CG/LA Infrastructure's InfraBlog
By KIRK JOHNSON
Published: July 16, 2013
PORTLAND, Ore. — The bicycling commuter in pipestem jeans is not just a caricature of nerdy Pacific Northwest cool. Miles driven per year in old-fashioned automobiles — partly through dint of pedal power and pedestrians — are lower now than in 1995 here on Multnomah County’s major thoroughfares, according to state figures, even as the population has grown by more than 21 percent.
But follow the bike lanes and greenways north to the Columbia River, where the spidery steel trusses of the Interstate 5 bridge clutch the banks, and Portland looks like any typical American city, choked by traffic. The oldest elements of the bridge date from 1917.
These intertwined, competing identities are central to what comes next for the Columbia River Crossing, a $3.4 billion bridge-replacement project of new highway ramps, traffic lanes and light rail linking Portland to Vancouver, Wash., that was supposed to resolve a traffic choke point. The old plan, after more than 20 years and tens of millions of dollars’ worth of studies, was killed last month by the Washington State Senate after the Republican-dominated majority coalition declined to vote on financing it.
The governors of Oregon and Washington, both Democrats, immediately ordered further planning work halted.
Then, almost without missing a beat, local leaders picked up the ball. If political paralysis in Olympia, the capital of Washington, had killed the old proposal, they said, then cooperation on the ground, by people who have witnessed the region’s transportation changes firsthand, would find the way.
“Let’s leave all that behind and talk city to city about what we envision our future to be,” said Josh Alpert, the policy director in the office of Portland’s mayor, Charlie Hales. Mayor Timothy D. Leavitt of Vancouver agreed. Thinking locally, he said, and acting locally, too, in a conversation with Portland is the way forward. “People are regrouping, taking a deep breath,” Mr. Leavitt said.
There is a pattern in this, reflected across the nation, say planners, economists and academics: cities are taking the lead. As recession and government downsizing have squeezed federal and state options, and partisan stalemate politics have crippled some state capitals, local leaders have pushed the front lines of change, if only by necessity.
“The cavalry is not coming,” write Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley in their recently published book, “The Metropolitan Revolution,” which lays out case studies of urban self-assertion and innovation. “With each illustration of partisan gridlock and each indication of federal, and also state, unreliability, metros are becoming more ambitious in their design, more assertive in their advocacy, more expansive in their reach.”
Here on the Columbia River, officials in Portland and Vancouver said they had no illusions that they could build, on their own, a major interstate highway bridge on a major freight and passenger corridor that runs from Canada to California and carries an average of 124,000 vehicles a day. Even the much smaller Skagit River Bridge, which collapsed in May on Interstate 5 about four hours north of here, will cost more than $15 million to replace.
But the officials say that they can at least start breaking the eggs to make the omelet. The old plan had a sense of inevitability, they said, that nothing could be changed for fear of unwinding the many delicate political compromises built in over the years. A new plan would put everything back on the table.
Even a mass transit element, which Portland had insisted on before, could be rethought, Mr. Alpert said, if, for example, an existing freight rail bridge over the water could be used for passenger transit in a new plan. Mr. Leavitt, a civil engineer who said he leans to the right politically — though the Vancouver mayor’s office is nonpartisan — said he bristled at what he says was hostility toward liberal Portland by conservatives in the Washington State Legislature. In a completely interconnected economy, he said, a blow against Portland is a blow against Vancouver.
The truth, transportation data suggests, is that the entire Pacific Northwest is developing its own unique transportation profile.
Since 1990, for example, per capita gasoline use has fallen in many states. But Washington and Oregon were at the front of the pack, with greater percentage declines than any state but Nevada, the Sightline Institute, a research and environmental advocacy group based in Seattle, reported in an analysis of federal and state data. And Nevada’s decline was mostly driven by the rapid growth of Las Vegas — more people concentrated in a city without the need to drive vast distances.
“The U.S., in my opinion, is almost like a conglomeration of small, different countries,” said Anna Nagurney, a professor of operations management at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who has followed the Columbia River Crossing saga. “Portland is one of the leaders in terms of all these transportation innovations,” she said.
Vancouver’s project development and policy manager, Matt Ransom, said there were many elements in any future bridge plan that are constrained by financial and engineering realities no matter how bold the new vision might get. Like the old design, a new one will have to be limited in height because of airspace concerns at nearby Portland International Airport, but it must be high enough to accommodate ship traffic. Much of the money to pay for it will still have to come from state and federal transportation funds.
Though the bridge is not considered at risk of failing, it was built before the age of sophisticated seismic protection and must ultimately be replaced, Mr. Ransom said.
The relationship between congestion and behavior is a chicken-or-egg problem if ever there was one: Decisions to drive less, or differently, or to take one route over another or work from home affect both transportation and traffic patterns — which are in turn affected by those tens of thousands of individual decisions.
As the years of planning went on for the Columbia River Crossing project, those questions became tangled as bicycle and transit use grew in Portland, along with traffic headaches.
The prospect of a giant project that promised giant benefits led state transportation officials to avoid or postpone work that would have to be undone when the Crossing project began in earnest, said Joe Cortright, an economist in Portland who studied and criticized the old project for years.
“They thought the big fix was coming,” Mr. Cortright said.