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Environmental Studies

A Bridge to the Twentieth Century: Megaproject Technocracy and the Columbia River Crossing


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The Future of the CRC
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A Bridge to the Twentieth Century: Megaproject Technocracy and the Columbia River Crossing 
Local Activism
It is interesting to see how environmental critiques of the planning process and of the suggested final form of the bridge approach the issue from wildly different perspectives. Traditional environmental advocacy groups have stated their opposition to the project under the auspices of how it detriments the ecologically fragile Columbia River; more progressive organizations, such as the Coalition for a Livable Future, have included in their critique a charge of environmental racism in that the reduction of air quality and presence of extra congestion along the Portland stretch of the I5 corridor will disproportionally impact the region’s only African American communities in North Portland. Organizations that are looking at the land-use implications of the facility note that the bridge will only encourage further suburbanization of northern Clark County; while Oregon has progressive, strict laws on urban growth, the lack of an urban growth boundary on the northern side of the river has enabled significant suburban sprawl north of Vancouver, and groups such as the 1000 Friends of Oregon have noted that the DEIS does not include a discussion of how a twelve lane interstate bridge will encourage further low-density development on the periphery and essentially subsidize Vancouver commuters interested in working but not living (or paying property taxes) in the city of Portland.

Many organizations are attacking the transportation planners for what they see as an unwillingness to plan for the state-mandated reductions in carbon emissions. Oregon and Washington have stated commitments to cut carbon reductions to 75 and 50% of 1990 levels, respectively, and yet a transportation project that serves to predominantly increase automobile use and will affect transportation options for the next century doesn’t seem to fit these stated goals.

A certain group of environmentalists are attempting to change the discourse of the construction of the megaproject by reappropriating and reframking the arguments made by ODOT and WashDOT.  Economists such as Joe Cortright have been glaring critical of the fallacies of the assumptions inherent in spending over $4 billion on a facility that hinders the region’s ability to adapt to the likely future of limited supply of cheap oil.

 For our purposes of understanding how science is appropriated by various actors to support their causes, this represents an interesting situation; this articulation attempts to “fight fire with fire” by not just proposing alternative perspectives that should be consulted through the construction of this megaproject but by explicitly finding flaws in the very assertions made about why this bridge is necessary.  This explicitly-environmental critique of economic discourse provides contrast to the Portland Business Alliance’s assertion and others that the construction of this bridge is the only economically sensible method of addressing this problem.

“If [the CRC were] to go ahead, you would be placing all your bets on a descending paradigm and ignoring the ascending paradigm…we are now well into what’s called peak oil. The era of cheap energy is coming to an end. We’re trying to figure out how to make our cities operate on a more sustainable basis, with a different kind of environmental footprint, and how we move around our cities is absolutely front and center. And to have, essentially, a mid twentieth century solution as we enter the second decade of the twenty first century, especially in this community, is really surprising.” (Robert Campbell, PDXplore Event)

These groups and other citizen activists have numerous critiques of the current DEIS.  Many have noted that the spatial scope of study has been significantly limited to the corridor itself, with little to no research about possible solutions involving a bridge downstream.  The DEIS has been criticized as well for the assumptions inherent in the assumed relationship between traffic demand and this facility; the projected traffic on the new facility for the next fifty years assumes that gasoline will continue to cost no more than $1.50 a gallon as it did upon the time of study in 2001. Others note that increasing the traffic capacity at the bridge will only encourage more people to use their automobile to get between the two cities and create significant traffic bottlenecks throughout the rest of the transportation system, particularly in parts of North Portland where I5 can’t be widened without the use of eminent domain. Notably absent from any of the studies is the possibility that congestion tolling may be able to disincentivize travel across the bridge during peak hours and thus lower both carbon emissions and the need for a new facility. While politically unfeasible, especially to the large number of residents in Vancouver who depend on the city of Portland for employment, shopping and entertainment, it is astonishing that such a gigantic project could be undertaken to attempt to solve congestion along the corridor without suggesting that the solution may be in the alteration of behavioral patterns rather than physical infrastructure.

Concerns about Induced Demand

Columbia River Crossing : Induced Demand from Nick Falbo on Vimeo.

Some activists have pointed out the need to really understand the origins and destinations of individuals who use the facility; one study suggests that the construction of a smaller, additional bridge downstream serving local traffic networks could ease concerns about freight shipping and local trips by connecting a handful of important destinations and avoid the need to expand the interstate bridge to such an enormous size.

It is amazing to see that citizens, who have the least funding, least spare time and theoretically least knowledge about traffic engineering, have been able to specifically articulate ways in which the the problems the CRC attempts to address can be solved in ways that are much cheaper and much less harmful to the surrounding community. I'm not sure whether this stands as an affirmation of the principles underlying our democracy, that the collective voice of the common man can be trusted to make important decisions, or of a harsh critique of the ability for technocratic transportation engineers to meet the needs of the 21st century city. Either way, equipped with the technological capability to not only produce counter-CRC proposals but to publish them to a mainstream audience, local advocates attempting to take on the mighty Departments of Transportation have pushed back against the dominant discourse about the necessity of the project and the ways in which it was politically implemented.

"...And to have, essentially, a mid twentieth century solution as we enter the second decade of the twenty first century, especially in this community, is really surprising.”

Last updated:  3rd May 2010


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