American Politics as seen through a Bridge
The Columbia River Crossing is the name for the project to replace the aging I-5 Interstate Bridge over the Columbia River between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. The project is both important in itself, and also is a good example of how a political decision is made (or not) in the United States.

A little bit of detail on the background of the bridge should be given. The Columbia River, between Portland and Vancouver, is several thousand feet wide, making it one of the widest rivers in the United States, on the same scale as the Ohio or Mississippi. The river separates the Portland metropolitan area, in Oregon, with a population of well over a million people, from its northern suburb, Vancouver, with a metropolitan area of close to 400,000. These two large areas, which as could be expected have much commuting between them, for employment and other reasons, are connected by only two highway bridges, the older I-5 Bridge, which connects the densest parts of both cities, and the newer Glenn Jackson Bridge, which connects both cities' eastern, suburban areas. The current I-5 bridge is on Hayden Island, meaning that there is both a main span and a much smaller bridge crosses the southern channel of river. The current bridge has two identical spans, one built in 1917 and the other built in 1958. The problems this leads to are the obvious ones: first, Portland and Vancouver are both much larger cities than they were in 1958, when the two spans were completed. Even the addition of the Glenn Jackson Bridge doesn't make up for the increased traffic between Portland and Vancouver. Second, because of normal wear and increased knowledge of earthquake hazards, the bridge is considered to be nearing the end of its normal lifespan. This is some of the basic background behind the project that is now being put forth: the Columbia River Crossing, a search for a technically, politically and financially feasible way to replace the bridge.

People who have been paying attention to US politics, even at the stereotypical level, can probably guess what one of the first debates about the bridge would be. Portlanders are ecologically minded, and very open to transit options such as bicycling and mass transit, while many people in Vancouver and its suburbs are much more tied to a car-centered lifestyle. Dependence on the automobile has shifted greatly in the past year, and it is likely that trend will continue. However, even in a world where many or most people cycled or took mass transit between Vancouver and Portland, the bridge is still needed for more than just local transportation. I-5 is a major route for freight, and leaving a freight truck idling in rush hour traffic can get to be very costly.

Of course, the United States being a representative democracy, it is not just the people of Portland, with their bicycles and bus passes, that are making the decisions. Which brings up an interesting question: who actually is in charge of making and executing a plan for the Columbia River Crossing? The main partners are the Oregon Department of Transportation, the Washington State Department of Transportation, the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, Metro (the unique regional government of the Portland metropolitan area), C-Tran (the Clark County transit system), Tri-Met (the Portland area transit system) , the City of Vancouver and the City of Portland, as well as "ex officio" the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Highway Administration. These are the main steering partners: although other groups would also be weighing in, including the Port of Portland (mostly over the issue of whether a too-tall bridge would inhibit the approaches to the nearby Portland Airport, the Environmental Protection Agency (because the construction in the river will probably stir up and disturb what is still a main habitat for salmon), various Native American tribes (because new approaches to the bridge may disturb native artifacts or remains, as well as, presumably, Clark County and Multnomah County. These are just a start of the various agencies, corporations and public interest groups that are going to influence, or try to influence, the eventual decision and execution.

All of these bodies and groups, however, do agree on a few things. First of all, the bridge does need to be replaced. Second, that while it is being replaced, it should somehow be expanded, either by adding something to take pressure off a bridge of the same amount of lanes (a light rail line, for example), more lanes of traffic, or both. Third, that more exotic solutions (a third crossing down or up river, a tunnel, ferry service, commuter rail on the nearby rail bridge) are technically not feasible. What is left than is to rebuild and expand the bridge, with added lanes or a subsidiary bridge for light rail and pedestrians and cyclists. This being settled in broad strokes, there are many other issues that need to be filled in, including the fact that building a bridge will greatly disrupt (and possibly destroy) some of the shopping establishments on Hayden Island, as well as in the marina south of it. Even once those issues are dealt with (as well as other problems, such as environmental damage), a plan needs to be put in place, and then the time and money needs to be invested in it.

Money! I finally mention that part. As could be expected, the cost of building what could be a mile long-structure (counting the approaches) over a wide river is very great, and seems to be going up with every estimate made. The current cost estimate for the bridge is around three billion dollars, which comes out to well over a thousand dollars for every resident of the area. It will also take a long time, probably well into the next decade. And of course all of this is also contingent on the continued fiscal health and robustness of the United States economy, not currently something that is to be taken for granted.

This is an example of what happens when a multi-layer democracy must undertake large, technocratic projects. It is interesting to study, even if any one person can hardly keep track of all the factors involved.

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