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Planners ponder the future of “Cascadia”

U.S., Canada consider cooperation on growth

The United States, mighty as it is, can’t tame crowding and pollution in the growing Eugene-to-Vancouver, B.C., megalopolis without Canada’s help.
That’s according to the visionaries behind “Cascadia” — people in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia whose vision of a cross-border unity is becoming less of a wild-haired concept and more of a problem-solving tool.

Leaders of an 8-year-old Cascadia think tank yesterday offered a rough outline of what they portrayed as a radical but realistic way of unclogging the region’s bottlenecks.

They chose as their audience some of the 5,700 urban planners who yetserday began their four-day annual convention in Seattle.

Seattle Mayor Paul Schell set the cross-border tone by welcoming the American Planning Association delegates — not to the “Northwest” — but to an area “really close to the Canadian Southwest.”

Later, Schell told members of the association that Cascadia represents better than states, countries and cities of the cultural and geographical realities of the corridor from Eugene to Vancouver, B.C.

“We’re shoehorned into 19th-century political structures,” Schell said.

In the same spirit, Schell suggested that Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia — connected bodies of water — be renamed the Salish Sea.

“They’re the same place,” Schell said.

The Cascadia think tank would like to do even more, creaing a binational organization called the Cascadia Corridor Corp. that would oversee a $100 billion, 20-year rebuild of the roads and bridges in the Interstate 5 coridor: Cascadia’s 465-mile “Main Street.”

“We need to channel some of the great wealth created by this corridor back into its transportation system,” said Alan Artibise, a University of British Columbia professor and leader of Vancouver’s Cascadia Planning Group.

The plan, known as Gateways Phase 1, was created by the Cascadia Project of Seattle’s Discovery Institute.

It proposes rebuilding I-5 through downtown Seattle, for example, with layers of underground car and transit lanes. A new tunnel would channel commuters under Lake Washington.

An integrated Cascadia transportation scheme also would bring 300 “seamless” miles of high-occupancy lanes to the Seattle metropolitan area, plus hundreds of miles of scenic greenbelts along highways.

Modeled on the cross-border efforts to improve the East Coast’s St. Lawrence Seaway, the plan would combine government and private investment from both nations through innovative financing methods.

Without such new investment, Artibise said, freight and passenger delays will increasingly constrict the region’s economy. Cross-border truck traffic has doubled in the last five years, he said, partly because of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Details on projects and financing are about a year away, he said. Planners see potential revenue in redirecting government money in both countries that’s now used ineffectively, as well as through bond sales and tax-free bank loans that would be repaid through tolls or other user fees.

“Many billions of dollars of transportation infrastructure can only be achieved if we can find radical and innovative new ways to fund it,” Artibise said.

Ther’s no good alternative to such a program. More than 12 million people live in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, mostly in the urbanized western portions hemmed in by mountains and water. The region’s population is expected to double within 30 years.

Similar themes — the limits of money and space, the need to manage growth — were repeated in countless ways yesterday at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, where the nation’s planners are meeting through Wednesday.

Planners and planning commissioners took on topics ranging from coping with airport noise to using the latest census mapping software.

They also began fanning out through the Puget Sound area for study trips everywhere from Microsoft’s sleek headquarters to funky Fremont.

But the planners were warned at the conference’s opening yesterday not to get too carried away with … planning.

Humorist Calvin Trillin, an author and syndicated columnist, said he had found in his travels around America that many cities built ghastly and bombastic stadiums, hotels and other monuments out of “rube-o-phobia” — or fear of being seen as small-time.

Other cities were fortunate to escape such abominations because they lacked the money or energy, and now are better off.

“It’s a disease I call Dome-ism,” Trillin said. “Just imagine what the pharoahs could have done if they’d had access to general obligation bonds.”