Elected leaders clamor for more details on Columbia River Crossing 2.0

Members of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Executive Steering Group brought forth some concerns at the March 17 meeting.

As the clock ticks down toward the self-imposed deadline for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program to select a “locally preferred alternative”, a number of elected officials are concerned they aren’t being given access to the information they’ll need to sign off on a project design.

As soon as next month, the project team will be presenting one draft alternative, which will include a recommendation on the number of lanes the project will have, what interchanges at Marine Drive and Hayden Island will look like and what type of transit we should expect. So far, however, the advisory groups charged with providing feedback have been given very few details on different alternatives being considered and the trade-offs between them.

“Candidly, I must tell you that I’m pretty disappointed in the discussion here… I don’t think I’ve learned anything in the presentation yet today.” -Mary Nolan, Metro Councilor

It has been months since three options were presented for the primary segment of highway over the Columbia River, all of which are slated to expand I-5 over the Columbia River to ten lanes. After those were put on the table, the IBR team did agree to analyze what might happen to the highway’s design if transit use and congestion pricing were fully utilized in the project design, but so far we haven’t seen any evidence that alternative options will be presented.

At the project’s Executive Steering Group meeting last week, Metro President Lynn Peterson signaled there could be problems ahead given the lack of details that have been presented to the group so far.

“I’m concerned that if we’re just going to get one recommendation based on a series of assumptions that it’s not actually going to allow us to see how the three components…play out in different ways,” Peterson said. She said she wants the group to be presented three different scenarios that they can examine more closely. “I think it’s going to be a shock to the system if there’s just one recommendation without a narrowing down.”

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Program staff have been guiding officials toward just one preferred alternative for several months. “One of the concerns with bringing multiple things forward is, it complicates the next step in the process,” Program Administrator Greg Johnson said, alluding to the supplemental environmental impact statement process the project will head into next. “What we’re doing is trying to get into the stadium, and there’s a lot of decisions within that stadium.”

The 2011 final environmental impact statement for the failed Columbia River Crossing project actually included two different alternatives for the Hayden Island/Marine Drive interchanges, pointing toward a false urgency to narrow things down completely at this stage. So far, most of the options being considered look very similar to the preferred alternative from that project, with proposals like an immersed tube tunnel (in use regionally in places like Vancouver, B.C) having been discarded last year by the project team.

Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty also pushed back on being presented one concept that’s moving forward.

“You’re telling me you’re doing all this work, but I don’t see it…and you’re telling me this is a major decision point, but it’s not that important because it’s going to change later.” she said. “I don’t delegate decision-making to my staff.”

She also raised the issue of having to get approval from other Portland City Council members when they are busy with work on the budget in May. “I think you’re putting unrealistic expectations on me,” she said of the current timeline. “If I’m this confused about the decision that you’re asking me to make in July…can you imagine how confused my colleagues are going to be.”

Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar described the locally preferred alternative as a starting point before the project is put through the “meat grinder” that is federal environmental policy review. “The decision we’re being asked to make this summer is not to pick an alternative to build. It is to pick an alternative to test,” he said. Right now in Seattle, Sound Transit, the regional transit agency on whose board Millar serves, is currently seeking comment on a draft environmental review of a planned light rail line; along a key segment of that line Sound Transit has selected no preferred alternative but is studying a whole slew of options.

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At a Metro Council work session on the project earlier this month, Councilor Mary Nolan, the only council member who voted against advancing funding for the project earlier this year, also expressed frustration with a lack of information.

“Candidly, I must tell you that I’m pretty disappointed in the discussion here. I had come to this conversation hoping that we would have a lot more detail from the project team than we seem to have. I don’t think I’ve learned anything in the presentation yet today,” Nolan said near the end of the work session.

If those details are to be fully fleshed out, they will only have a few meetings to do so before the self-imposed deadline to select a locally preferred alternative. The question is whether the rush to meet that deadline will leave any important considerations left unexamined. If any elected leaders are feeling pressured to make a decision they aren’t ready to make, things could get complicated, fast.