The Columbia River Crossing may be dead, but it'll likely live on in the region's primary transportation plan, at least for another few years.
Metro is in the midst of a federally-required update of its Regional Transportation Plan for the Portland region, an update that is described mostly as housekeeping, at least compared to the hefty RTP review Metro completed in 2010.
On the broadest scale, the RTP is a set of guidelines the region uses for choosing its transportation projects. Without it, the federal government won't send transportation money to the Portland region.
More specifically, the plan includes a list of transportation projects proposed by local governments. Metro's task is to ensure those projects can be built while still keeping the region in compliance with the federal government's clean air standards. Meet that criteria and the cash keeps coming.
That list, for this review cycle, is likely to include the $3.2 billion Columbia River Crossing.
There are a few reasons for that, Metro staff says, primarily that the RTP is essentially based on identifying the region's transportation needs.
CRC or no CRC, there are still hundreds of thousands of people who cross the Columbia River at Interstate 5 daily. There are still thousands of trucks moving through the Marine Drive interchange daily. There's still no easy bike path between Portland and downtown Vancouver, nor is there high capacity transit service. And Hayden Island is still trapped between two freeway chokepoints.
Because the Oregon Department of Transportation deemed the bridge buildable but not fundable, said Metro transportation planning manager Tom Kloster, the CRC plan gets shelved but not trashed.
"The plan is still to build a bridge, and the need is still there to build a bridge," Kloster said. "That's their position on it. It's totally consistent with how the RTP works."
It's similar, he said, to the situation in Washington County, where the RTP has for years called for adding lanes to Highway 217. At a Tuesday work session, Councilor Craig Dirksen pointed out that the Interstate 5-Highway 99W Connector was also still in the RTP.
"In this round of the RTP, you've got Washington County and ODOT both essentially working together to move that (the 217) forward," Kloster said. "It's pretty common to have stuff sit out there for a good idea project that's been developed, waiting for a way to fund it.
"It happens that the CRC is a large project in that category," Kloster said.
Preparing for the alternatives
Seemingly anyone who wasn't supporting the Columbia River Crossing had a better idea for how to solve the problems the project was trying to address. Voters in Clark County called last November for building a new toll-free bridge between Camas and Fairview. Some advocates called for bus rapid transit down Interstate 5. Others called for a third Columbia River highway bridge somewhere west of I-5.
At Tuesday's work session, Councilor Bob Stacey asked if there was a way to use the 2014 RTP update to start thinking about solving the challenges of transportation in the I-5 corridor at the Columbia, including issues related to freight mobility, congestion, drawbridge lifts and access to Hayden Island.
"I think these are priorities that don't need to be described in a single project called the CRC, but that could be broken out well before 30 years passes, into concrete improvements in mobility, safety and community livability," he said. "I'd like to see us start thinking about that in a way that doesn't disrupt the adoption of 2014 RTP but is very conscious, so people don't think the 2014 RTP is the last time we have to think about it again."
Councilor Shirley Craddick asked Stacey how he proposed doing that. Stacey said he didn't have an answer but was sure Metro staff could come up with one.
"It's something we need to be conscious of. The big struggle here is how do we connect the Vancouver regional center to our regional high capacity transit networks," Stacey said. "It's time to look at how do we separate this out from a megaproject to a series of problems being solved."
Council President Tom Hughes wondered what would happen if one of the solutions proposed was a new bridge between Camas and Fairview.
"Is (the update) going to include a series of criteria by which we would be able to determine whether subsequent proposals meet the needs we have in the RTP?" Hughes asked.
In a way, yes, Kloster said – any road connecting to a new bridge would have to meet certain criteria for roads, designated in the plan, meaning the Metro Council would have to vote to approve any changes for roads on the Oregon side of the border.
A public comment period on the 2014 RTP update opens on March 21.