Sunday, April 5, 2009

White elephant in the room

A beautiful day for a protest

I wanted to work in my yard on this glorious spring day—get some flowers planted along the front walk, weed and till the raised beds, maybe even spread out some compost. Really, I did. Instead, I went for a bike ride down to Waterfront Park. It was my civic duty.

There was a rally down there at noon to stop the $4 billion white elephant known as the Columbia River Crossing (CRC). This is the proposal for a new I-5 bridge of 12 lanes, plus bike lanes and a light rail line. Something for everybody, but mostly, a lot of new capacity for cars and trucks to fill up—or not.

I commented on the CRC several months ago. No information has surfaced since then to change my mind. If anything, it’s even more crucial to stop this bridge and use that $4 billion for something else, given the state of our economy.

Most of the speakers cited global warming and other environmental and health hazards as a key reason why the bridge should not be built. Roadway expansion generally is a function of Parkinson’s Law—stuff expands to fill the space allotted for it. It certainly has been true for freeways; building them only increases traffic and thus never mitigates congestion.

My own take on this project, however, is that by the time it gets built nine years from now (if it does get built) traffic volume will have dropped due to rising gas prices. In addition, the tolls necessary for covering half the cost of the bridge—around $2 billion—will also reduce demand. So we will have spent $4 billion (and likely a lot more than that) for something that isn’t needed.

By the way, the current I-5 bridges are in no danger of falling down, according to recent engineer’s studies. The Marquam Bridge over the Willamette River is in worse shape, as is the poor stepchild of government discord, the Sellwood Bridge.

All of the speakers referred to the historic public uprising against the Mt. Hood freeway that was proposed to run through Southeast Portland in the 1970s. Waterfront Park was a handy venue for the rally, as the speakers could point towards the end of the Marquam Bridge where there is a span that was supposed to link to that freeway. That ill-conceived mega-highway got shot down by tremendous grass roots movement. A good thing, too, as it would have run right through my favorite coffee house on Southeast 26th Ave. and Clinton St.

But the repeated references to the successful anti-freeway campaign of the 70s reveals a bit of desperation in this current movement. There were maybe 300 people at the rally, the vast majority of whom arrived by bike and, like me, were mixing politics with pleasure. Perhaps we live in different times, or that the circumstances are different. The Mt. Hood freeway provoked extreme outrage, since it threatened to destroy many fine Portland neighborhoods.

The CRC, on the other hand, replaces an existing bridge and adds freeway lanes and ramps in that sort of empty area south of the river. Not so much to get worked up about.

But we should. It’s an enormous expense. At the rally, I talked with a representative from the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates. He told me that for a measly $100 million, all of the track between Portland and Seattle could be upgraded to allow Amtrak’s Talgo trains to maintain their top speed of 125 mph, which would cut train travel between the cities to less than two hours. Right now, Horizon Air has planes leaving PDX for SEATAC every half hour. If we had trains leaving every half hour—or even every hour—they would offer a faster and greener way to go. If we also switched more freight from trucks to trains, there would be considerably less congestion on I-5.

Shouldn’t we get some of Obama’s stimulus money for this? I know Amtrak improvements are slated for the Eastern seaboard, but not out here. So start writing and calling your representatives, local as well as congressional. Especially those of you who didn’t attend the rally and got your garden in ahead of me.

Go to the Council for a Livable Future for ways that you can help stop the bridge.

City Councilor Amanda Fritz speaks at rally.

1 comment:

  1. So the question is, who in our local government is benefiting from the project? Who is making the deals, mixing the concrete, providing the girders... who's getting their 15 percent?

    With our kids doomed to a year of interrupted education -- and therefore the few citizens with jobs doomed to days off work they cannot afford, or to finding reliable childcare -- who can keep these funds tied up on a project that isn't necessary?

    Or -- to play devil's advocate -- will the bridge construction companies make a point of hiring on unemployed Portland workers? That Portland doesn't need yet another bridge is -- to be blunt -- more than obvious. Maybe maintenance on the old ones wouldn't come amiss, but I think 2,000 bridges in a three miles stretch is enough. And nobody will argue that the bridge to Oaks Park needs a major overhaul. But the current proposition? Pfft.