On Monday night, citizens and community leaders gathered to discuss the Columbia River Crossing project (CRC), a source of much debate and frustration in recent years. The discussion brought many concerns to the forefront but did not offer much in the way of specific alternatives.
The meeting, organized by the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods (NECN), was an opportunity for community members, experts and elected officials to share their thoughts on the CRC, a proposed 10-lane highway bridge connecting Portland and Vancouver, WA. The bridge would also include light rail and a bicycle path. Over 150 people, most of whom oppose the project in its current form, gathered in Concordia University's Luther Hall for the proceedings.
While attendees mentioned a number of different complaints against the CRC, a few issues were brought up early and often. A common concern was that the project, estimated by its supporters to cost slightly over $3 billion, would actually end up costing over $10 billion. Speakers also frequently cited the fact that planning and discussion of the project has already cost over $100 million to date.
Early in the evening, a pair of presentations examined the details of the project's cost. A short film by Spencer Boomhower, entitled "CRC: A Boatload of Questions," framed the issue with the use of sleek computer graphics. The film provided a primer of what the CRC would actually entail, including bird's eye map footage of the affected areas.
The night's keynote address was a PowerPoint presentation by Joe Cortright, the President of Impresa, an economic consulting firm. Cortright presented concerns about the CRC from an academic perspective.
Cortright explained that the CRC budget uses projections from the middle of the past decade, which stated that traffic on the bridge would be much higher than it actually is. Cortright cited the fact that Interstate 5 accomodates 17,000 fewer cars per day than forecast by the CRC (note: Cortright's October 2010 report for Impresa states that the forecast overstated the traffic by "roughly 14,000 vehicles [per day]"). Because there are fewer cars on the road, the toll revenue would not be nearly as much as forecast, thus driving up taxpayer costs. Cortright also examined the inherent financial risks of the project, pointing out that “mega-projects” like the CRC often go well over budget.
After Cortright’s presentation, the moderators opened the floor to leaders of community organizations and the public. Objections ranged from how the project would affect the livability of the northeast neighborhoods to how the public was being victimized by a “sales job” at the hands of politicians, lobbyists and big business. At the core of these concerns was the feeling that the opinions of the people have not been considered by those in power.
“A lot of these people have taken their time over the last 12 years and sat in a million meetings, and felt like their voices haven’t been heard,” said Jeri Williams, Neighborhood Program Coordinator for the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement. “I think that’s one of the things that drives this emotion.”
Concerned citizens also continually referenced the environmental impact of the project, and some suggested that the resulting pollution would increase asthma and cancer rates in the surrounding areas.
Said Williams, “We’ve been asking for information, specifically on air quality and different environmental justice effects, and the Columbia River Crossing [planners] just kept telling us ‘later, later, later’.”
Despite the harsh words for the project, many people did acknowledge that the congestion caused by the I-5 Bridge is a problem that needs addressing. Many mentioned the need for an alternative plan, but few offered any specifics. Some speakers alluded to the fact that the next NECN meeting, scheduled for March 23, would be the proper forum for the discussion of alternatives.
The evening concluded with words from two elected officials, Oregon State Representatives Tina Kotek and Lew Frederick. Kotek played devil’s advocate and discussed how the CRC was more than simply a Portland project. She mentioned how an easier passage over the Columbia River would benefit freight and shipping companies, and she urged attendees to contact her with her concerns. Her tacit support of the CRC was received with moderate warmth by the audience. Representative Frederick played it more safely, stating that he was still in the process of forming an opinion on the matter. The even-handed testimony from the elected officials contrasted sharply with the sentiments of the overwhelmingly anti-CRC crowd.
The event’s organizers expected that the majority of the crowd would be opposed to the CRC project in its current form. “I wasn’t surprised by the opinions expressed tonight,” said David Sweet, Co-Chair of the NECN Land Use and Transportation committee, and one of the event’s two moderators. “We’ve taken a strong position on this; we didn’t really intend this to be even-handed. We have a point of view, and we believe that our point of view represents the neighborhood.”