The $2.8 billion project to build a new Interstate 5 Bridge across the Columbia River died nearly six years ago, the victim of political infighting and controversy over its huge cost and environmental impact.
But the Columbia River Crossing still lives — at least in the traffic projections of the Oregon Department of Transportation.
ODOT acknowledged Tuesday that its traffic modeling for another freeway project — a $500 million upgrade to I-5 in Portland’s Rose Quarter area — assumes that the Columbia River Crossing will still be built.
Megan Channell, the manager for the Rose Quarter project, said traffic modeling includes all of the road projects in the Portland region’s transportation plan, “including the CRC … We’re sort of staying with what the adopted projects are.”
Channell disclosed the CRC traffic assumptions after opponents of the Rose Quarter project found hints of it in technical reports that ODOT released under pressure.
Portland economist Joe Cortright said ODOT’s use of traffic projections influenced by construction of the Columbia River Crossing allowed it to make a much stronger case for the Rose Quarter project.
“In doing so, they’ve created a world where we built the CRC,” he said, “and it’s funneling thousands and thousands of additional cars at the peak hour into the Rose Quarter.”
As a result, Cortright said, ODOT’s projections show a much bigger improvement in trip times from the Rose Quarter project than is actually warranted.
The Columbia River Crossing project died in 2013 when Republicans then in control of the Washington Senate pulled the plug on funding. Washington legislators have started a new effort to revive some sort of bridge project, but there is no agreement with Oregon officials on what it would include and how it would be financed.
The current twin I-5 bridges over the Columbia River are now a major pinch point for traffic. So is the Rose Quarter area, where drivers jockey for position as three interstate freeways intersect.
Channell said the Rose Quarter project is still valuable, whether anything resembling the CRC is ever built.
The Rose Quarter project calls for added “auxiliary lanes” that will make it easier for drivers to enter and exit I-5 along a stretch of road that runs from just north of I-405 to the I-84 interchange. Channell called the new lanes “proven ways we’ve used to reduce congestion in our region.”
Critics, however, say the state should instead impose tolling in the Rose Quarter area, which they said would reduce congestion without the expense of building the freeway.
ODOT, at the direction of the Legislature, is actually seeking federal approval for possible tolling in the Rose Quarter area. But officials say they are keeping that process separate from the Rose Quarter project.
“Why is it that the CRC is being assumed but congestion pricing isn’t?” asked Aaron Brown, leader of the group No More Freeways. He and Cortright charge that ODOT is more interested in building a freeway network through the Portland area that would accommodate a lot more traffic. They say that would make it harder to fight climate change and develop alternative forms of transportation.
Cortright accused ODOT of a “monumental display of bad faith” in failing to include the use of CRC traffic data in the environmental assessment that was released last month. The comment period on that report ends April 1.
Channell said there was no attempt to hide the link to the CRC. While the assessment makes no mention of the Columbia Crossing, she noted that it does mention the assumption that projects in the regional transportation plan would be built.
The Rose Quarter project was one of three major freeway projects included in a massive transportation bill passed by the Legislature in 2017. The other two projects call for new lanes on Highway 217 in Washington County and an additional lane on I-205 near Oregon City and West Linn.
The bill also directed ODOT to move forward with tolling on I-5 and I-205.