Interstate Bridge Replacement plan throws North Portlanders under the truck (August 2023)

Everyone agrees that the traffic bottleneck near the I-5 Bridge between Oregon and Washington needs to be fixed. The backup of vehicles during morning and afternoon rush hours affects traffic daily for miles in either direction for hours. It costs in money, time and frustration. It also creates unhealthy air for neighborhoods along the I-5 corridor including the seven neighborhoods of North Portland immediately adjacent to it.

The Interstate Bridge is a critical connection between Oregon and Washington. It is also the main north-south connection from Mexico to Canada and is an important economic driver of local, interstate and international trade. 

It’s clear the bridge doesn’t have capacity for current conditions. Its original span is over 100 years old and not designed to earthquake standards. Freight advocates have pointed to the high economic cost of congestion to their industry and the economy as a whole. 

Oregon and Washington legislatures recently approved support for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project (IBRP) and Oregon pledged the first $1 billion in what is estimated to be a $6-billion project. An earlier bridge planning process, the Columbia River Crossing (CRC), failed after 9 years and millions of dollars spent when the Washington legislature voted it down. It was a windfall for consultants while no construction was actually undertaken. 

While the need for change is indisputable, what is in question is the best plan to achieve it. The lead agencies Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation (ODOT and WSDOT), say the answer is to add more lanes, make the span high enough to avoid the necessity of being a drawbridge and add a toll. The height of the proposed span would be a soaring 60 ft. while the width could be 175 ft., roughly double its current width. It would be a massive structure.

But some experts question whether ODOT and WSDOT are basing this solution on facts or politics. Critics say adding more lanes has rarely achieved the elimination of congestion. Instead it may simply shave minutes off waiting times—a fact the lead consultant Gregory Johnson has reluctantly admitted. When Oregon Senator Lew Frederick. asked, “How much time will people save?”, Johnson’s answer was a convoluted “not much.” He later told editor Ken Vance of Clark County Today, “we know that the highway mode can’t handle all of the current and future needs through this corridor.” He then listed various other modes of transportation required to relieve the bottleneck.

What is the significance of this for North Portlanders? If the freeway’s capacity is increased while congestion continues, North Portlanders living near the I-5 corridor will find their air quality even worse than it was prior to the “improvement.”

The 35,000 residents of Hayden Island will be uniquely affected since the proposed freeway interchange will occur there. Not only could air quality deteriorate with increased vehicles, such a massive structure could dominate the island. 

Illustration of current I-5 interchange and proposed interchange

Hayden Island Neighborhood Network (HINoon) members, Ellen Churchill and Martin Slapikas, were active in the former CRC planning process and are active in its current iteration, the IBRP. Churchill noted that planners asked the neighborhood what they wanted to see in the interchange. But when she requested traffic studies to base the recommendations on, no studies were forthcoming. She said, “My problem is that in order to decide on a recommendation, we had questions. We wanted to see traffic studies.” 

It begs the question, do the agencies even have studies to base their proposals on? 

Churchill continued, “We’ve asked for a 3D model, but we’ve never seen one.” When asked if they have confidence in ODOT and WSDOT’s planning and execution of the IBRP,  Slapikas answered, “No. They don’t have a clue how large the bridge is supposed to be to serve the whole West Coast. And I haven’t seen any planning that addresses how the IBRP will work with the traffic issues that still exist at the Rose Quarter.”

Some political leaders have also expressed little confidence in the agencies. Former Metro president David Bragdon wrote a scathing review of the earlier CRC planning process. Bragdon is now the Executive Director of TransitCenter, a New York-based foundation that works with leading transportation advocates and agencies in major cities across the nation. He said, “I was an up-close witness to ODOT/WSDOT management’s bad faith for several years. Leadership at ODOT frequently told me things that were not true, bluffed about things they did not know, made all sorts of misleading claims, and routinely broke promises. They continually substituted PR and lobbying gambits in place of sound engineering, planning and financial acumen, treating absolutely everything as merely a challenge of spin rather than matters of dollars or physical reality.”

When asked what they would ideally like to see happen with the I-5 bridge, both Hayden Islanders, Churchill and Slapikas said, “We would like to see alternative corridors considered, more crossings instead of concentration on just one.” Churchill reiterated that she would like to see facts, studies and a 3D model to help make recommendations.

John Charles would agree. The Cascade Institute Policy expert wrote earlier this year that “Planners and their political allies seem to be missing a central truth about river-based cities: they need lots of bridge crossings. In downtown Portland, we have two interstate highway bridges over the Willamette River, plus many local crossings including the Burnside, Steel, Morrison and Hawthorne bridges. Each crossing serves a market and is necessary for the proper functioning of the city. 

“If we applied ODOT’s logic for the IBRP, we’d tear down all the local Willamette River bridges and just keep the Marquam and Fremont Bridges.” 

IBRP planners promise a robust community outreach effort. The North Peninsula Review will continue to report on the process and opportunities for North Portlanders to give input to leaders.