Support BikePortland - Journalism that Matters

In my opinion: On livability and the CRC, USDOT Sec LaHood can’t have it both ways

Posted by on December 8th, 2011 at 3:30 pm

National Bike Summit-Lobby Day-5

I want the new freeway to be this wide!

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has some explaining to do.

LaHood, who famously stood on a tabletop and thanked bike advocates for their hard work at the 2010 National Bike Summit and later posted on his blog that, “This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized,” has now become an enthusiastic booster of the Columbia River Crossing project — a five-mile long, highway widening mega-project being proposed by the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation.

“… people do want alternatives. They want out of their cars; they want out of congestion; they want to live in livable neighborhoods… This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.” — Ray LaHood, March 2010>

“We are big, big, huge supporters of the Columbia River Crossing.”
— Ray LaHood, November 2011

Often characterized as only a bridge project (the result of masterful PR work by project consultants who have spent millions on messaging), the CRC would also significantly widen five miles of I-5 as well as beef up and add five new highway interchanges along the way. The project’s main purpose is to make driving an automobile easier, safer and more convenient.

Look into my eyes… it’s only
about a bridge, it’s only
about a bridge, it’s only….
(Screenshot from CRC site)

Many critics of the project fear it will induce traffic as well as encourage sprawl in northern Clark County. The project is estimated (by the CRC staff themselves, so it could very well be much more) to cost $3.1 to $3.6 billion dollars, an amount that could suck up much of the region’s transportation funding — at the expense of other projects and needs — for years to come.

Despite the controversy around this project and what many smart people see as significant flaws and risks in moving forward with it — LaHood and the USDOT are eager to see it break ground.

“We are big, big, huge supporters of the Columbia River Crossing,” LaHood told KGW TV last month. “We think it is a classic example of what America has always been known for doing big things.”

I’d put an emphasis on “classic.” He’s right. This is indeed a “classic” project in the sense that it harkens back to the 1950s with its focus on moving as many cars and trucks as possible right through the heart of many (formerly livable) neighborhoods and two major cities.

Project map: That’s a heck
of a lot more than just
fixing an old bridge.

Today, the USDOT released a major endorsement of the project with approval of the “record of decision.”

Contrast this support of the CRC with LaHood’s proclamations in 2010:

“People want walking paths, biking paths… I’ve been all over America, and where I’ve been in America I’ve been very proud to talk about the fact that people do want alternatives. They want out of their cars; they want out of congestion; they want to live in livable neighborhoods.”

“People across America who value bicycling should have a voice when it comes to transportation planning. This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

I’m one of those people who wants to live in livable neighborhoods. My family and I live just two blocks from I-5 and the CRC’s new mega-highway comes to an end just a few tenths of a mile north of my backyard. I’m worried that the CRC’s please-try-out-the-awesome-new-freeway-we-built-for-you welcome mat will only lead to more traffic in my neighborhood and massive bottlenecks to boot.

As the national bike advocacy community has fallen over themselves in praise of LaHood for his outspoken support of livability and a new way of doing business at the DOT, I’ve held back. Maybe I’ve grown cynical over the years; but while I still feel a tinge of excitement when a powerful person like LaHood says nice things about something I believe in, I’m waiting for action in the face of difficult and politically challenging conditions.

Policy proclamations and rosy rhetoric are easy. Challenging and questioning the merits of a mega-project that has a lot of political power behind it is hard. An era based on that power won’t end easily; but it’s what has to be done and some of us thought LaHood was the one who would do it.

Perhaps LaHood feels like because the CRC includes a light rail line and a wider bikeway it’s all good. But I’m not sure everyone who had faith in him — not to mention the many adoring advocates he spoke to on that that memorable night in D.C. — agree.

I’m curious what readers think: Is it possible to support something that is as “motorized transportation” centric as the CRC while still making proclamations about livability and promoting active transportation? Can leaders like LaHood have it both ways?

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

60
Leave a Reply

avatar
21 Comment threads
39 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
33 Comment authors
Hart NoeckerAlan 1.0Evan ManvelJ_Rwsbob Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
9watts
Guest
9watts

My answer to your question is a resounding ‘no.’

“Many critics of the project fear it will induce traffic as well as encourage sprawl.”

While these are well-founded 20th Century fears, my concern is that this project has been handed down to the 21st Century and as such it has no relevance to the transportation world we are about to enter. It is an enormous piece of concrete that won’t be useful to us once climate change and Peak Oil have caught up with us. We can argue about whether that is 2 or 20 years from now but the larger point is that bridges & highway expansion projects are meant to last much much longer than that, and their enormous costs are justified on the basis of their longevity as well.
CRC is completely insane.

Allan
Guest
Allan

We’ll see what happens with the funding picture. I agree that LaHood seems to be in contradiction, but I don’t think that he has heard all of the livability arguments. To some extent, isn’t the ‘Record of Decision’ something that you get if you meet all of the requirements at the federal level? Even though this isn’t a ‘good’ project from a livability perspective, this is quite a ‘good’ project relative to many others in the US. Its all Perspective, and I don’t think that LaHood has ours

Paul Souders
Guest

“Is it possible to support something that is as “motorized transportation” centric as the CRC while still making proclamations about livability and promoting active transportation?”

A wise person once told me: “anyone can say anything.”

Or: “All hat, no cattle.”

Light rail and bike paths are Livability Paint slapped onto a big bad highway.

The CRC is a good example of why I’m leery of “infrastructure” panaceas and secretly am kind of excited by PBOT’s shortfall (different topic I know, but I’m on a roll here)

Maybe, radical thought, we need *smaller* bridges and *narrower* roads and *less* mode separation. Maybe transportation infrastructure is overbuilt and unnecessarily expensive already. Maybe instead of improving roads we should start downsizing them. Maybe roads running through cities should be “streets” not “highways,” and maybe streets should be built for people, not transportation devices. Not because of Peak Oil or even livability (necessarily) but because it’s way past time to get cars off welfare.

Who’s talking like THIS? Besides me, obviously.

Alexis
Guest
Alexis

I think this is well-said, Jonathan:

“…while I still feel a tinge of excitement when a powerful person like LaHood says nice things about something I believe in, I’m waiting for action in the face of difficult and politically challenging conditions.”

I feel like this about a lot of ostensibly active transpo-friendly politicians and bureaucrats, including some local ones. When I see actions like the ones JSK and Gabe Klein have taken, I feel confident those people practice what they preach and aren’t just saying it because it sounds nice. When I see how slowly Portland and the region move on innovations and how poor the federal picture looks, I don’t feel that same confidence.

sorebore
Guest
sorebore

I will be for the CRC and all the cars when the state of Oregon outlaws Benzene. I call for its immediate ( not a 20% reduction in 10 years as proposed) use as a gas additive. The CRC, I-5, and added flow of autos and truck will contribute to the already absurd levels of Benzene toxins in the Portland metro area.
Johnathan, since you mentioned your proximity to I-5, you might want to check out the numbers on Benzene levels in your own backyard. Since most states including my home (Missouri) outlawed Benzene in gas in the 1970s, it makes one wonder who controls it in Oregon, and why we still have to put up with it.

Alan 1.0
Guest
Alan 1.0

It might depend how one defines ‘”motorized transportation” centric’ but the Common Sense Alternative answers all the concerns I’ve seen about I-5 seismic safety, automobile capacity, local access, lift span openings, roadway safety and highway freight, not to mention ped, bike, light and heavy rail, so I’d say, “Yes, it is possible to promote that, livability and promoting active transportation.”

Now if only CSA could get some traction…

dwainedibbly
Guest
dwainedibbly

The contradiction was what he said in 2010. What he’s saying & doing now are probably more true to heart. Shame on us for believing him.

BURR
Guest
BURR

Freight, construction and other special interests pay big money to lobbyists and make large campaign contributions to elected officials to ensure that people like Secretary LaHood are in their corner; while the US people were busy being apathetic our government has become a pay to play system, and this is par for the course. No one should be surprised.

John Lascurettes
Guest

Isn’t Blumenauer tight with LaHood? Couldn’t we get him to bend his ear over this?

Dennis
Guest

I fear, that this project will unleash the same kind of rush-to-sprawl, that followed the opening of the I-205 bridge did. Imagine, tens of thousands of california-style housing developments, all the way to Kelso, Washington. All of those new commuters crossing into Portland each day. Yes, it’s building like it’s 1950 all over again.

Joe Cortright
Guest
Joe Cortright

Thanks, Jonathan, for this thoughtful reflection on what the CRC says about USDOT’s priorities. Squandering $3.5 billion on this massive freeway widening project–at a time when traffic levels on I-5 are at 1998 levels, and going down–is embracing a dying past and not a sensible future. There’s no guarantee that this project can be brought in under budget or that any extra federal money will come to the region, and therefore CRC will be, for a decade or more, a financial black hole–sucking up every dime of transportation money in the region.

Like you, I’ve admired Ray LaHood’s policy statements on cycling and moving away from car-centric policies; but this project seriously undercuts his credibility.

Todd Solomon
Guest
Todd Solomon

Signing off on the ROD for CRC is completely consistent with Secretary LaHood’s 2010 pronouncement. The Secretary has said repeatedly that DOT will continue to support all modes including bicycling, walking, riding transit, taking rail, and driving cars. And, let’s not forget the continued importance of shipping the supplies and finished goods that fuel our economy over the roads via truck. Yes, a river crossing on an existing interstate highway will necessitate a few miles of widening on either side to accommodate the lane drop from a future-looking bridge to an aging highway. But in what universe does a crossing that supports bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders, and–horrors–cars and trucks–constitute a “favoring of motorized transportation?” There is not space enough here to enumerate all the ways LaHood and US DOT have supported multimodal transportation, sustainability, and livability in Portland and across the nation (check http://fastlane.dot.gov for yourself). If your local leaders had sent him a plan for the CSA, maybe he and DOT would have signed off on that. But they didn’t, and you’re barking up the wrong tree.

spencer
Guest
spencer

The bridge will get built in some form. Its a shame. Lets not subsidize more sprawl. While we’re at it, lets bury I5 from Marquam to the bridge and unite the neighborhood back together.

Bob_M
Guest
Bob_M

Ray LaHood sees the bridge improving bicycle access and the bridge will provide a light rail connection. The bridge will also facilitate motor vehicles which are (for right or wrong) the mainstay of America’s transportation system. Yes he can have it both ways. The existing bridge is obsolete and far short of current safety standards.

I admit I am concerned that facilitating movement over the river will move the bottleneck to the rose quarter and into neighborhoods, but other than that it is just an expensive bridge and road improvement project.

This blog is an echo chamber for agreeing opinions who, on this issue, are in a significant minority.

Lenny Anderson
Guest
Lenny Anderson

What is truly bizarre about the CRC proposal…and that is all it is as no one has the money…is that about 1/3 of its cost is for auxilary lanes and ramps to accommodate local trips which should not be on an interstate freeway to begin with. About 1/3 of the traffic on the existing bridges are local trips, which are there because there is no alternative, no local bridge and no transit connections to destinations in north and inner northeast Portland. An arterial bridge with good transit and bike/ped access would free up capacity on the existing freeway for freight and other essential trips at a fraction of the cost.

pdxpaul
Guest
pdxpaul

This is one of the reasons I have recently joined the Concordia Neighborhood Association board and support Bike. Walk. Vote. Folks, it is time to get out there and do things that matter.

Harvey
Guest
Harvey

Wouldn’t the “Super Highway” make it easier for commuters in cars to stay off Williams?

EngineerScotty
Guest

While I’m not fan of the CRC as proposed, I’ve never got the impression that Ray LaHood was an opponent of future automobile or road expansion. He supports alternate transportation (in that he likes to see it built); but he (and the Obama Administration in general) also supports more roads where he thinks it is warranted. This is preferable, I suppose, to administrations that give highways all the money they want and other forms of transport get the back of the hand, but at this point in time, you’re not likely to get an anti-highway administration in the White House.

Peter Buck
Guest
Peter Buck

Walking, bicycles and transit are great ways to get around within cities and dense urban areas. One could argue that city-to-city transportation could also be handled efficiently by mass transit although even the most bicycle-friendly countries have massive city-to-city highway systems. If you’ve ever driven the A4 from Schiphol to Delft as I have done you will see amazing car traffic congestion. Suburb-to-suburb transportation may be the root of our problem in Portland. When people don’t live where they work we end up with many one-to-one routes that are difficult to do efficiently any other way than by individuals each in their own car. It’s too far to cycle for most, it takes too long on transit systems that don’t have express routes and it is probably hard to find groups of people who live near each other, work near each other, and will constrain themselves to a common schedule to enable car-pooling. Our growth and land-use policies exacerbate the problem by making it attractive (i.e., cheap) to live far away from where we work. In short, the traffic volume over the bridge is not going away until we change land use and growth policies across the region, which means Clark County as well. Our highway design makes the problem worse for cities because we insist on putting highways through city centers. Look at a map of European cities like Copenhagen, Munich, Amsterdam. Their highways utilize rings to move through-traffic away from the city core. Highways that enter the city usually stop there. For Portland urban residents, I suspect that the suburb to suburb commuters are the real problem. They cause two 6-hour commute congestion periods daily, causing significant noise and air pollution. Initially a higher capacity I-5 bridge may reduce the length of the commute periods (noise) and if cars are not idling in traffic the air pollution should decrease as well. I suspect the actual traffic volume on I-5 will increase as some commuters move from the I-205/84E route to I-5. I think it is a valid concern that providing an easier commute may encourage others who work in Oregon to move to Washington unless we also put controls on growth to discourage long distance commuting.

Perhaps an irony, but these people are going to cause congestion one way or another. Now they cause congestion on the freeways, but they go home at the end of the day. If they lived closer to work, they’d cause congestion locally, putting stress on our Portland metro urban growth boundary and our road and utility infrastructure.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

“…The project’s main purpose is to make driving an automobile easier, safer and more convenient. …” maus/bikeportland

To what end? The U.S. government supports projects like the CRC with the idea that such projects will grow the nation’s economy.

Anticipation of improvements to safety and convenience associated with travel across the bridge by motor vehicle would probably induce more people to drive the bridge, but this is probably something many people in business and the U.S. government, want.

Does the U.S. government particularly care whether or not people use, or object to people using the Columbia River bridges to daily hop from Washington to Oregon and back as home to work commuters?

If this pattern of human routine appears as though it would bolster the economy…cause more housing subdivisions to be built, create more jobs…etc., etc., the government is probably not going to object to it happening, regardless of whether the routine is wasteful and detrimental to basic regional livability.

007
Guest
007

To: Kitzhaber and Gregoire, “Boo! Boo! Boo!”