Cold feet at Metro? Council contemplates slowing down Interstate Bridge megaproject

Posted by on October 26th, 2021 at 10:15 am

Metro Council President Lynn Peterson.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

As the “universe of design options” for the second attempt to expand I-5 between Oregon and Washington begins to narrow and the project team seeks to make the highway’s expansion to ten lanes a foregone conclusion by early next year, several members of Metro Council are signalling they aren’t quite ready to advance the project forward.

This marks a rare decision point in a project that has been moving forward very quickly.

At a work session last week to discuss the project, Metro President Lynn Peterson noted there is “a level of discomfort within the council about approving money when we don’t have the trust level built up to the point where we would like it to be.”

Peterson’s comments come as the Oregon Department of Transportation prepares to ask Metro to approve an amendment to the Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program (MTIP) that would change the status of the Interstate Bridge Replacement program, aka the CRC 2.0, from planning to preliminary engineering, allowing them to access a substantial amount of the expected $135 million that it will cost to fully complete environmental review. Approving the MTIP amendment, the move would allow the project to access $36 million allocated by the Oregon Transportation Commission, in addition to $35 million in funding that has been allocated by Washington.

When asked what might happen if Metro doesn’t approve the amendment, IBR Program Administrator Greg Johnson put it bluntly: “The worst case scenario is that the program doesn’t have the dollars to do what’s necessary and it starts to shut down.”

The Metro Council plans to vote on the amendment December 2nd, following a vote of the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT), which includes members from a broad array of bodies and agencies. This marks a rare decision point in a project that has been moving forward very quickly. Peterson noted that Metro councillors still have a lot of questions about the project that they’d like to get answered before that vote.

During the meeting, it was Councillor Mary Nolan who pushed back hardest on the project, tying the IBR to Oregon’s legislative commitment to reduce emissions from transportation by 45% compared to 1990 levels by 2035. “That’s more than having a few slideshows about climate resilience,” they said. “What steps is your team taking to design to that outcome?” they asked program administrator Greg Johnson.

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Johnson’s response to that was revealing in terms of how the project team is approaching the issue of vehicle emissions. “Reducing VMT is an idea that we think will be accomplished by giving folks robust alternatives to those single-occupancy vehicle trips,” he said. “We know there are folks that want to walk or bike, and having that as part of the mix is tremendously important. But we also know there are still going to be folks that are going to drive. And right now there are 143,000 people a day who use the corridor, so we want to make sure that those folks are not adding to greenhouse gases by sitting in unnecessary backups, by doing smart things. Not a freeway expansion, but making the freeway smarter, by putting auxiliary lanes that connect and take those movements that cause folks to stomp on their brakes every time they’re in the corridor.”

Councilor Mary Nolan during last week’s work session.

In a dramatic moment, Nolan held up a printed-out rendering of the Columbia River Crossing, with its looping interchanges, on-ramps, and imposing footprint on Hayden Island, and asked Johnson, “are you telling me this is not on the table?” Johnson demurred, referencing the slow conversion of vehicles on the roads to electric and returning to the points he made earlier. “We have to do smart things to make sure that traffic isn’t sitting in backups, everyday, for ten hours a day on average.”

Councillor Juan Carlos Gonzalez, on the other hand, seemed less interested in grilling the project team than signalling where he hopes the project is headed. “For me, I can speak for myself…I would like the project to have as small a footprint as possible,” he said.

In August Gonzalez was the only member of the Metro Council to vote against advancing three Portland-area highway projects to the construction phase via MTIP amendments and said at that time that he won’t be voting to approve any highway expansion projects until Oregon prioritizes improvements along the region’s dangerous state-controlled arterials.

Given the tally at that August vote, it seems unlikely that there would be a majority on the Metro Council who are ready to give this project their no vote. But the vote itself may provide the Metro Council, which is asking questions about this approximately $4 billion megaproject that aren’t being asked anywhere else, leverage to get some answers.

— Ryan Packer, @typewriteralley, ryan@theurbanist.org
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joan
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joan

This is excellent news. I’m particularly pleased to see Mary Nolan’s response given her earlier support for the I5 Rose Quarter expansion. I also wanted to note how much I appreciate Ryan’s coverage of this issue, and the resources BP is dedicating to covering it.

hamiramani
Subscriber

I want to second Joan’s appreciation for Ryan’s hard work on covering CRC 2.0. So important for us to stay up to date on this important freeway expansion project.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin

Thanks both of you for noticing this. I sometimes think people just see words on a page and think it all just magically appears and forget how much work and money it takes to get the good stuff on here.

JaredO
Guest
JaredO

“Reducing VMT is an idea that we think will be accomplished by giving folks robust alternatives to those single-occupancy vehicle trips”

Don’t know if this is dishonesty or ignorance talking.

There are two things that reliably reduce VMT: pricing and economic downturns.

There is something that reliably increases VMT: highway expansions like this one.

Of course, if we took the $4 billion ODOT wants to spend on this project and used it to build robust alternatives instead of this project, VMT might go down. But putting bike lanes on a highway expansion isn’t a way to reduce VMT, and it’s disconcerting ODOT is willing to make that claim.

ivan
Guest
ivan

Don’t know if this is dishonesty or ignorance talking.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

― Upton Sinclair

Keviniano
Subscriber
Keviniano

It’s a damn shame that the majority of the Metro Council feels that all they can do is grumble about “discomfort” before ultimately approving what clear *is* a highway expansion. Not much appetite there for setting off a real or perceived war on the freeway industrial complex.

Steven Smith
Guest
Steven Smith

“Keeping cars moving” is ODOT’s answer to greenhouse gas emissions. Is the Metro Council bold enough to call them on that bullshit? Every dollar spent on expanding freeways–on making it easier to drive–is transportation money that could have been spent actually addressing reducing emissions: high capacity and frequent transit, better bikeways.

But, in answer to my own question about Metro Commissioners…probably not–even though they KNOW that building this freeway (and I5 in the Rose Quarter) moves us diametrically away from where we need to go.

Dave
Guest
Dave

“Keeping cars moving” is ODOT’s answer to greenhouse gas emissions.”

It’s not just ODOT. This is the narrative being pushed (hard) by some of the most influential regional transportation decision makers and it’s rarely, if ever challenged. Attend any JPACT, WCCC, or C4 meeting and hear it for yourselves. Better yet, attend a meeting and provide public comment to our leaders.

Bikeninja
Guest
Bikeninja

This is one case where I am all in favor of foot dragging. Hopefully Metro and others will drag this out until it becomes obvious to everyone that we no longer need it because personal automobiles ( of any kind) have become too expensive to own and drive, and no one has them anymore.

Geo
Guest
Geo

What are you talking about? Everyone I know owns a car. Not improving infrastructure seriously hampers city growth and increases the burden on the poor who have to live in the suburbs. Especially with electrification and said driving inevitably on the horizon, I don’t understand why so many are so dead set against projects like these.

soren
Guest
soren

Not improving infrastructure seriously hampers city growth and increases the burden on the poor who have to live in the suburbs. Especially with electrification and said driving inevitably on the horizon,

It’s actually freeways that have helped push poor people out into the suburbs. Perhaps we should focus on providing affordable housing and fostering decent jobs closer to urban centers instead of frittering away billions of the people’s tax revenue on infrastructure that we won’t even need in 30 years.

Watts
Guest
Watts

When I was younger, the lament was “freeways have allowed rich people to move out into the suburbs”; now it’s that they “push” the poor there.

If folks get a yard and some room to breathe, maybe that’s not such a bad thing to be “pushed” into.

soren
Guest
soren

even the rich should be allowed to live in a modest apartment in a 20 story tower surrounded by urban greenery.

Douglas Kelso
Guest
Douglas Kelso

When asked what might happen if Metro doesn’t approve the amendment, IBR Program Administrator Greg Johnson put it bluntly: “The worst case scenario is that the program doesn’t have the dollars to do what’s necessary and it starts to shut down.”

Given where the project is right now, I’d call that the best case scenario.

Kill the whole thing and start from scratch with completely new people.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Metro members might think about maybe, possibly, debate a few minor changes here and there, adjust a few words – punish the good and praise the inept at ODOT – before they rubber stamp the whole enchilada as usual.

They really don’t have any choice, of course. No one does. This window of opportunity of getting cash from congress is rare and will close in mid-December of 2022 when the Republicans again have control of one or both houses.

J_R
Guest
J_R

Exactly. When the R’s gain control of the Congress, the only money available will be to build roads – without ANY provisions for bicyclists, pedestrians, transit – and damn the environmental consequences. Have no doubt, the bridge will eventually be replaced. If the R’s are in control, they will see to it that motoring will be promoted. And those who’ve been vaccinated or wear masks will probably not be allowed to use it anyway.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Your optimism is amazing. I would have figured that there will be the same total deadlock as under Obama, when any serious bills passed would be vetoed by the president, except climate disaster relief bills.

maxD
Guest
maxD

My recollection is that the design never resolved the height issue: It was too high to avoid conflicts with the nearby airfield, and too low to avoid having to buy-out a couple of profitable industries that needed to move stuff from the est side to the west side of the bridge. Not only is the proposed bridge way too wide with massive impacts due to the ramps, I find it suspicious ODOT is not addressing the height.

Roberta Robles
Guest
Roberta Robles

Exactly this. The entire project is contained by the ridiculous restrictions imposed by Fort Vancouver . Fort Vancouver is limiting ramp points and height access. If Lynne Pederson was doing her job she would have put the lid on the antique airfield which is actually a very dangerous place to have drippy ass old school airplanes calling the shots. forcing the entire nation into a a congestion standstill. Pederson has not stuck her neck out to address the historic land use inequities centered at the Fort [Indigenous genocide] Vancouver and environmental impacts of the existing location of the freeway.

Bikeninja
Guest
Bikeninja

The Reason this bridge willl not be built is the same reason the Romans were no longer building aqueducts in 230 ad or any year after that.

soren impey
Guest
soren impey

While you wrote that comment private oil company profits are hitting records and most oil is being produced by state-owned companies that have zero interest in decarbonization by 2050.

JimK
Guest

One big question is this:
IS THIS PROJECT LESS FULL OF LIES THAN THE CRC?
see: http://no-tolls.com/false_claims.html

JaredO
Guest
JaredO

It’s really time Peterson decide what her legacy will be. She tried valiantly to pass a regional transportation package. But legacies aren’t built on unpassed bonds.

Now the question is will her tenure mainly be marked by two billion-dollar-plus highway expansions for the region? Or will her legacy being one of the most high-profile elected officials to hold true to our climate goals and smart transportation planning, and standing up to the highway lobby?

Lenny Anderson
Guest
Lenny Anderson

see Michael Andersen’s BikePortland story from 2013 about Jim Howell (and others’) simple bridge replacement option that has a new eight lane bridge and keeps the old bridges for transit, bike and local traffic at a fraction of the cost.
20 years ago the consultants for the Governors’ I-5 Task Force reported that one third of the traffic on the I-5 bridges was local; I suggested a “Broadway Bridge” solution. Why not put local traffic on a local bridge?