Joe Cortright: Death of CRC Signals the End of “Highway Dinosaur Era”

Last month the Portland mega-highway bridge project known as the Columbia River Crossing died unceremoniously on the floor of the Washington statehouse. But there was some question among project opponents about whether to consider it a victory for smart transportation policy. After all, suburban Republicans opposed to the inclusion of light rail were ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back.

RIP CRC. Image: ## Portland##

Joe Cortright, a visiting scholar with the Brookings Institution and president at Impresa, a Portland-based consulting firm, thinks there is plenty of reason to celebrate. In fact, he sees the rejection of the CRC as the end of the old highway era.

We caught Cortright on the phone for a CRC postmortem. Here’s what he had to say.

Angie Schmitt: So you still consider the CRC’s death a victory for reformers. Why is that?

Joe Cortright: The CRC was a five-mile long, 12-lane wide freeway widening project that just happened to cross a river and have a short stub of a light rail essentially on the end of it. So yeah, there was a little bit of light rail associated with this project, but it was wrapped up in a humongous freeway widening project. And also the fact that they’re building this huge freeway project really undercut the viability of the light rail investment, because it made it so easy for people to use private automobiles.

I think it’s true that the final fatal blow was struck by conservatives, by Republicans, in Washington, and folks from Clark County, a lot of them disliked the light rail component of the project. But they also disliked it for other reasons like the tolling. The project was probably mortally wounded some time ago and this just happened to be the one thing that finally killed it. And a lot of those wounds were self-inflicted. They built it too short to allow navigation [on the river] underneath. There’s pending litigation on the environmental impact statement. There’s still very serious questions about the financial viability of the project. So there were a bunch of things that could have been the fatal blow, it just happened that this was the one.

Joe Cortright, a Portland-based consultant, thinks the death of the CRC will be a turning point for transportation policy in Portland and elsewhere. Image: ##

AS: One of the things that was sort of striking about this project was just the scale and the dollar figure attached to it (at least $3.2 billion). Do you think it’s getting to the point where some of these projects are just so grandiose they’re not realistic?

JC: Absolutely. I think the big problem is that the incentives in the transportation planning system are producing these bloated projects that are really out of touch with trends in transportation, with the amount of resources we have. People are driving less and that undercuts gas taxes, which are the largest single source of funding for this. The way federal funding was made available, or potentially made available, for this project created incentives to scale it up. I don’t think anyone would have designed a project like this if it was going to be built solely with local resources. They designed it this way because they thought there was a promise, if they got approval from the state, the federal government would pay for it. We sold this project as, “Hey, we can get free federal money for light rail.”

AS: You said you thought this project sort of symbolized the end of the highway era. Can you elaborate on that?

JC: I think [it’s the end of] the highway-building dinosaur era. Again, this was a 12-lane wide freeway, is what they were talking about. More than half the money in this project would have gone to rebuilding freeway interchanges and widening the freeway. It was justified with a set of traffic projections that were done on a 2005 base year, using data from the 1990s and a model that said everybody was going to drive more every year. And we know that’s not true, in fact people are driving less. The slowdown started a decade ago, more than a decade ago.

Essentially they had a worldview that we need to accommodate more and more cars. I really think it was a project that was designed for a future that nobody’s going to live in. The models were predicated basically on dollar-a-gallon gas forever.

AS: What does the death of the CRC mean for sustainable transportation in Portland and elsewhere?

JC: This is a watershed moment to revisit some of the thinking about the way we approach transportation planning. We have to have very different views of what transportation looks like in the future and recognize that views are changing. We have to have much more of a small ball approach to transportation. Hopefully this is just a chance to rethink transportation investment and policy in our era.

18 thoughts on Joe Cortright: Death of CRC Signals the End of “Highway Dinosaur Era”

  1. It was shot down because of the light rail – expanding highways had nothing to do with the decision. This headline is completely wrong.

  2. Light rail was a big factor in the end, but saying it was just that is overly simplifying the situation. Another huge factor was that the clearance for river traffic was inadequate and the cost to pay off companies for lost businesses would have been hundreds of millions.

  3. Also, the gas tax increase, bridge tolling that was viewed as having disproportionate impact on Washingtonians, etc.

    As usual, it is more a question of money than mode I think. Given that backdrop, large projects may well be best examined through the lens of a rear-view mirror, as there may not be many on the road ahead due to funding issues.

  4. In addition, the clearance problem was associated with LRT operating needs, which precipitated LRT concerns. Not necessarily the mode, but the implications of the mode on bridge design and river-oriented commerce.

  5. Thank you, Coolebra – you hit it. This was the worst of all worlds – for Republicans. Light rail, tolls, and gas tax – that’s a death wish for any bill containing all 3. And I doubt they were happy about the proposed, stand-alone bike/ped facility under the span But what’s missed here is that the CRC was not primarily about LRT or tolls or bikes – it was about replacing two, functionally obsolete spans, one approach a century old. You’d think that the May 23 collapse of another I-5 bridge, sending 2 vehicles into the chilly Skagit River, would be a wake-up call….See Planetizen: Wash. Gas Tax Legislation Fails in Senate, Killing Columbia River Crossings

  6. It was shot down because it was too low, would not solve the problem and burden the users with a toll forever! Throw in light rail too. We need more bridges, small ball, in the article!

  7. You guys can vote down Adam’s comment all you want, but he’s correct. Washington state Republican opposition, which is what ultimately killed the project, was centered around the light rail component — tolling, costs, and bridge height were contributing issues, but would not have sufficed to do so absent light rail.

    This is tactical win for sane transportation projects, but it’s egregious wishful thinking to read some major pro-transit, pro-active-transportation, anti-car-culture message into this.

  8. Joe Cortright isn’t saying there’s a pro-transit/anti-car message in this outcome. He’s saying that the politics of financing highway mega-projects don’t really work anymore.

  9. It makes me nervous when pro-transit/bike friends claim a huge victory with the death of CRC, when ultimately it was anti-transit, anti-infrastructure tea party suburban and rural conservative republicans that killed it. While the OR envios’ efforts helped kill it, if Senate Republicans supported the project, it would have gotten through, it is as simple as that. While it is a victory for OR enviros and bike advocates, they sort of had to sleep with the enemy to get there. And what is a short term win, long-term may be a loser for our movement.

    It similarly pissed me off when the Sierra Club folks in Seattle teamed up with the anti-tolling folks in Seattle two years prior on the viaduct measure. While the achieved a short term ballot won (with no real implications) it set back regional tolling politically in the region.

    I guess if I could ask follow up questions to Joe they would be:
    1-Do you think the project would have died if it was supported by Washington State Republicans?
    2-What does this mean long-term for getting light rail downtown Vancouver? (which i think from a environmental, political, land-use, access, and development perspective would be a good thing)
    3-In this anti-government day and age where it is increasingly difficult to find pro-infrastructure/pro-transit Republicans, what are the implications of this outcome for mega-transit projects across the US?

    I’m not saying I supported #CRC and I surely wasn’t excited about its 1950s style design and erroneous travel projections (per all of WSDOT’s projects), but I agree with the other comments that this article is a little misleading and paints things through “rose colored glasses” from the bike/ped/transit advocates’ perspective.

    If I were king, I would have swallowed this bridge in a heartbeat if it meant getting light rail to Vancouver, and passing a transportation package that prevented imminent 20% cuts to King County Metro and gave other transit agencies at chance at service restorations. Some may call that selling out, and maybe it is, or perhaps it is plain political pragmatism.

  10. The question is now how this chapter is going to be written into history. What will the story of the CRC be? People will try to seize this narrative on all sides as the first chapter in an alternate future. I’m interested to see what that future will be.

  11. Skagit bridge collapse to the north. Congested crossing to the south. Can’t imagine this to be good news for freight traffic on one of busiest NAFTA corridors

  12. Through freight can and should use Interstate 205, which is designed for truck traffic and bypasses the city center. While a low, “functionally obsolete” Interstate 5 doesn’t help the logistics business in NW and Swan Island, it has marginal impact on true goods movement in the area.

  13. This is excellent news for freight traffic on this corridor. Freight on this corridor will go by train as it should have all along.

  14. The WA Republicans would never have been able to kill the project if it had actual support from OR and WA left-wingers.

    Which it didn’t because it was a massive highway boondoggle.

    This was exactly like “Roads and Transit” in Seattle. The people who want expressways do not want public transportation. The people who want public transportation do not want expressways. Tying the two together makes your ballot measure or project LESS likely to succeed, because you alienate BOTH sides.

    Now, that means that the expressway projects have to succeed at getting funding “on their own”, without support from transit projects — apparently Denver’s T-REX was the last time that trick worked.

    But the expressway projects are *already* unable to get funding on their own, most of the time. People remember the Big Dig. That’s why the road-builders started tying their expressway projects to transit projects — to get support!

    This means that the political alignment which built gigantic mega-expressway projects is dead. It will be impossible to get the money for such projects in the future.

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