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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
Steamrolling: ODOT and WashDOT leading the charge
The planning and design of this project has largely been a joint product of Oregon and Washington’s Departments of Transportation (ODOT and WashDOT, respectively). In 2001, the historically noncooperative agencies founded the I-5 Transportation and Trade Partnership to begin studying possible solutions to alleviate congestion along the corridor.  The Partnership organized a 39-member task force in 2005 to specifically address possible solutions for the congestion of the stretch of interstate across the Columbia River. While the task force included a handful of members who were specifically appointed to voice the concerns of active transportation and light rail facilities on the new facility, the committee was largely staffed with individuals advocating for the tangible construction of a new facility that would allow for increased traffic flow across the river. This is observable in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) released in 2008; the committee recommended the construction of a twelve-lane replacement span complete with light rail and bicycle facilities over other alternatives such as the construction of a smaller, local-traffic facility and the “build-nothing” option. The methods through which the five possible alternatives were evaluated in the DEIS (and the types of solutions that are studied) speaks loudly to not only to how the problem is understood by the transportation planners but also to the limited ability for citizens to get involved with the process.

The four alternatives and the federally mandated build-nothing scenario all rest on the assumption that the main concerns for the current facility are based on the need to allow traffic to flow as efficiently as possible between the two metros, and that the only way to address this problem is to construct as many as twelve lanes of interstate or provide a public transportation link. While the DEIS pays a modicum of lip service to the importance of local collaboration on some of the minor specifics of the project and the importance of building a facility that “meets the regions needs,” the document in essence promotes a false choice because of its assumption that the solution is a physical, tangible product. As architectural critic Robert Campbell noted at a recent discussion on the plans hosted by PDXplore:     

“What did I see?..I saw an engineering project. That was trying through purely engineering needs to solve an enormous range of problems on a very narrow strip of land…the problem had been very narrowly defined. That only one kind of expertise was being applied, and that was civil and structural engineering and only one site was permissible to look at to solve some of those problems….I also saw a bunch of concerned people.” – (Robert Campbell, PDXplore event)

The application of what Campbell calls “civil and structural engineering” to the facility suggest that the current official ways in which this project has been conceptualized have rested heavily on the traditional model of transportation planning which narrowly assumes all transportation projects must be designed for the efficient movement of automobiles.  As another panelist at the PDXplore event at PNCA noted,

“who should be doing this?...when you have a department of transportation in charge, they do what they do. They are not necessarily about city building, they are about building transportation facilities, and they have a vested interest in trying to limit their contractual responsibilities to that narrow function.” (Maurice Cox, PDXplore event)

    ODOT and WashDOT need to be properly situated as the chief drivers of this highway project; both transportation agencies have been given significant encouragement to pursue this project by Oregon Governor Kulongoski and Washington Governor Gregoire. Kulongoski, a Democrat with strong ties to labor interests who actively support the construction of a large bridge because of the jobs it promises, has been particularly active as of late, urging local activists to give input but avoid potentially delaying the construction of this project. Politicians have an inherent interest in attending ribbon-cutting events and being able to take credit for megaprojects; Kulongoski noted in 2009 at a press conference for the new bridge that “…the aesthetics should not be driving this conversation.  The economy should – and the thousands and thousands of family wage jobs for this region that will be created when we start construction of this new bridge.”

The degree to which this project is currently being pushed by Kulongoski and other state-level government agencies is reflected by the governor’s insistence on the inclusion of an extra $30 million of funding for studying the corridor that was intentionally dropped by the Oregon Congress’s transportation bill in 2009. This backdoor maneuver by the governor is only the latest in a series of appropriations largely aimed at keeping the political justification for this megaproject on target; every planning document and statement of support for the CRC is inherently political and intended to silence criticism so that the project appears worthy of the federal funds necessary to see the project through to completion. Over $100 million has already been allocated toward the study of the project, and many activists have grumbled that these funds have been used less for actually studying the project but rather toward developing policy briefs and models that can be fed to a well-oiled publicity machine that promotes the state-sponsored ideas for the project.

Interestingly, Gov. Kulongoski is term-limited and will be stepping out of office next January. While all of the Republican candidates have stated their support for the swift construction of the bridge as it currently is proposed, both of the Democratic candidates for governor have stated their skepticism about the project to their left-leaning constituencies in the runup before the May 18 Primary Election.

Unfortunately, it appears as though elections for the governor’s and Metro Councilor’s race (see next page) may be the only opportunity for citizens to voice direct support or opposition to this project. 




Possible Design for the CRC, as produced by the CRC's Urban Design Advocacy Group (UDAG)


Governor Kulongoski, at an event with ODOT in 2009. 
Photo Credit ODOT

Last updated:  3rd May 2010


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