Soundings

Ethan Epstein
Portland’s Phantom Bridge
While traffic congestion stifles Oregon’s economy, environmentalists block upgrades.
Spring 2011

It’s only a little after 2 pm, and the traffic headed north on the bridge from Portland, Oregon, to Vancouver, Washington, is already at a standstill. The northbound side of I-5 is choked with cars and trucks, all inching forward at less than ten miles an hour as they cross the Columbia River, which divides the two states. Of the 59,000 people who live in and around Vancouver and work in Portland, many have decided to head home before rush hour. As a result, they’ve created the congestion that they hoped to avoid.

This shouldn’t surprise the frustrated early commuters, for such bottlenecks occur every weekday. According to statistics compiled by the Port of Portland—the agency that oversees the city’s airport, railroads, highways, and container ports—the I-5 Columbia River crossing is one of the nation’s most clogged highways, comparable with far more populous thoroughfares like the corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C. The bridge from Vancouver to Portland is less than three-quarters of a mile long, but it takes 45 minutes to cross it at peak times.

Since 2005, a coalition of pragmatic politicians, developers, businesspeople, government agencies, and commuters has been trying to solve this problem by doing the obvious: building a bigger bridge with federal, state, and local funds. The existing bridge is only six lanes across, nowhere near enough to support the 135,000 vehicles that cross it each day. The coalition is pushing for a new, 12-lane bridge that would replace the current structure. But with equal tenacity, environmentalist journalists, politicians, and activists have been thwarting the project. For six years, not a brick has been laid or an action taken, except for the establishment of a task force to study possible bridge designs. (For a similar story, see “The Tappan Zee Is Falling Down.”)

Failure to replace the bridge has already exacted steep economic costs. After all, the economy of Oregon—and of Portland in particular—is built on exports. Oregon has the fifth-largest export-supported job base in the country, and one in five jobs here is trade-related. According to Port of Portland statistics, for every $1 million in export sales that the state loses, ten jobs are lost as well. The I-5 highway is the main freight-trucking node in Oregon, and in 2007, the last year for which data are available, over $30 billion worth of goods crossed the Columbia. (That’s a third of the Portland area’s annual GDP.) The bridge stands in a uniquely strategic location, providing close access to Portland International Airport, two Class I transcontinental rail lines, and four ports. If you want to ship something into or out of Portland, it’s more than likely going to travel along I-5. Hence the high cost of bridge congestion to the area’s economy. Freight companies have begun scheduling deliveries for off-peak hours, but as traffic continues to grow, the amount of off-peak time is steadily shrinking. Sysco Foods recently opened a regional distribution center in Spokane, Washington, instead of Portland, a clear sign of the area’s declining competitiveness. Intel, a major Portland employer, has reported that it has missed deliveries because of traffic congestion, thereby negatively affecting production lines worldwide.

The area’s economy can’t afford such hindrances. Oregon’s unemployment rate stands at 10.6 percent; it’s 10 percent in Portland, where wages are 4 percent below the national average for major metropolitan areas. A report put out by Portland’s government last December found that Multnomah County, which includes Portland, “ranks second from the bottom in private sector job creation among the 194 counties in the western United States during the past decade.” Portland must become attractive again to exporters if it hopes to thrive. Yet the city is sure to experience further decline if it remains saddled with the inadequate bridge. A study by the Economic Development Research Group of Boston estimated that “failure to invest adequately in transportation improvements” would result in annual losses to the area of $844 million and 6,500 jobs by 2025.

The hazards associated with maintaining the status quo aren’t just economic. Port of Portland officials maintain that the current bridge, which opened in 1917, would not be able to survive a powerful earthquake—a serious concern in the seismically active Pacific Northwest.

Portland mayor Sam Adams bears heavy responsibility for the project’s inertia. Adams, who has declared that he wants Portland to be “the world’s most sustainable city,” claims to support a new bridge, but he is holding it hostage to environmental goals—tolls (in order “to get cars off the road”) and a light-rail connection to Vancouver (“No light rail, no Columbia River Crossing”). Yet whether the bridge includes light rail depends on Vancouver voters’ approving a sales-tax hike that would partly fund it. There’s no guarantee that they’ll do that; in fact, they rejected a similar proposal in 1995. Adams has thus boxed himself into supporting or opposing the project according to the will of the relatively conservative electorate of a city that he doesn’t govern.

Lamentably, many in the local media have parroted the mayor’s anti-bridge rhetoric. The Portland Mercury, a weekly newspaper popular with Portland’s “creative class,” has led the charge against the project. Utterly misunderstanding the purpose of bridge-building, the newspaper charges that a new bridge will do “little to alleviate climate change.” Even this rather odd claim is far from obviously true, since cars stuck in stop-and-go traffic spew far more emissions than do those traveling at a steady clip. The Willamette Week, another paper based in the city, lamented that “the project makes driving easier.” The reliably left-wing newspaper has also bizarrely adopted a Tea Party attitude toward the bridge, professing outrage at its projected $3.6 billion price tag. The irony is that the bridge would be cheaper to construct without the light rail that the critics demand. Local environmentalists have even founded an organization called Stop the CRC (for “Columbia River Crossing”), charging that the bridge is a “mega highway to a dead-end future.”

In early February, a panel of transportation experts from across the country, appointed by the governments of Oregon and Washington, recommended that the states reject the most recent proposed bridge design on durability grounds. But with environmentalist anti-bridge sentiment riding high, durability may be the least of the project’s problems. It looks increasingly unlikely that construction could commence in 2013, as promised. Portland’s public-works trucks bear an uplifting slogan: the city that works. Without a new bridge, that motto will mean less and less.

Ethan Epstein is a writer based in Portland, Oregon, whose work has appeared in Slate, The Weekly Standard, and other publications.

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