Last week, the elected and agency officials who sit on the Executive Steering Group for the second attempt at the Columbia River Crossing project were elated to receive official word from the federal government that climate change and equity impacts won’t be directly centered in the project’s reboot. Celebrating that fact might seem odd, but the good mood around the virtual table that came from receiving written guidance from within USDOT seemed to stem from the fact that the project can now move along at a relatively quick pace.
“Based on our review, we believe the proposed modifications [to add climate and equity] to the FEIS [Final Environmental Impact Statement, a legally required document] are potentially substantial enough to require a new EIS and NEPA process, although additional information on precisely how the proposed modifications would affect the existing range of alternatives is needed before we could confirm this,” the regional heads of the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration wrote jointly in their letter (below) to the project team. A new EIS would add years to the project, an outcome that received essentially unanimous disapproval at last month’s meeting.
In other words, now that addressing climate change and equity are not explicitly issues that the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program is intended to address, work can begin to take the failed Columbia River Crossing project and polish it up to look like new.
Program administrator Greg Johnson insisted that the project will still examine climate change impacts and equity considerations very closely, but when those considerations go up against the already-approved project purpose, they almost certainly won’t win.
“… even if the program were to restart as a new project or pursue a Revised EIS, there is no guarantee that climate and equity would be able to be treated as transportation problems within a new Purpose and Need statement,” states the federal memo. “FHWA and FTA believe there are many opportunities to address climate change and equity with meaningful mitigation measures and actions.”
The project team made it clear that the work to polish off the CRC will only look at what’s changed since the design was developed over a decade ago. The steering group reviewed an image (below) of the project area with a few of those changes highlighted. Including things like “bridge type” and “number of auxiliary lanes” on the list of options that could be considered in response to those changes makes it seem like everything is still on the table; but any changes since 2011 will have to be big enough to justify changing the Locally Preferred Alternative selected for the CRC, which includes ten lanes on I-5, including two of those auxiliary lanes that ODOT is working to add to I-5 in the Rose Quarter.
The Executive Steering Group, as it celebrates the Feds encouraging the project team to keep the purpose and need exactly as it is, is trying to shift the focus onto outcomes. “I love the idea of actually starting with the end goal,” Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty told the group. “If we are not weaving equity and climate mitigation into every story we tell about this project, then I think we will be failing our communities.”
This week the Metro Council will be discussing the project in a work session, and reviewing a set of draft outcomes they want to see from the project. Among the outcomes centered on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving air quality is, “a more efficient transportation system is achieved that improves traffic flow of the highway”. That outlook jibes very well with ODOT Director Kris Strickler (who worked on the CRC during his time at WSDOT) and his belief that freeway widening is a climate change strategy.
Of course, the issue of how the expected $3-4 billion price tag will be paid for is still outstanding. The pressure to pass a statewide transportation package in Washington decreased last week as Governor Jay Inslee vetoed sections of recently passed climate laws that kept them from taking effect if a new transportation revenue source wasn’t approved. However, the appetite for a large roads package among lawmakers is not likely to be significantly dampened by that move, and this project is one of only a few that gets namechecked nearly every time one comes up. Oregon lawmakers appear to be waiting for Washington to make the first move, which might not come until next spring.
The project team hopes to have a recommendation on a final project submitted to the bi-state legislative committee in charge of the project within a year. This month it became explicitly clear just how constrained the choices that will lead to that decision will be.
— Ryan Packer – email@example.com
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