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The Interstate 5 bridge is a traffic nightmare and potential seismic disaster. How could the plan to fix it go so wrong?
The Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver is tired. There are fatigue cracks in the deck. The northbound side of the bridge is nearing its 100th birthday and the southbound side is pushing 60.
Most bridges are built to survive 75 to 100 years. This one might make it to 150 but it will need surgery. One of the lift spans has a growing crack that will cost $10 million to fix. Like anything that’s aging, there will be other problems after that. They usually don’t get cheaper as time goes on.
That’s the best case scenario. There’s a significant chance that instead, a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake will send it plunging into the Columbia River. If that happens, most cars that were on the bridge will be in the water – if they weren’t already crushed by the million-pound counterweights that are going to break off the bridge towers and slam into the deck. When the bridge falls, it will block the critical deep water channel that ships would otherwise use to bring aid to the 2.3 million people who live in the metro area.
Oregon and Washington had a strategy to mitigate this disaster, with both states ponying up $450 million of their own money, combined with around $1.2 billion in federal funds and another $1 billion in bridge toll fees. If the Columbia River Crossing bridge project had gone according to plan, construction would have started last year. Instead, the two states spent $200 million planning for a bridge that was never built.
Now, the funding is gone and there are no proposals in the Oregon or Washington legislature for a bridge replacement.
The Columbia River Crossing project started off in 2005 with good intentions. It needed that to garner support from two state administrations, their respective departments of transportation and the federal government.
The project seemed to solve the seismic vulnerability as well as a growing traffic nightmare. In 2014, the bridge carried 128,000 vehicles a day between Portland and Vancouver in mostly gridlock traffic. It was nearly as bad in 2000, when there were 122,000 trips a day. The problem has been ongoing for decades and residents on each side of the river wanted a better commute.
But eight years after the launch, the project was dead. It yielded no actual work but file after file of conceptual models and videos of the bridge that never was.
What could have brought down a project that would have not only alleviated a growing traffic nightmare on one of the West Coast’s most important corridors but also thwart disaster when the big one hits?
Critics say there wasn’t one single moment that knocked out the new bridge.
“There was a series of blows that cumulatively were fatal,” said David Bragdon, the former Metro Council president who now leads TransitCenter in New York City.
1. Washington Legislators
The Oregon Department of Transportation, which led the project from 2011 until its demise, places the blame squarely on the Washington State legislature for rescinding its pledge of $450 million in April 2013.
“Oregon stepped up. Washington did not do the same,” said Travis Brouwer, Assistant Director at ODOT.
Without Washington’s support, the project lost an important chunk of funding as well as support from one of two states the bridge was supposed to connect. The project quickly unraveled and was declared dead in early 2014.
One of the sticking points for Washington legislators was the issue of transit. The Columbia River Crossing was designed to carry a light rail from Portland into Vancouver.
But some legislators in Clark County speculated the light rail would increase crime. Others said it was another expensive add-on to the ballooning budget that many in Washington didn’t want.
The light rail was one of many extra elements in the project budget that critics said were unnecessary.
The bridge itself only took up one-third of the $3.5 billion project budget. But then there were five miles of highway interchanges, a new TriMet maintenance facility in Gresham and a park over the freeway in Vancouver.
“Once everybody realizes it’s a big project then there’s sort of a logrolling process where they do a piece for everybody,” Bragdon said. “They gold-plated it.”
About $1 billion of the project was to be paid for by tolls, which would have averaged around $8 per day for the average commuter.
But many critics and political leaders questioned whether those projections were unrealistic. A poll found that more than half of drivers would take another route to avoid paying that toll.
“This is financially where the whole thing blows up,” said economist Joe Cortright, a vocal critic of the Columbia River Crossing.
The uncertainty of toll funds was just one of many financial questions raised.
Tiffany Couch, an accountant who analyzed the bridge’s $3.5 billion budget, said the project would have actually cost $5.5 billion when interest was factored in. The budget said toll fees could make up for the excess costs.
“It’s rife with problems,” she said.
6. Bridge Design
Critics in both Oregon and Washington lambasted aspects of the Columbia River Crossing design, which would have been a truss bridge, the same type as the current I-5 bridge. They questioned its size, the lower deck that stuck pedestrians and bicyclists in a dimly-lit cavern, and its height, which Bragdon said was initially too low to meet the Coast Guard’s minimum clearance for ships.
The Oregon Department of Transportation took over the project in 2011, after six years of co-directing the project with the Washington Department of Transportation. According to Bragdon, this was when the problems spiraled out of control.
“It was doomed the minute it was assigned to ODOT,” Bragdon said. “It died because of a series of errors and mismanagement on their part.”
Cortright said ODOT bulldozed ahead with the massive highway project despite the snowballing costs.
“They really wanted to build a giant freeway because that’s ultimately what highway engineers do,” he said. “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
Bragdon said ODOT’s Columbia River Crossing director Kris Strickler was a competent leader, but the team as a whole was unable to manage the CRC.
“They are responsible for killing their own project,” he said.
8. Oregon legislators
The final blow came from the state of Oregon itself, when the legislature failed to reinstate construction funds for the project in March 2014. But by that time, the project was little more than a memory.
Critics of the Columbia River Crossing say there are less expensive fixes for the I-5 bridge that wouldn’t rely on lofty toll revenue goals or $1 billion in federal funds.
A seismic retrofit of the existing bridges would cost between $240 and $600 million, according to Bruce Johnson, Oregon’s state bridge engineer. But Johnson said that still leaves an old bridge that could have been replaced for $800 million.
Another plan, called the Common Sense Alternative, proposed to build three new bridges and upgrade the old ones. It would have accomplished most of the project’s goals for half the cost.
Cortright proposed two quick fixes that could alleviate I-5 rush-hour traffic. He said blocking the on-ramp that kicks people from Hayden Island northbound onto I-5 in front of everyone else waiting to cross the bridge, and tolling both the I-5 and 205 bridges, would make a significant impact on traffic.
Strickler, who is now a regional administrator for WSDOT, said these alternatives were considered and he still believes the best design was the Columbia River Crossing.
But now he just hopes Oregon and Washington legislators can compromise and get a bridge plan on track.
“They would have to move in tandem,” Strickler said. “That’s the only way for the project to pick back up.”
With no proposals hitting the legislative floors in either state, any project is purely hypothetical.
Portland mayoral candidate Ted Wheeler said he would support a bridge project that was financially sound.
“There are still badly needed safety and seismic improvements that must be made to the bridge,” he said. “But we can’t get it done without committed partners.”
Bridge engineer Bruce Johnson said the moment there’s a political consensus, ODOT is ready to act.
“We can absolutely take care of this problem,” Johnson said. “We need some direction and some answers and we can just go forward and take care of this.”