Sunday, April 25, 2010
TriMet backing away from some planned service cuts
By The Oregonian
April 20, 2010, 5:45PM
After a series of public meetings, TriMet announced today that it is backing away from a few of the service cuts it was planning as part of its effort to deal with budget shortfalls.
But other cuts remain in effect.
The transit agency announced that it will discontinue two bus lines instead of the three it had planned to cut; and that it will not eliminate any of the weekend bus lines it had planned to dump.
The agency still will eliminate the No. 27-Market/Main and No. 157-Happy Valley bus lines but will keep the No. 65-MarquamHill/Barbur, which also had been targeted. The agency will, however, cut back on the number of trips by the No. 65.
Another Marquam Hill bus line, No. 64-Marquam Hill/Tigard TC, will have some route and trip time changes and will provide some of the service no longer available on No. 65.
Also, the agency has decided not to eliminate weekend service by No. 32-Oatfield (Saturday), No. 45-Garden Home (Sunday) and No. 80-Kane/Troutdale (Saturday and Sunday). But No. 45 will have some route and schedule changes while the Nos. 32 and 80 will have a decreased span of service.
There were also some changes in MAX service, which are detailed in the attached document.
TriMet officials said the changes came after a series of public hearings and 10 weeks of public comment that resulted in more than 1,400 comments.
-- The Oregonian
When will WES prove itself? Tri-Met's Wilsonville-to-Beaverton commuter rail still suffering growing pains
By The Oregonian
March 08, 2010, 7:54PM
After a year of disappointing ridership and frequent breakdowns on WES, TriMet is expected to trumpet a rare piece of good news about Oregon's only commuter-rail line this week.
Preliminary numbers show average daily ridership reached 1,260 in February, marking two straight months of growth for the much-maligned Beaverton-to-Wilsonville service.
Just two months ago, ridership on WES -- $161.2 million to build and 10 times more expensive to operate per rider than MAX -- appeared to be on a steady slide, attracting 1,075 passengers a day.
"We're officially in Year Two now," said TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch.
True. On a cold morning commute last month, the Westside Express Service turned 1. But the first year may have only reinforced questions about whether TriMet inflated ridership projections to get federal funding and if the 14.7-mile line can ever be viable.
Ridership hasn't been the only letdown.
In 13 months, myriad mechanical problems – from faulty wiring to blooming cottonwoods along the tracks clogging engines – have forced WES riders off the system's three brand new diesel-power trains onto cramped shuttle buses on 16 full days.
On the weekday-only WES, that has added up to more than three weeks with disruptions. Still, many regular riders are sticking with the service.
"WES is great, and not just because it saves me two tanks of gas each month," said Canby resident Deborah Guinther, a funeral home assistant who was on a sunrise train to Tualatin recently. "Of course, if I pull in and see a TriMet shuttle bus waiting for me, I just drive to work."
TriMet dismisses the trains' regular trips to the garage as first-year hiccups. The agency expects the disruptions to become far less frequent once two vintage locomotives purchased for $150,000 from the Alaska Railroad are tuned-up as backups this summer.
As far as ridership, TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen says it's way too early to say if the agency's heavy-rail gambit was a mistake. "If we weren't in the worst recession since the Great Depression," Hansen said, "I think it would be a different story."
Perhaps. But the federal government, which paid for nearly half of WES' construction, has always had doubts about the line's ability to attract riders.
During the planning process, federal officials repeatedly challenged estimates submitted by TriMet as too high. Eventually, the Federal Transportation Administration, commonly known as the FTA, approved WES with anticipated average daily ridership of 1,594 during its first year, increasing to 3,037 by 2020.
The only string attached to $59 million in federal money was that WES operate for at least 20 years.
Nationwide, transit agencies vying for funding from the billion-dollar New Starts program have "systematically overestimated" ridership, a federal study found. Even so, the FTA "really had this project under the microscope," said Ross Roberts, a Metro deputy director of planning and development, who worked with TriMet on the projections. "We had a number of very intense sessions."
A Metro computer program looking at travel times, ticket costs and demographics, among other things, calculated ridership.
In the past, the model for local projects have proven to be spot-on -- or even understated. Only MAX's Yellow Line through North Portland failed to meet first-year estimates, while the entire light-rail system has exceeded opening projections by about 3 percent.
TriMet didn't help dampen expectations when it revised estimates in early 2009, predicting 2,400 daily WES riders the first year. By July, officials had stepped back from that number.
In the United States, there's no other suburb-to-suburb commuter rail line quite like WES, just a handful of stops with only one end connecting to a larger rail network. So, it's hard to draw comparisons when measuring success.
Washington County Chairman Tom Brian, who some critics have accused of pressuring TriMet into building WES, said the ridership projections -- produced before the recession -- were bound to fail with Oregon's economic crash. Patience, he said.
"I think it's a temporary problem," he said. "It was for commuters. And there are fewer jobs to commute to right now."
But while officials wait for the economic engine in the high-traffic corridors linking Beaverton, Tualatin, Tigard and Wilsonville to rev up, WES is proving costly to run.
TriMet pays $50.47 per train mile to operate WES, compared with $16.20 for MAX. Meanwhile, broken down by passengers, TriMet spends an average of $20 per boarding; the same cost on MAX is less than $2.
Those costs, TriMet says, will come down as ridership goes up.
But it's hard to find a realistic route that would allow WES to ever meet ridership goals.
Federal rail authorities say it's reasonable to expect ridership to grow strongest in a new line's early years, averaging about 3 percent annually. Using that formula, daily WES ridership would still barely hit more than 1,600 passengers by 2020 -- roughly half of TriMet's projection.
Hansen admits it will be tough. "Was that projection too high?" he said. "My guess is, it was a bit too high."
At the same time, he expects WES ridership might grow by 50 percent once people "discover" it and TriMet begins actively marketing the service.
No amount of advertising, however, can change the monster challenge of WES' location.
Part of MAX's success have been efforts that have spawned mixed-use developments featuring housing around light rail stations. More people closer to MAX increases the likelihood it will be used.
Contrast that with WES, which uses an existing rail line -- a noisy amenity that's more compatible with the rumble of Chicago than the casual whisper of the Portland region's light rail culture.
Look no further than concerns in Tualatin, where frequent horn noise from WES has prompted about $3 million in safety upgrades to create "quiet zones."
There's also the fact that TriMet's lease to use Portland and Western Railroad's freight tracks doesn't allow WES much room to expand beyond 32 daily rush-hour trips. The current contract would only allow the addition of a midday commuter run. Weekends are a non-starter.
Looking at the recent uptick in ridership, TriMet suspects a group of commuters stumbled onto WES during the December snowstorm. While light rail and bus routes experienced severe delays, WES' powerful trains plowed through the ice and snow, keeping their schedule.
On a southbound train with 50 souls aboard last week, there were only two complaints about WES -- no park and ride at the Beaverton Transit Center, and TriMet's proposal to cut service from every 30 minutes to 45 to help fill a $27 million budget hole.
"WES is awesome," said 44-year-old warehouse worker Chris Shaw. "But I don't know if I have 15 minutes of leeway in my morning schedule."
Richard England, a 59-year-old software engineer who was checking e-mail with the train's free wifi, said the change might also force him to drive more days.
The engineer's voice crackled over the intercom, directing riders to look at the windows at a rainbow on the horizon. England chuckled.
"But you know," he said, "this trip also saves wear and tear on my psyche. My wife likes it because I'm not coming home furious at some idiot who cut me off on 217."
-- Joseph Rose and Brad Schmidt
Sunday, April 18, 2010
County Cobbling Together Funds For New Sellwood Bridge
BY KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL
Portland, OR January 7, 2010 4:18 p.m.
Multnomah County corrected a new ordinance Thursday. As Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, it increases local vehicle taxes to help pay to replace the crumbling Sellwood Bridge.
Last year, bits of concrete were falling off the Southwest Portland bridge and nobody knew where the $300 million need to replace it might be found.
On a federal scale of 1 to 100 that measures bridge safety, it scored a two.
This summer however, the state legislature stepped in.
First, it passed a State Transportation Bill, which will generate about $100 million for the project.
Second, says Mike Pullen, a spokesman for Mulnomah County, lawmakers allowed the two counties nearest the bridge to charge extra vehicle registration fees.
Mike Pullen: "What happened in Salem last summer was a real game changer and is going to allow the Sellwood Bridge to be replaced if we have a few more pieces of the puzzle come into play here."
Yesterday, Multnomah County found another piece of the puzzle.
It corrected a new ordinance that will add $38 every two years to the state vehicle tax. The $130 million that will generate over the next 20 years, can only be used to replace the bridge.
Clackamas County is expected to consider a similar measure in the next couple of months.
The state has also contributed another $30 million to the bridge. And the hope is that the rest, about $40 million, will come from the federal government.
Mike Pullen: "We think we're going to start construction in 2012, late that year. so that's about two and a half years away. And we think you're going to be able to drive across the entire new bridge by about 2015."
That's good news for commuters who spend hours in their cars every week waiting to cross the Willamette River.
The design has yet to be decided, but Pullen says it's probably not going to be a fancy suspension bridge -- because of the cost.
Commuters might also be pleased to learn the bridge will remain open during construction. But warns Mike Pullen, don't expect miracles.
Mike Pullen: "We're not saying that that new Sellwood Bridge will eliminate traffic problems. The new bridge will do a number of important things. It will stand up to a moderate quake, which we don't think the current bridge would. It will have great facilities for bikes, pedestrians and will be able to bring transit and trucks across the bridge. And also it will improve traffic somewhat, especially on the west side around the bridge."
The new vehicle registration tax will go into effect September 1st for Multnomah County residents. It basically doubles the current fee.
© 2010 OPB
Feds approve $75 million for streetcar expansion
By Charles Pope, The Oregonian
April 30, 2009, 11:15AM
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood awarded $75 million in federal money Thursday to expand Portland's streetcar system, a decision that elated local officials who have long supported the stalled project and signaled a new national embrace of urban transit.
The federal government's money and blessing removes the last and most stubborn barrier to expanding the line east of the Willamette River and unleashes an already approved pot of $55 million from local governments and another $20 million from state lottery bonds.
The expansion means jobs -- not only for construction to expand the streetcar system by three miles and 18 stations, but also for manufacturing the streetcars, which will be built by United Streetcar, a subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works, in Clackamas.
The new loop is expected to begin service in 2011.
In announcing the money Thursday, LaHood lauded the design and purpose of a project that had been repeatedly blocked by the Bush administration. In the new administration, LaHood said, Portland can be a model for other cities moving to create or expand mass transit.
"Portland has done an outstanding job," he said, noting the city's integration of streetcars, buses and rail. "As a result, Portland is one of America's most livable and sustainable cities with a good plan for managing economic growth and development."
LaHood made the announcement in a conference call with Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio and David Wu.
The federal decision was not surprising, as President Barack Obama has spoken favorably of mass transit and LaHood reiterated that position in a meeting with reporters recently.
But supporters of the Portland expansion as well as transit advocates nationally said that making the announcement so early in the new administration and allowing the Portland project to leap over other projects sends an unmistakable message of federal support for transit.
The commitment of federal dollars will allow the Streetcar Loop Project to expand east across the Broadway Bridge, connecting the Lloyd District, the central east side and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
The line will then cross a new bridge to connect with the existing system. Construction on the 3.3-mile extension is estimated to cost about $77 million, out of a total project cost of $147 million.
Blumenauer, who has been a prime congressional advocate for the expansion, said it will add to Portland's quality of life but is even more important amid the state's sinking economy.
"It's going to be a tremendous economic shot in the arm for Oregon, putting over 1,200 people to work," Blumenauer said. "And I think it is an opportunity for us to start a new American streetcar industry with Portland as its capital."
He said representatives from more than two dozen cities have come to Portland to learn about the streetcar network. If those projects go forward, he said, it could mean more orders for United Streetcar, the only manufacturer of streetcars in the country.
The fledgling company was launched with the help of a $4 million grant that DeFazio inserted as an earmark in the 2005 federal transportation bill. United Streetcar is working with Skoda, a partner in the Czech Republic, on a prototype streetcar for Portland.
The new loop means an order for 16 new streetcars, Portland Mayor Sam Adams said in a statement praising the federal decision.
The federal money comes from the Small Starts program, designed by Blumenauer. Congress directed the federal bureaucracy to give streetcar proposals credit not only for moving people efficiently but also for spurring growth nearby in the form of restaurants, shops, apartments and condominiums. Bus routes, which can easily change, do not show such nearby development, Portland planners say.
In the past, the Federal Transit Administration had said the streetcar project did not meet a crucial test of cost-effectiveness, intended to ensure that tax dollars are wisely spent.
LaHood said the reversal behind his announcement is the result of a new philosophy about transit that arrived with the Obama administration. "This became a priority when this administration came into office," he said.
"We decided that the concept of livable communities is something that we really want to expand on, and part of that is developing modes of transportation where people do not have to get into their car every time they want to go to the drugstore or the grocery store, or their doctor's appointment."
Wyden and DeFazio, both Democrats, were more direct.
"The real answer is, elections matter," Wyden said. "The priorities are different now, and they are very much more in tune with the needs of the people of Portland."
DeFazio agreed. "The Bush administration had set up a black box test that no streetcar proposal would have ever been able to pass," he said. "They were not following the law, and this administration is."
Friday, April 9, 2010
Green light for TriMet's MAX Green Line
By Joe Brugger, The Oregonian
June 30, 2009, 8:12PM
As a MAX train glided through a brick-lined section of downtown Portland, someone in the VIP crowd of mayors and state and federal lawmakers onboard called out: "Where are we?"
The answer: Union Station, home of Amtrak and nearby Greyhound, a place where no MAX has gone before.
Such small surprises were the hallmark of the first trip aboard the MAX Green Line, the $575.7 million light-rail extension that will open to the public Sept. 12.
Dignitaries from U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and David Wu to city council members and county commissioners from across the region crowded onto a new-generation MAX train for the line's first end-to-end ride from Portland State University to Clackamas Town Center.
The route forms an upside down U, traveling from downtown along Interstate 84 to the Gateway Transit Center before turning south to the mall, bringing MAX service to Clackamas County.
A few things became apparent during Tuesday's back-and-forth trip:
Even after weeks of test trains zipping along, seeing MAX trains on the downtown transit mall still feels weird. While bus riders are used to quick stops and starts, the trains take a while to halt. Pedestrians need to be wary and confused motorists now driving on the tracks could face more than a ticket come September.
For folks who live, work or pass through downtown, little changed when the airport's Red Line opened in 2001 and North Portland's Yellow Line started in 2004. The new trains still went mainly east-west along Morrison and Yamhill streets. But Green Line riders will find themselves passing Chinatown and Union Station before a sharp right turn to the Steel Bridge -- thus the "Where are we?" moments. The Yellow Line will take the same north-south route starting in late August.
Close-in neighborhoods could be big winners. Hollywood, Rose City Park and Montavilla MAX riders along Interstate 84 will be able to choose among Blue, Red or Green Line trains to and from downtown Portland and that means more frequent service.
There's no sign when you reach Clackamas County, a center of retail and housing growth. But you know you've arrived when you see the Home Depot at Southeast Johnson Creek Boulevard -- and feel your stomach churn when you realize it's about two stories below as the MAX whooshes by on an overpass.
The crowded hills of Happy Valley rise to the left. Then, almost with a bang, the massive yellowish sign for the Century Clackamas Town Center movie theater looms into view, a beacon of suburbia that says you've reached the end of the line.
The first MAX Green Line round trip pauses Tuesday as a TriMet worker clears leaves from a switch near Portland State University. Federal, state and local officials filled the train and cheered the service at a reception at Clackamas Town Center.
"People have a tendency to believe that Clackamas County is a rural county," said Bob Williams, who represents the area on the TriMet board. "They don't see all the growth."
Williams recalls walking the route when he first joined the TriMet board 10 years ago, hoping he'd see a train there one day.
Rick Gustafson, a planner and transit deal-maker, said he remembers when Multnomah County and the Oregon Department of Transportation decided in the 1970s to preserve a corridor for mass transit along the planned Interstate 205. That effort made way for the Green Line a generation later.
Even then, they thought light rail could come to Clackamas County.
Bridge to Disaster
A Proposed New 12-Lane Bridge over the Columbia River Will Cost $4.2 Billion, Increase Traffic, and Do Little to Alleviate Climate Change. What the Hell Are We Thinking?
by Amy J. Ruiz
A man driving a gray Toyota pickup truck seems frantic; veering in and out of lanes trying to pass other traffic on the Interstate Bridge. His furtive moves don't do him much good—moments later, as we crest the green steel bridge headed south into Portland, we're greeted with flickering brake lights. Traffic slows to a plodding 20 miles an hour. We've stumbled into the morning congestion, a daily feature of the Vancouver-to-Portland commute.
Fortunately, it's a commute I never have to make. I drove to Vancouver on a recent morning to guide my Oregon-plated car into the current of vehicles bearing Washington plates purely as an experiment. I spent twice as much time in the southbound lanes trying to return to Portland as I had in the northbound lanes venturing into Vancouver. My blood pressure rose. I cursed OPB's April Baer for reminding me about the traffic I was clearly stuck in.
Like me that day, the vast majority of people driving across the bridge each morning—and back across each evening—are coming from Vancouver. According to 2005 numbers, 64 percent of people crossing the bridge southbound hopped onto I-5 via one of Vancouver's on ramps. Northbound, 60 percent of vehicles jump off the freeway into Vancouver. Unsurprisingly, Vancouver—with its cheaper real estate—is functioning as a bedroom community to Portland. And unsurprisingly, those commuters would like an easier commute into Portland.
One answer may be on the way, in the form of a $4.2 billion, 12-lane replacement bridge, coupled with light rail or bus rapid transit, and smoother on and off ramps in the five miles surrounding the bridge. Traffic engineers say the new bridge across the Columbia River—AKA the Columbia River Crossing—will make travel between the two states easier, safer, and faster.
It's the biggest public works project in our region's history, it's been years in the making, and local government bodies are poised to make final decisions on the project in the next few months. The problem is, even if we build one of the proposed new bridges, traffic is still going to increase from today's levels. And in an era of climate change—when a state task force has recommended drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 75 percent below 1990 levels—increasing lanes and thereby increasing commuter traffic is simply unacceptable.
A Recipe for Disaster
Nearly everyone agrees that the bridge and the five miles of freeway surrounding it are trouble spots. Columbia River Crossing graphs show that current collision rates are proportional to traffic volumes, but "appear to increase two-fold" during peak congestion. Short entrance and exit lanes give drivers little room to maneuver into a through lane. The bridge lifts about once a day to allow river traffic to pass underneath, and "three to four times more collisions occur" on the bridge during a lift, when traffic is stopped. (The bridge has the only red light on I-5 between Mexico and Canada, too.) Transit options are limited, carrying an average of only 3,475 people across the bridge each day. Clearly, the crossing could be improved.
In 2001, Oregon and Washington agreed. The "Transportation and Trade" partnership recommended coming up with solutions to congestion in three spots, including the bridge over the Columbia.
In 2005, the Columbia River Crossing project was born. By last spring, the 39-member Columbia River Crossing (CRC) task force narrowed down the possible solutions to five that address the area's problems: "congestion, dangerous travel conditions, and travel demand that exceeds capacity," according to a CRC summary. The options include both a 10-to 12-lane replacement bridge and a four-to five-lane supplemental bridge that would augment the existing span, which would be downsized to four lanes. Both of those options are being studied twice: once with light rail, and once with bus rapid transit. The fifth option is a "no build" option that compares the alternatives to doing nothing.
A Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) analyzing those five options will be released sometime this month. From there, the public can weigh in for 60 days, and the local jurisdictions—including the City of Portland and Metro—will vote on the "locally preferred alternative" chosen by the CRC task force. Once the agencies agree on an alternative, the project will be submitted for federal funding, with the goal of starting construction in 2010.
The DEIS isn't out yet, but there's already data on the five alternatives—and the numbers don't look too good.
Right now, 134,000 vehicles cross the bridge in a given day.
If we do nothing—absolutely nothing—that traffic is going to increase thanks to growth in the region, causing many more hours of congestion. By 2030, CRC staff estimate, 184,000 vehicles will use the I-5 bridges daily, a 34 percent increase from today's levels, and they'll be stuck in eight hours of northbound congestion, and seven hours of southbound congestion. In other words, that section of freeway will be clogged up just about all day.
But if a replacement bridge is built, paired with high-capacity transit like light rail, and tolled, traffic in 2030 will be only 178,000 vehicles a day. That's a decrease, project staffers argue, if you compare it to 2030 traffic without a new bridge, transit, and tolls. Indeed, according to their math, the $4.2 billion project gives us a three percent reduction in traffic—compared with sitting around and doing nothing.
But according to the project staff's own numbers, it's light rail and tolls that has the biggest impact on the traffic in 2030, reducing it by a whopping 20 percent. CRC staff compared a new bridge with transit and tolls to a new bridge without transit and tolls. Without the alternatives and fees, roughly 225,000 vehicles would use the bridges in 2030. With them, 2030 traffic is cut by one-fifth—to the 178,000 figure.
The problem is, no one has bothered to study what happens if we do the things that deter people from crossing the bridge in the first place. Ideas that would give commuters an alternative, but don't make driving an easier choice. In other words, could we reduce traffic by 20 percent today by building light rail to Vancouver, and tolling the bridge now, without spending billions of dollars on a new, bigger bridge? Instead of giving Vancouver drivers a continued excuse to drive their single-occupancy vehicle into Oregon every day, why not give them reasons to leave the car at home?
But that option's not on the table. What the hell are we thinking?
Climate Change Is Coming
According to the final report of Governor Ted Kulongoski's Climate Change Integration Group (CCIG), released in January, Oregon needs to "act now" to address the threat of global warming.
If we don't, the prognosis is grim.
"A broad scientific consensus tells us that climate change is accelerating, and that it is happening at a speed that was unanticipated even recently," the CCIG report says. "It is urgent that we act now, both to reduce the cause of this earth-transforming crisis by rapidly driving toward a low-carbon economy, and to begin to prepare for and adapt to the changes that mitigation cannot prevent."
The CCIG report doesn't mince words in describing Oregon's future, if we don't make drastic changes. "Sea-level rise is likely to erode beaches, flood low-lying areas, and increase the damage during storm surges. Changes in average growing season temperature will change the types of wine varietals that may be grown in Oregon, making some areas suitable for wine growing that presently only support less valuable crops, while making some high value wine grapes such as pinot noir more difficult to grow. Changes in climate will affect public health, as patterns of communicable diseases and disease vectors in Oregon change; chronic disease risk factors like ambient pollen concentrations, the prevalence of smoke from forest fires and physical activity patterns are altered; and economic changes threaten communities and put some Oregonians at risk for family violence and suicide." In other words, we're all going to die (and drink bad wine in the process).
Thankfully, the CCIG came up with a plan. It's not an easy one, however. According to the group's calculations, "we must reduce emissions by 42 percent from forecasted business-as-usual levels."
The "Oregon Strategy"—a 2004 report recommending greenhouse gas reductions, which the state legislature adopted last year—dictated a similarly tough goal: Emissions need to drop significantly, to at least 75 percent below 1990 levels, by 2050. Considering that we're currently pumping out emissions at a level that's 22 percent higher than 1990 levels—and we're expecting considerable population growth in the near future—we've got a lot of work to do.
According to the Oregon Department of Energy, transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon, accounting for 34 percent of emissions.
Smartly, the CCIG report devotes an entire chapter to transportation and land-use recommendations, urging the state to reduce "vehicle miles traveled." According to the report, "it is the area in which the state can have the most influence." Moreover, "reducing [vehicle miles traveled] is simply the single most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
Though the report doesn't specifically address the CRC project, the general recommendations caution against expanding infrastructure—which is exactly what the CRC project, which began before either report was issued, is poised to do.
"Traditionally, improvements in transportation systems have focused on supply, increasing capacity to meet travelers' needs. However, new infrastructure is expensive and may induce demand, locking governments into a spending cycle of adding increasingly more capacity as more drivers take advantage of new facilities."
Last October, Sightline, an environmental think-tank based in Seattle and focused on the Northwest, released a study addressing highway expansions' impact on emissions. Not surprisingly, Sightline found that building more roads increases greenhouse gas emissions, even when improved fuel efficiency of future vehicles is taken into account, and even if the highway expansion project initially relieves congestion (cars that aren't idling in stop-and-go traffic pollute less).
"Sightline assumes that rush-hour traffic will flow more freely after new lanes are opened, and that congestion relief will raise the effective fuel efficiency of vehicles on the roadway," wrote Sightline's Clark Williams-Derry. "However, consistent with academic findings and real-world experience, we also assume that new highway capacity in a metropolitan area will gradually be filled by new trips, and that congestion and stop-and-go driving will gradually increase to approximately the same level experienced prior to the highway expansion."
Applying that logic to the CRC project—which, project staffers say, is bigger than the current bridge thanks to auxiliary lanes that allow for smoother entrances and exits—Williams-Derry points out the potential long-term effects of a bigger bridge. "You're increasing the capacity of the corridor. The end result is that there's going to be more space in the corridor and in that facility for more cars. Over the long haul, any cars that get diverted from the main freeway lanes into the auxiliary lanes, that's going to free up more space for long-distance traffic on the Columbia River Crossing."
And according to Sightline, "Adding one mile of new highway lane will increase CO2 emissions by more than 100,000 tons over 50 years." To put that in context, the average US citizen is currently responsible for 20 tons of CO emissions each year.
Groups like Sightline aren't the only ones raising alarm bells about building more roads. Locally, critics of the big bridge are emerging as the CRC project nears a decision-making point.
Joe Cortright, an economist with Impresa Consulting in Portland, released an economic analysis of the CRC project on February 13. In it, he compared the cost of the bridge project to "80 OHSU aerial trams," which "works out to nearly $2,000 per capita from each of the region's two million residents."
He picks apart the CRC's own numbers, and concludes that the bridge isn't going to solve any traffic problems. Instead, it will exacerbate congestion: "Growth in trips across the Columbia will be 70 percent greater with the bridge than if we don't build the bridge... The presence of larger transportation facilities encourages people to take trips they would otherwise avoid, or re-route."
And that traffic will spill over into the rest of the transportation system, Cortright argues. (Watch out, North and Northeast Portland.) "Presumably, with four or five travel lanes in each direction, there will be no congestion on the bridge. But what about the rest of the traffic system? How do they manage this volume without congestion on the rest of I-5? How do I-5 and North Portland road networks handle the additional 13,900 peak hour trips that will be generated by the new bridge?" Cortright asks.
The CRC's Transportation Planning/Traffic Engineering Team, along with project finance specialists, issued a March 3 memo reviewing Cortright's analysis. The CRC staffers called Cortright's analysis "incorrect," because, for example, he uses numbers from a preliminary 2002 study.
Cortright responds: "I used the newest data I could find on their website when I put it together. They've come up with some other numbers. It doesn't lead me to believe that what I wrote was wrong," he says. "What we know is—and what their data shows—that bridges cause more traffic, and tolls reduce it. It you want to reduce traffic, tolls and transit are the way to do it."
The Coalition for a Livable Future (CLF)—a group of over 90 organizations working for "healthy and sustainable communities" in our region—is pushing for a "climate smart" Columbia River Crossing. The current proposals, according to the CLF, represent an "outdated freeway expansion project that will increase global warming pollution, harm people's health, and undermine our region's vision of a sustainable economy."
Instead, the CLF wants to see a project that "reduces the growth in driving," according to Co-Director Jill Fuglister, who's also a member of the CRC task force. They recently adopted a "Climate Smart" resolution that says "we only support a Columbia River Crossing Project that will reduce the growth of driving in the future."
More Lanes, More Problems
Fortunately, the six local agencies involved in the project on both sides of the river—on this side, that's the City of Portland, Metro, and TriMet—have veto power over the project (Metro votes in April, and Portland's city council votes in May on the preferred alternative). CLF members are hoping to convince one agency to put a stop to the big bridge plan.
As that battle shapes up, local political leaders are gathering information, and beginning to take sides. At the City of Portland, Transportation Commissioner Sam Adams "really wants to hear what the community has to say on it," says his chief of staff. Mayor Tom Potter, according to a spokesperson, "has serious questions about how it's got to this point," but doesn't believe it would be a good idea "to pull back" at this time. Commissioner Dan Saltzman hasn't taken a position yet, and Commissioner Erik Sten will likely have left office by the time the issue hits the city council.
Commissioner Randy Leonard says his position has been consistent: "I would be generally supportive of the project on the condition that it has light rail, pedestrian and bike lanes."
At Metro, Councilor Robert Liberty has "very serious reservations about the project. It shows weaknesses in how we make decisions about transportation. It's a failure in creativity in how to define and address the problem."
He'd prefer to start by tolling, and then build the bike and pedestrian plus transit connection as a second phase.
So far, Liberty is the most outspoken of local leaders, but he says several of his colleagues on the Metro council— which will also consider the project—are "raising concerns."
It's unclear, however, if Liberty's strong views will trickle over to the City of Portland. "There's something basically wrong with the idea that the approach to Portland, which is trying to brand itself as a leader in sustainability, is a 12-lane bridge. How we spend our money says a lot about what kind of place we are, and I think we can do a lot better than this."
In this blog I hope to highlight the smart planning (or lack thereof) in the Portland Metro Area. I will mainly focus on the interplay between avenues for transportation that provide an avenue for urban sprawl (bridges, freeway development) and those that focus on urban development and redevelopment (Trimet) as they provide a means to get around the city easier.
Thanks for reading,
Thanks for reading,