of the Washington Department of Transportation.

Catherine Ciarlo, transportation director for Portland Mayor Sam Adams, said the concept is part of the “due diligence” sought by Adams for the biggest public works project in the region’s history.

A firm, URS, also will examine the possibility of a narrower 10-lane bridge rather than the design currently proposed by state transportation planners. Ciarlo later said that the firm will finish its work by the end of June.

“What we’re asking URS to look at is a project with equal or better functionality at a lower cost,” she said.

Project sponsors killed a suggestion to eliminate connections to and from I-5 in downtown Vancouver after the city’s transportation manager, Thayer Rorabaugh, showed the plan probably wouldn’t save money and would greatly worsen traffic congestion on downtown streets.

“I think the due diligence has been done,” Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart said.

A flurry of activity is occurring now, as Gov. Chris Gregoire and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski ramp up pressure to put the finishing touches on a project two decades in the works.

Now expected to cost between $2.5 billion and $3.5 billion, the CRC plan includes a 10-lane replacement for the twin three-lane drawbridges over the Columbia; four miles of freeway improvements on both sides of the river; and the extension of Portland’s light-rail transit system into Vancouver.

An eight-member panel appointed by two governors, largely composed of engineers, will begin meeting next month to assess the financing, implementation plan and post-construction performance measures. That review is expected to cost $750,000.

The sponsors council, along with representatives from state and local government agencies, is conducting its own review.

Pressed by objections from four local elected officials who in January called the project “unacceptable” as currently designed and financed, the sponsors council review will reassess certain aspects of the project. It will address a grab bag of issues, including possible changes to the width of the bridge, access to the freeway and demand-management tools such as high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

Fueling sprawl?

One work group is weighing how a new bridge might affect land use, population growth and employment.

Portland-area political leaders have raised concern that a bigger bridge might fuel sprawl in Clark County, eventually clogging the new structure with single-occupancy vehicles bound for jobs in Oregon. In the shorter term, they said they worry that the new bridge will simply shift congestion from the river south into the center of Portland.

“Are you creating system failure elsewhere?” Metro council President David Bragdon said.

Metro, a Portland-area land-use and transportation planning agency, has offered to run a complex computer model designed to track differences in development patterns among three options:

• Doing nothing.

• Building a 12-lane bridge with light rail and no tolls.

• Building the proposed 10-lane span with tolls.

Total cost for running the model: $100,000.

“It’s a bargain if it builds confidence and gets answers,” Bragdon argued.

As of the end of February, the CRC had consumed $87 million in state and federal funding for planning.

Some project sponsors, especially those on the Washington side of the river, said they weren’t ready to commit to paying Metro to run the model. Local elected officials are especially sensitive to criticism that Washington law doesn’t go as far as that of Oregon to constrain urban sprawl.

“If it’s manipulated to somehow influence land-use patterns in Clark County, then we’re done,” Stuart said.

Stephen Horenstein, the Vancouver land-use attorney who Gregoire recently appointed as co-chairman of the Project Sponsors Council, said he’s not necessarily opposed to running the model but wants to know more about it.

“Before it goes forward, I think we ought to have a discussion about what the intentional outcome is and what the unintended outcomes could be,” Horenstein later said.

What about tolls?

State and federal officials are pushing to finish a formal record of decision on the project by the end of the year, in time for the bridge to be included in an updated six-year federal transportation plan. Planners also expect project funding from both state legislatures, as well as local revenue generated by tolls.

Bridge tolls are noticeably absent from the group’s work plan.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, who made his opposition to tolls a centerpiece of his campaign last fall, has said he won’t press the issue until the project design and costs are better defined.

Leavitt and Adams both were absent from Friday’s meeting.

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

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