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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 
Looking Ahead: The Future of the Columbia River Crossing

As a self-proclaimed advocate for both participant-based community planning and the construction of more sustainable, livable communities, I find myself ultimately unsure whether I am more frustrated with the technocratic zeal employed by state governments to construct this project, their flawed set of assumptions that guide their reasoning for the necessity of a new bridge, or the general inability for local activists to yet claim enough legitimacy to be taken seriously in their advocacy for a facility that is more likely to meet the economic, transportation and livability needs of cities of the twenty-first century. The compartmentalization of the provision of infrastructure into individualized state agencies has created a method of governance in which it seems feasible to spend billions of dollars on a facility that only addresses an exceptionally narrow set of community needs (moving cars across the river) through an exceptionally antiquated set of methodology for analysis of potential solutions. It baffles me to attempt to understand how, in an era of oil uncertainty and massive budgeting shortfalls, and in a region known for its progressive transportation/land use policy and effective local governance, the political machines (and the industries that support them) that implement and dictate the construction of these megaprojects are still able to draw up blueprints for $4 billion, 12-lane interstate projects. When the final Environmental Impact Statement is released sometime later this year, I am curious to see how effective an admittedly fringe group of activists and journalists will be at stopping the highway-industrial complex from the construction of this facility. The calls from activists to “start the project over from scratch” and think of solutions involving more than the construction of highways are idealistic and hopeful to say the least; it will take significant political mobilization by concerned activists and a serious shift in regional governance for this to be a realistically possible outcome. With that said, the upcoming elections for Oregon Governor, Metro Council President, and the recent election of an anti-tolling advocate mayor in Vancouver represent perhaps the most direct opportunities for citizens to democratically change the course of this project.

While it would be significant to see environmental and community activists lead the charge to abandon current plans for the bridge, their efforts have a powerful ally in the exorbitant cost of the bridge. As Jack Ohman's cartoon above suggests, the initial attempts of the bridge proponents to include as many facilities as possible (twelve lanes of highway, light rail, bicycling paths) might ultimately lead to the  reconfiguration of the goals of the CRC. It would be a lot easier for bridge proponents to push the project through the objections of the local community if Oregon wasn't facing one of the largest budget crises in history. As the project is downsized to meet the constrained cost estimates, opposition grows from the litany of parties that signed off on the bridge because it met their needs.

The Columbia River Crossing project is a remarkable case study into the ability for transportation-based governmental agencies to continue to construct large highway projects in light of changing discourses about urbanism, transportation, and civic participation in planning. While a vital link between the two cities is undoubtedly necessary and pertinent to the region’s future, the shape, size, and costs of the project will ultimately reflect the ways in which government entities understand and promote regional sustainability in terms of economics, equity and ecology, and government's willingness to listen to its own constituents about their concerns.

My own proposal would call for immediate tolling on all regional interstates, including the current bridge, which would raise revenue to conduct further studies about how to specifically address the traffic needs of the region while adhering to a principle of strict sensitivity as to how this project would relate to the immediately affected communities. A new vision for transportation planning calls for increased legislation for smart land use and growth policies, while keeping an eye on regional equity for both affordable housing and available transportation options.  My perspective asks for a new regional approach to solving questions of transportation and land use by employing a litany of perspectives to explore broadly how to best establish the Portland/Vancouver region as an equitable and sustainable 21st century city.

Political Cartoon by Jack Ohman, The Oregonian, Published May 1st, 2010

Last updated:  3rd May 2010


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