We're Getting Railroaded -- What We Need Is A Railroad
For starters, you have to be suspicious when the powers that be—and that be all the regional powers—call it something other than a bridge, though that’s what it is.
It’s the humongous juggernaut of a 12-lane (plus bike lanes and light rail!) bridge over the Columbia River that seems unstoppable, despite a lot of valid questions about it. The conventional wisdom says the current I-5 bridges (there are two of them) are causing major traffic congestion that is only bound to get worse. They also are old and built on old growth Douglas fir pylons (which sounds pretty stable to me, but that’s supposed to be an argument in favor of tearing them down).
The project is called the Columbia River Crossing, I guess because just calling it a new bridge is too, ahem, pedestrian for something costing $4.2 billion.
The scariest part of the CRC is that either it’s going to be a colossal waste of money—or be just the down payment on a continuous line of similar projects costing many more billions.
As the late Sen. Everett Dirkson said, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money.”
Yet there is a need for major improvements on a bridge over the Columbia. Unfortunately, it sits a mile downriver from the I-5 bridge. This is the aged railroad bridge that is one of many obstacles to high-speed rail between Portland and Seattle.
Last Friday, I attended a very lively debate on the CRC at the City Club of Portland. Arguing in favor of the project was Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder, whose green credentials include founding the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. In opposition was economist Joe Cortwright, a guy to whom public officials usually listen because he has the correct numbers on his side.
These are two intelligent, conscientious guys and this might be the only political issue they disagree on. Rex is being viewed as a sellout among environmentalists in town, but I think he is just making some hard choices, based upon the facts as he sees them.
One of Cortwright's main contentions was that the project's supporters think they are hard-nosed realists, but they are ignoring the current reality. “Their projections on increased automobile traffic are based on gas prices being less than $2 a gallon,” he said. With the cost of regular over $4 a gallon, driving habits are going to change.
Burkholder countered that the cost of gas was not factored in. He observed that when gas prices go up, people will continue driving, but “swap out that F-250 for an economy car.”
That's probably true over the long haul, as long as gas prices continue to rise. But what about the people who already are driving the economy car? Most likely, they don't have any room in their budget for a doubling of their fuel costs, so they will have to cut back on driving.
And if they keep cutting back, there is no need to add more road capacity.
Pig in the Python
But what if Burkholder is right and driving habits remain the same, and thousands of new commuters are added to the I-5 corridor every year as population grows? What happens is that those 12 lanes that would make the bridge a breeze to cross will funnel down to two right in the middle of Portland. The biggest bottleneck on the freeway today is the one-lane exit off I-5 to I-84, which generally backs up traffic north to the Lloyd Center exit or beyond. With more cars coming down I-5, that jam could easily stretch up to Lombard, or at least past the Fremont Bridge ramp.
So that traffic snarl will mean another big project to add more lanes to I-5 and the 405 in the middle of town, where acquiring the real estate is going to be expensive. To keep traffic flowing, it might be necessary to rebuild the Marquan and Fremont bridges, too. And then more lanes down I-5 through the Terwilliger curves. Like a pig in a python, the congestion will keep moving south.
At the City Club debate, the real answer was brought up by Ray Polani, the tireless champion of rail transportation. Polani is legendary for figuring out an angle to put his agenda across at City Club forums no matter what the topic, be it public education, drug addiction or major league baseball. His question on Friday was spot on: “Why is there no consideration or funding to improve the railroad bridge?” he asked.
Burkholder's answer essentially was that the financing scheme for the I-5 bridge, using tolls and federal highway funds, can't be transferred to the railroad bridge, although he supports upgrading that bridge, too.
When it comes to interstate travel and transport, rail is where the priorities should be. Instead, our local and regional governments and quasi-governments are expanding freeways and airports.
Poor Track Record
Amtrak currently runs Spanish-made Talgo trains between Portland and Seattle capable of making the trip in about 90 minutes. But they can't get up to top speed (124 mph) because of a bunch of places where the track isn't safe. So the trip actually takes around four hours. Or an hour more than driving at the speed limit, and who does that?
If the tracks, grades and crossings--including a new bridge over the Columbia—were improved, both passenger and freight trains could travel faster and more efficiently. The freight component is huge. Convoys of semi's clog up I-5 virtually all day long. Truck drivers try to avoid rush hours, but these days, there are too many hours where traffic comes to a standstill.
If the rail system isn't adequately supported, we may face a future where personal automobile travel on the interstate highway system is exorbitantly tolled or taxed, or severely restricted to allow the movement of freight and essential vehicles such as ambulances, fire trucks, delivery vans and police cars. I wouldn't be opposed to that. Nor would I be opposed to segregated lanes for freight hauling only.
The real economies of scale, however, would come if more freight were shifted to rail, which can only happen if the trains move faster. Freight trains are three times more fuel efficient than diesel-burning transport trucks. Trains also can use many different sources of power, including electricity. If the railway web were expanded and made more sophisticated, it could almost eliminate the need for long haul trucking.
Meanwhile, most of the vehicles going across the I-5 bridge are used for transporting one or two people from some place in Vancouver to some place in Portland, or vice verse. The only non-car options are mediocre bus service or taking a long and nerve-wracking bike ride across the 205 bridge, which has a bike lane. I don't know anyone who uses it. The noise created by all the vehicular traffic makes this ride extremely unpleasant.
Thus, an integral part of the Columbia River Crossing project is light rail to Vancouver. A recent news article in The Oregonian speculated that Vancouver, 13 years after voting down light rail, is now ready to support it. Or at least its elected officials are. Of course, the Couv's city councilors know that the City of Portland and Metro have already stipulated that light rail be a part of the new bridge. So they have to go along with it to get what they want, which are more auto lanes over the river.
If they simply wanted a rail system between the two cities, they could upgrade the railroad bridge at far less than $4 billion. Then, as is being done between Wilsonville and Beaverton, the regular rail track could carry a series of small commuter trains. These trains might be less fuel efficient than our standard MAX cars, but the track already exists; eliminating the need to buy land and lay another track will save vast amounts of money and energy.
The Washington Department of Transportation has been gradually upgrading the tracks from Portland to Seattle and has a general plan that stretches out another ten years and eventually will cut Amtrak travel time between the cities to 2 ½ hours.
More money would speed up that process, such as a piece of that $4 billion scheduled for the CRC white elephant. The Port of Portland, too, could help out. Currently, the Port is coveting Colwood National Golf Course for an expansion to PDX. Even though higher fuel prices is going to curtail air travel. Consider, too, that one out of every six commercial planes at PDX is either headed for Seattle or just came from there.
And if there are schemes to expand PDX, I'll bet there also are plans for a bigger Sea-Tac as well. Now we are dealing with different agencies and jurisdictions, but there should be a way to take the money out of those expansion projects and put them into high speed rail. Maybe it will happen when we get regime change in Washington, D.C.
There's more info at the Council for a Livable Future.