Costing at least a cold $3 billion, the CRC project and its ten freeway lanes could bankrupt the Portland region's road budget while undermining its progress on sustainable transportation. Image: Spencer Boomhower
The Columbia River Crossing is a mega-project by any standard. A bridge replacement, a highway widening, and light rail project wrapped into one, the CRC is a proposal to span the distance between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. With a $3.2 billion price tag — by conservative estimates — it would be the largest public works project the region has ever undertaken.
Any project of the CRC’s transformative scope raises a great many questions. For starters, is it worth the investment? Can the region afford it? Will it promote a healthy environment? Will it induce sprawl?
In the five years since project engineers began honing their plan, more and more local observers have become adamant that it fails on all counts. “It’s a disaster of a project, really,” said Jonathan Maus of Bike Portland. “It just doesn’t make any sense.” But while governors are killing worthy transit and rail projects left and right, this fantastically expensive sprawl generator still has a pulse.
Planning efforts alone for the Columbia River Crossing have thus far consumed $110 million. After all that expense and all those meetings, local observers say there’s still little agreement about what form it should take — or whether it should move forward at all.
The project is intended to reduce congestion on Interstate 5 between Portland and suburban Vancouver, which, officials say, backs up for six hours daily. Their plan is to expand the interstate from six to 10 lanes, demolish the existing drawbridge and build a replacement.
But $3+ billion is a lot of money to spend on a five-mile stretch of roadway, particularly when the Portland region is facing a $6 billion road budget shortfall by 2030. And at least one analysis has said the actual fiscal damage could be a lot worse.
Financial questions aside, the project runs contrary to the values of sustainability and walkability on which Portland has built its reputation, says David Osborn of the grassroots opposition group Stop the CRC. According to Osborn, the CRC typifies the kind of single-occupancy-vehicle infrastructure that the region has expressly rejected.
“We’re known for and really value alternative transportation,” Osborn said. “That’s the kind of transportation solutions that our region is looking for — transportation infrastructure that favors small, walkable communities. Building freeways doesn’t create that kind of community.”