Columbia River Crossing: A Bridge To The Future

Original Article

We in the Northwest live in a majestic place. But growth and crowded roads challenge our environment and quality of life. We need to learn how to address traffic congestion and climate change together, and to share solutions.

One focal point is Columbia River Crossing, the $4.2 billion project to replace two old, crowded and dangerous bridges connecting Washington and Oregon on Interstate 5 across the Columbia River. Based on current plans, they’d be replaced with a new variable-tolled bridge, while also extending Portland’s light rail system to Vancouver, adding bike and pedestrian pathways across the river and fixing six devilish corridor interchanges. The project promises congestion relief, improved safety and more transit use.

A regional advisory task force’s approval of the project last week is encouraging. The challenge now is to keep the momentum and ensure that best practices, environmental and financial, are used.

As a transportation think tank, Cascadia Center is concerned about chronic underinvestment in West Coast transportation infrastructure. From San Diego to Vancouver, B.C., we’re traveling on old, overcrowded and often unsafe roads and bridges. Failing to replace the 1958- and 1917-vintage spans across the river, or going slowly, would carry a greater financial and environmental cost. Each month, the expense of construction material and labor grows. Congestion already carries a steep toll of lost time, wasted fuel and increased vehicle emissions.

Control of man-made greenhouse gas emissions in the Northwest will best come from a comprehensive North American carbon tax. Regional pacts or too-easily-gamed cap-and-trade schemes are destined to fail. FedEx CEO Frederick Smith was on target earlier this month, when he told a and Brookings Institution forum that the best public policy to combat global warming is a gradually phased-in carbon tax that will change habits of energy consumption and yield monies that can compensate for accompanying reductions in Social Security payroll taxes on employees. Employers, employees and the environment all would benefit.

Better inter-city rail service can help control man-made greenhouse gases, too. At a recent Portland meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said a strengthened federal commitment to rail infrastructure, for moving people and freight, would yield green dividends. This insight must not be lost as Columbia River Crossing moves forward.

Tolling is a priority, environmentally and economically. With their embrace of highway pricing for Columbia River Crossing, the project advisory task force and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski are on track. Eco-friendly, variable-rate highway pricing also is known as “congestion pricing.” In separate lanes, or all lanes on a highway, overhead gantries collect tolls electronically from vehicle transponders. Carpoolers and transit use the lanes free, while individual drivers pay for the privilege. Charges are higher during rush hours. The system makes it more appealing to take transit, carpool, vanpool, telecommute or travel off-peak. It also helps traffic run more smoothly for those who must drive, including freight operators.

Highway tolling has momentum and logic. Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder, who supports the Columbia River Crossing plan, recently told Oregon Public Broadcasting, “Tolling is coming as a way to manage our system. We only have so much road space, and we’re looking at tolling all our major freeways eventually, to just say, ‘If it’s a valuable trip, it should be worth something to you.’ ”

A congestion-pricing pilot project recently began on one Seattle-area highway, State Route 167, and Washington lawmakers approved a framework this spring to implement it on another, State Route 520, including the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge. Fixed-rate electronic tolling on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge has been a smash success. Over time, expect variable pricing on highways across Puget Sound and metro Portland.

Columbia River Crossing also will serve to accent emerging technology for cleaner-running vehicles. Already, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Oregon, Washington and The Climate Trust are funding the electrification of hundreds of truck-stop spaces along I-5 to cut diesel emissions from idling rigs. Eugene’s Cascade Sierra Solutions has collared federal and state money to open outreach centers on I-5, providing truckers information on and financing for a variety of emission-reduction technologies.

Kulongoski and Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire also understand the importance of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), seen by many experts and major U.S. and Japanese automakers as the best way to move beyond oil in transportation. Chevrolet plans to have its Volt plug-in hybrids in showrooms by 2010. Other manufacturers are hard at work on these and all-electric vehicles, and advances in the lithium-ion battery to power hybrids have been impressive. Tomorrow’s plug-in hybrids will get an average of 100 to 150 miles a gallon.

Oregon and Washington can help by cooperating with private interests which would use state rights-of-way for alternative fuel centers along I-5. A $15 million federal “Corridors of the Future” grant to California, Oregon and Washington will help synchronize planning of I-5 modernizations. The states have hired a consultant to assess developing an I-5 alternative-fuel infrastructure. Compatible tolling for the whole corridor is another priority.

Paying for Columbia River Crossing will be challenging. Private infrastructure funds, whose largest investors often are public employee pension funds, could help finance the project in return for a share of toll revenue during several decades. The public sector retains control of toll rates and ownership of the facility. Construction-union pension funds also could get into the game on behalf of the men and women who literally build these investments.

Private consortiums also can design, build, finance, operate and even maintain infrastructure for public-sector owners for a set period, combining impressive cost efficiencies and industry best practices. They win the rights in highly competitive bidding, are responsible for all cost overruns and by contract must meet stringent performance standards. This is one approach used in British Columbia, where several key public-private transportation projects are being completed for the 2010 Winter Olympics, on time and on budget.

Columbia River Crossing is a well-conceived approach to shaping a region’s destiny. Portland’s regional government, Metro, in a report released last month, projects the seven-county population will grow from 1.9 million to somewhere between 3.2 million and 6.2 million by 2060. Roads and transit both will be in heavy use.

With strong political leadership, Washington and Oregon together can embrace the big challenges of Columbia River Crossing and other common causes, such as major investments to add environmentally friendly, congestion-busting passenger and freight rail capacity in Cascadia. Our region, ecologically unique, economically vibrant and facing major growth, deserves the best we can give it.

Bruce Agnew is director of Cascadia Center at Discovery Institute in Seattle. Matt Rosenberg is a senior fellow. Reach them at: More information:

Bruce Agnew

Director, Cascadia Center
Since 2017, Bruce has served as Director of the ACES NW Network based in Seattle and Bellevue, Washington. The Network is dedicated to the acceleration of ACES (Autonomous-Connected-Electric-Shared) technology in Northwest transportation for the movement of people and goods. ACES is co-chaired by Tom Alberg, Co-Founder and managing partner of Madrona Venture Group in Seattle and Bryan Mistele, CEO/Co-Founder of INRIX global technology in Kirkland. In 2022, Bruce became the director of the newly created Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) Regional Infrastructure Accelerator. Initial funding for the Accelerator has come from the Build America Bureau of the USDOT. PNWER is a statutory public/private nonprofit created in 1991 by the U.S. states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Washington and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan and the territories of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. PNWER has 16 cross-border working groups for common economic and environmental initiatives.