Willamette Week - David vs. Goliath

David vs. Goliath

Metro chief David Bragdon flexes muscles on $4.2 Billion bridge project.

June 4 , 2008
Willamette Week

Like Clark Kent bursting cape-clad out of a phone booth, the normally mild-mannered Metro Council stands poised to fight for control of the proposed $4.2 billion Columbia River Crossing project.

Its foes: the brawnier Oregon and Washington state departments of transportation.

"[The CRC] can't be left in ODOT's hands or we'll get a disastrous product," says Metro Council President David Bragdon.

Last Tuesday, May 27, Bragdon moved aggressively to reduce the Oregon Department of Transportation's sway over what could be the most expensive public works project in Northwest history.

Rather than letting the two state highway departments manage the project, Bragdon wants local governments to have equal say going forward.

That's an unusual step for Metro, better known for number-crunching and regional planning than political confrontation. And it would be just as unusual for the transportation departments of Oregon and Washington, which have historically enjoyed broad latitude to design highway projects.

"For this project to be well-received by the people or our region, the local jurisdictions will need to be engaged in a new, close partnership of equals with the two state governments," Bragdon wrote in amendments to a resolution introduced May 27 by his colleague Rex Burkholder, Metro's representative on the CRC task force.

For the past three years, ODOT and WSDOT engineers have led a 70-member staff in analyzing and preparing solutions to the two congestion-plagued I-5 bridges between Portland and Vancouver.

On May 2, the CRC team produced a 5,000-page draft environmental impact statement describing five options, including doing nothing (see "Bridge Over the River Why?" WW, May 21, 2008). The 39-member CRC task force's preferred choice among the five is a new 12-lane bridge, an adjacent light-rail bridge and a package of road improvements that would streamline freeway interchanges.

Two councilors on the seven-member Metro Council-Burkholder and Rod Park-favor the task force option. Three others want to keep the existing bridges and imposing tolls immediately to reduce traffic and raise money for streamlining I-5. Councilor Kathryn Harrington, who represents Washington County, hasn't stated a preference.

That leaves Bragdon to broker a deal that strengthens Metro's role by leveraging in new priorities for the project. Among them: recognition of Oregon's ambitious carbon emissions reduction goals and Metro's desire for ironclad guarantees of light-rail and bike and pedestrian facilities.

The project requires the approval of four agencies in each state: the state DOTs, the cities of Portland and Vancouver, and regional transit and planning agencies.

Metro, which plans transportation projects for Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, is in the driver's seat because it will be the first of those eight agencies to take a formal vote Thursday, June 5, on the CRC task force's preferred option. Being first and wielding what amounts to a veto gives Metro considerable latitude to reshape-or even kill-the project, which has been discussed in various forms for more than a decade.

Bragdon says the preferred option presented by the CRC exemplifies the DOTs' love of building mega-highway projects. He is skeptical in particular of the proposal to double the current six-lane bridge capacity.

"I think they've run amok with 12 lanes and enormous interchanges that obliterate places," Bragdon says.

In response to the CRC's proposal, carried by Burkholder, Metro councilors Carlotta Collette, Carl Hosticka and Robert Liberty presented what amounts to a "nuclear option." That option would keep the existing bridges and impose tolls immediately to reduce traffic and raise money for streamlining I-5.

Liberty argues against demolishing the existing bridges, which were built in 1917 and 1958. A 2006 ODOT inspection found the spans to be in "fair" shape.

"Those bridges are worth $1 billion," Liberty says. "Why would we just throw them away?"

His colleagues' proposal irked Burkholder, since it wasn't one of the five options presented by the CRC task force.

The nuclear option is unlikely to attract a decisive fourth vote because Bragdon and others aren't ready to rule out the new-build option. But that makes some version of Bragdon's compromise proposal calling for a stronger Metro hand more likely to pass.

He has made explicit a condition key for Oregon public officials' support: Clark County residents must formally vote to extend light rail to Clark County before the project can move forward. He also demanded an independent audit of a key claim underpinning the CRC staff analysis-that a new bridge would result in fewer vehicle trips than the no-build option.

"The CRC EIS claims that this proposed project would be a rare (if not unique) instance in which a new road facility does not induce new demand and create more traffic," Bragdon wrote in his amended resolution. "Because this scenario runs counter to everything which has been proven about induced demand over the past half-century, it bears scrutiny."

Burkholder says Bragdon's amendments actually respond to mutual concerns. Carley Francis, a spokeswoman for the CRC, says the DOTs welcome Metro's input. "We want a project that works for the community," Francis says.

FACT: Portland's Planning Commission will vote on a preferred option for CRC on June 10. That vote will serve as guidance to City Council, which votes July 9.

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