PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — As transportation officials in Oregon and Washington plan a replacement for the aging Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River, critics and regional leaders are demanding a project that will help Oregon reach its carbon-reduction goals.

The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program aims to replace the current span from Portland to Vancouver, Washington, with a modern, seismically sound structure that will reduce congestion and increase the capacity for public transit and cycling. The current bridge over the Columbia River is more than 100 years old and relies on old wood pilings underwater, making it prone to collapse or to suffer heavy damage during an earthquake.

Oregon and Washington have agreed to share the cost of the project.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is.

The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program is a rehashed version of the unsuccessful Columbia River Crossing project from 2004, which focused on the same bridge and offered up the same solutions and funding mechanisms. A 2019 Oregon Secretary of State audit called the project a “failure” with valuable lessons offered.

The CRC effort died in 2014, after Oregon approved spending $450 million toward the project but failed to get the same buy-in from Washington state. “As a result, after nine years of planning and millions of dollars spent, the CRC project was terminated in 2014 without any construction,” the audit reads.

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The conceptual new bridge would include auxiliary lanes to allow easier entrance to and exit from the freeway, improving the flow of traffic. The bridge also is slated to have variable rate tolling, but that cost has yet to be decided. Construction is estimated to take six to seven years, and could begin in 2025.

While upgrading or replacing the bridge is all but inevitable, Oregon’s leaders say it’s time to get it right.

On Jan. 6, the Metro Council voted to approve $36 million committed by the Oregon Department of Transportation toward preliminary engineering of the bridge project. Councilors cautioned that full buy-in is contingent on whether it will meet Metro’s and the Bi-State Legislative Committee’s goals of advancing racial equity, furthering resiliency and economic prosperity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We know we’re going to have to compromise and that no compromise is perfect, but what’s important here is that we honor our values of limiting pollution and protecting the environment, while also keeping our economy moving and improving our region’s livability,” Metro Council President Lynn Peterson said Jan. 24 during a Bi-State Legislative Committee meeting on the bridge. Metro is the regional government that oversees land use and infrastructure for urban Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.

Climate goals under microscope

On the eve of the Metro Council’s Jan. 6 vote, roughly two dozen climate activists gathered in the rain under Apotheker Plaza outside Metro’s Portland office with signs and a megaphone. The group called for a bridge project that emphasizes public transit, bicycling and walking, saying current plans to add auxiliary lanes will only put more cars on the freeway and threaten Oregon’s carbon reduction goals.

“If we don’t solve Climate Change, nothing else matters,” Lynn Handlin of Happy Valley said, en route to the plaza. “Right now, we’re selling out our grandchildren’s future.”

Oregon and Washington lawmakers, along with bridge project planners, are evaluating whether a new bridge should include light rail, a rapid transit bus system, or a bus that runs along the shoulder.

Both states have set climate goals of reducing emissions below 1990 levels by 2035. Oregon has a far more ambitious goal than its neighbor to the north, aiming to reduce emissions by 45% below 1990 levels by 2035, and by 80% by 2050. To get there, Oregon will need to significantly curb emissions from its largest sources of pollution, one of which is transportation.

The bridge project’s own director isn’t certain a new bridge can achieve that.

“Are we going to make a dent in greenhouse gas production? I’m not sure, but we’re going to try our best to get that done,” Greg Johnson, project manager for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, told Metro councilors.

In a follow-up interview, Johnson said easing traffic flows on I-5 during peak hours will reduce the number of idling cars, which will, in turn, cut down on vehicle emissions. He notes vehicles run inefficiently at low speeds and high speeds. Reducing congestion, incentivizing transit and replacing a sizable chunk of gas-powered vehicles with electric ones over the next decade should help curb emissions, Johnson said.

“We are creating a multi-modal corridor that will have vastly improved choices for folks who want to get out of those single-occupancy vehicle trips and ride transit or walk the bike across through this form,” Johnson said. “Look at the congestion that’s out there now, seven to 10 hours of congestion. If we don’t address some of the things causing congestion, this will increase in the future.”

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Johnson said the bridge needs to support both current and future traffic loads. It also needs to provide greater access to transit and non-vehicle trips. Commuters rely on the bridge to get to and from work. Freight trucks also use the route to transport goods.

“We cannot build a bridge that is small and recreates the conditions that are out there now,” Johnson added.

He later said the project’s leaders are “committed to reducing (greenhouse gas) emissions in line with the goals of our state and local partner agencies,” when asked again whether a bridge could both increase capacity and reduce emissions.

The new project will rely on environmental impact studies from the former CRC, but will include an updated, supplemental environmental impact statement that looks at air quality, greenhouse gases, traffic congestion, and more, compared to what the outcomes would be if no changes took place.

The Federal Highway Administration requires the bridge project to address six key elements: seismic vulnerability; limited public transportation; impaired freight movement; inadequate bicycle and pedestrian facilities; growing travel demand and congestion; and safety concerns with the existing roadway design.

While there is no federal requirement to address greenhouse gas emissions, project leaders say they’re committed to doing that.

Opponents say bridge will invite more traffic

The core argument against expanding freeway capacity is a concept called “induced demand.” The theory is: anything that increases capacity will incentivize people to drive more, and eventually will recreate the same problems that exist now, says Chris Smith of climate advocacy group No More Freeways.

“All of the alternatives proposed for the IBR include 10 lanes. Whether or not we call these ‘auxiliary lanes’ (they are longer than the entire I-405 freeway) is immaterial,” Smith wrote to the Metro Council in November. “The project refers to these lanes creating ‘a more efficient bridge.’ That very efficiency is what will induce more single occupancy vehicle trips, increasing greenhouse gas emissions. We must prevent that.”

Transportation has been at the center of climate justice protests in Portland, mostly organized by teens. Youth activists have called on agencies like the Oregon Department of Transportation to stop investing in fossil fuel infrastructure altogether.

Ukiah Halloran-Steiner, 16, is a high school junior in Yamhill County and an organizer with Sunrise Rural Oregon — an extension of the national youth-led Sunrise movement to stop climate change. Halloran-Steiner said teens and young adults are pressing for bold action because younger generations will be most heavily impacted by the decisions being made today.

“That (bridge replacement) project, specifically, could be harmful to my future, and their plans do indicate that the project could be an expansion of lanes,” Halloran-Steiner said. “I think this is one of those freeway expansions that’s going to take a lot of money from places like investing in more transit in inner-city Portland and better transit in rural communities.”

Still time to get it right

Input from climate advocacy groups hasn’t gone unnoticed. Two days before Metro’s meeting on Jan. 6, the council penned an open letter to the public saying the money slated to be approved by Metro for the bridge would help study the project and make sure it’s scaled appropriately.

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“We cannot get the answers we need about this project’s ability to meet our values and expectations without the work that is funded by the (Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program) amendment,” Metro’s letter states.

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The council’s 5-1 vote to approve funds for the project came with reluctance.

Councilor Mary Nolan pressed the bridge project team to come up with a bridge design that moves more people out of cars and into transit.

“I’m asking whether you will commit to including in the options … things that dramatically shift the multi-modal split,” Nolan told Johnson, flatly. “I’m asking whether essentially everything we’ve done today has struck a chord with you.”

Nolan was the lone dissenting vote.

Councilor Juan Carlos Gonzales said he believes it’s possible to design a bridge in line with Metro’s goals and values.

“I am supporting it because I think that bridge is possible,” Gonzales said. “If it becomes clear that that bridge is not possible, we’ll cross that when we get there.”