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How ODOT & WSDOT are hiding real plans for a 10- or 12-lane I-5 Bridge Project

Ignore the false claims that the Oregon and Washington highway departments are making about the number of lanes on their proposed I-5 project:  its footprint will be 164 feet—easily enough for a 10- or 12-lane roadway.

This commentary was originally published at Bike Portland, and is re-published here with permission.

If you followed Tuesday’s Portland City Council work session or have been reading press reports about the Interstate Bridge Replacement project, you’ve probably noticed claims that the size of the project has somehow been reduced to adding “just one auxiliary lane” in each direction to I-5. The implication is that they’re only building enough capacity to expand the existing I-5 bridge from its current six lanes (three in each direction) to eight lanes (three plus a so-called “auxiliary” lane in each direction).

This claim is false.

A close look at the materials prepared by the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation shows they plan
to build a new I-5 bridge at least 164 feet wide — easily enough for ten or even twelve traffic lanes.

A close look at the materials prepared by the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation shows they plan to build a new I-5 bridge at least 164 feet wide — easily enough for ten or even twelve traffic lanes. While the glossy materials describing the project prominently talk about “one auxiliary lane” (in each direction), they almost completely omit a description of the actual width of the bridge. The IBR documents show only crude and misleading cartoon-like drawings of the bridge, without any actual measurements. That’s intentional: because they don’t really want you to know how wide a structure they’re planning.

But in a cryptic note in their presentation, they do refer to the width: The so-called ten lane bridge (two auxiliary lanes each direction) is said to have the same “footprint” as the 2013 Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA, a step in the federal NEPA review process). For the record, that footprint is 180 feet. For the so-called eight lane bridge (one auxiliary lane in each direction), the footprint is described as “2013 LPA Minus 16 Feet” which works out to 164 feet wide.

The broader context is this: the so-called “bridge replacement” is really a five-mile long, ten or twelve lane wide highway widening project that will cost $5 billion, and potentially a lot more.

ODOT’s actual plans for a 180′ wide CRC obtained by public records request.

This is a repetition of the false claim made for the preceding project — the failed Columbia River Crossing (CRC). In 2010, in response to objections from the City of Portland and Metro, ODOT and WSDOT announced they were reducing the size of the CRC bridge from 12 lanes to 10 lanes. But in reality, all they did was change the references in the project documents to that number of lanes, while literally erasing from the Final Environmental Impact Statement every single reference to the actual widths of the bridges and other structures they intended to build. A public records request showed the actual plans for the bridges — which were not published — were exactly the same size (180 feet in width) as they were for the 12-lane version of the bridge.

 

The limited materials released by the IBR project to date make it clear that they are engaged in exactly the same deception.

With standard-width 12 foot wide freeway lanes, this 164 foot wide bridge would accommodate ten traffic lanes (120 feet), with 11 foot shoulders on either side of the travel lanes, or as many as twelve travel lanes (144 feet) with five foot shoulders on either side of the twelve travel lanes). (Alternatively, the 164 foot width would allow construction of 12 travel lanes with 2 foot wide left shoulders and 8 foot wide right shoulders, which would be common, if not generous for an urban bridge.)

While they’re calling it an eight-lane bridge, it’s really a 10 or 12 lane bridge.

ODOT and WSDOT will no doubt say they’re “only” adding two lanes, and point to the supposed safety benefits of wider shoulders; but nothing prevents them, after building a 164-foot wide bridge, from coming back with a paint truck and re-striping it for ten or twelve lanes. In fact, they’ll claim that they can do that without any further environmental analysis under a “categorical exclusion” to the US DOT claims to the National Environmental Policy Act.

This isn’t an aberration or an accident, it’s an intentional strategy to evade environmental review: ODOT and WSDOT did this a decade ago on the failed Columbia River Crossing. It did the same thing with the I-5 Rose Quarter project, again claiming it was merely adding one auxiliary lane in each direction. Meanwhile its actual plans (which it kept secret and didn’t include in the Environmental Assessment) showed it planned to build the I-5 Rose Quarter project to be 160 feet wide, easily enough to accomodate 10 lanes of traffic.

The highway builders know — though they refuse to admit — that more lanes induce more traffic and more pollution. That’s why they’re engaging in this highly deceptive process of claiming they’re just adding a single “auxiliary” lane, when in fact, they’re engineering structures that can be repainted in a day to be vastly wider. This subterfuge enables them to claim minimal environmental impacts now, and then with no further review, create exactly the wider roadway they wanted all along.

Ten unanswered questions about the IBR Boondoggle

In the next month or two, regional leaders in Portland are going to be asked to approve the “modified locally preferred alternative” for the I-5 Bridge Replacement (IBR) Project, an intentionally misnamed, $5 billion, 5 mile long, 12-lane wide freeway widening project between Portland and Vancouver, Washington.

There’s a decided rush to judgment, with almost many of the most basic facts about the project being obscured, concealed, or ignored by the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation.  As with the failed Columbia River Crossing, they’re trying to pressure leaders into making a decision with incomplete information.  Here are ten questions that the IBR project has simply failed to answer.  We’ve offered our own insights on the real answers, but before the region’s leaders take another step, they should satisfy themselves that they know the real answers to each of these questions.

1. How much will it cost?

Conspicuously absent from IBR presentations is any clear statement of what the project is likely to cost.  Almost two years ago, the project released a warmed over version of the cost estimates from the Columbia River Crossing indicating the project could cost $4.8 billion.  But this estimate is based on an update of old CRC estimates, rather than a new, bottom-up cost estimate of the current project.  Already, the IBR team has decided to rebuild the North Portland Harbor bridge which will add an estimated $200 million to the project.  Moreover construction inflation has accelerated in recent months; bids for the Abernethy Bridge project in Portland came in almost 40 percent higher than forecast.  Similar cost overruns on the IBR would add more than $2 billion to the price tag.

Real Answer:  The IBR is likely to be a $5-7 billion project

2. Who will pay for it?

Also missing from the IBR presentation is a definitive statement of the sources of funds to pay for the project.  For starters–and just for starters–the project says Oregon and Washington will each be expected to contribute $1 billion.  There’s a considerable amount of vague hand-waving about federal support, but most federal money in the Infrastructure bill is allocated by formula, and comes to the two states whether they build this project or not; and so spending this money on the IBR, rather than fixing the multi-billion dollar backlog of other bridge repairs, comes at a real cost to the states.  What is clear is that a third or more of the IBR’s costs will have to be recouped by charging tolls to bridge users, and that the two states, and no one else, will be on the hook for any cost overruns and any revenue shortfalls.  And cost overruns are hardly conjecture:  The I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project, estimated to cost $450 million five years ago, is now likely to cost as much as $1.45 billion according to ODOT.

Real answer:  Oregon and Washington have unlimited liability for project costs including cost overruns and toll revenue shortfalls.

3.  How high will tolls be?

IBR staff have said next to nothing about what level of tolls will be charged for bridge users.  Studies prepared for the Columbia River Crossing showed that tolls would have to be a minimum of $2.60 for off peak users and $3.25 for peak travel, plus surcharges for those who don’t buy transponders, which would push peak period car tolls over $5.00 each way.  Trucks would pay 5 times as much as cars, with peak period tolls topping $18.  Knowing what the toll levels will be is essential to understanding the economic impacts of the bridge, as well as accurately forecasting future traffic levels.  Experience in other states has shown that even an $1 or $2 toll could permanently reduce traffic to half of its current levels, eliminating the need to add any capacity to the I-5 crossing.  Before they move ahead with the project, shouldn’t the public and its leaders know how much will be charged in tolls?

Real answer:  Tolls will be $2-3 each way, and highest at peak hours, costing regular commuters more than $1,000 per year.

4  Will other bridges and highways be tolled to avoid gridlock?

If just the I-5 bridges are tolled, ODOT and WSDOTs own consultants predict that this will produce gridlock on I-205.  IBR staff have made vague statements claiming to have looked at tolling other roadways at the same time.  But unless parallel routes like the I-205 are also tolled, the traffic claims made for the IBR are simply invalid.  If the region is serious about tolling and avoiding gridlock, it needs to adopt a comprehensive tolling strategy before it commits to a multi-billion dollar freeway widening project.

Technical work done for the CRC project, reported on page one of the Oregonian in 2014, indicated that tolling I-5 would produce gridlock on I-5.  

Tolling will dramatically affect the traffic levels on I-5 and I-205.  The best evidence is that tolling the region’s freeways would virtually eliminate the need for additional capacity expansion.  ODOT’s own congestion pricing consultants showed that a comprehensive system of road pricing would eliminate most metro area traffic congestion, without the need to spend billions on added capacity.  We know from experience in other cities that tolling after adding capacity simply leads to wasting billions of dollars on roadways that aren’t used because travelers don’t value them.

Real Answer:  Unless we toll the I-205 bridge as well, the I-5 bridge will be under-utilized, and I-205 will have gridlock. The region needs to decide on a toll system before its squanders billions on un-need highway capacity, and goes deeply into debt to repay bonds for capacity that isn’t used.

5. What will it look like?

Despite spending more than two and a half years and tens of millions of dollars on designing the project, the IBR has yet to produce any renderings showing what the project would look like to human beings standing on the ground in Vancouver or on Hayden Island.  The bridge will be 150 feet tall as it crosses the Columbia River and will have lengthy approach ramps, and extensive elevated freeway sections over Vancouver and Hayden Island, with substantial visual and noise impacts.  But you would never know it from the project’s presentations, which if they show the bridge and freeway expansion at all, show it from an aerial view that could be seen only from flights over Portland International Airport.  The project’s presentation to a joint legislative committee in April contains no illustrations of what is to be built at all.

City Observatory has obtained, via public records request, the 3D models created by IBR to show the size and location of the proposed I-5 Bridge.  The following image shows what the proposed I-5 bridge would look like, compared to the existing bridge.  It would be dramatically taller and wider, and would loom over downtown Vancouver.  It’s relatively easy to produce images showing how the replacement bridge would affect Vancouver.  Why hasn’t the IBR with its extensive budget produced any such images?

Real Answer:  The I-5 replacement bridge and approaches will tower over downtown Vancouver and Hayden Island.

6. How long will the trains take?

A key part of the project is a plan to add light rail service between Portland’s Expo Center and downtown Vancouver.  The IBR project asserts that there will be huge demand for travel on light rail.  But light rail is relatively slow.  Unless light rail is faster than car travel or express buses, it’s unlikely to attract many riders.  Currently, Tri-Met’s Yellow line takes 29 minutes to get from the Expo Center to downtown Portland.  The CRC FEIS projected that it would take light rail trains about 6 minutes to get from Mill Plain Boulevard across a new I-5 bridge to the Expo Center; together this means it will take at least 35 minutes via light rail to reach downtown Portland from Vancouver.  That’s more than 10 minutes longer than it takes current C-Tran express buses, traveling in morning, peak hour traffic, to travel between 15th and Broadway in Vancouver to SW 5th and Alder in Portland—a 7:56 AM bus leaving Vancouver reaches downtown Portland at 8:20.  Also:  with added capacity on I-5 and tolling of I-5, future express buses would travel even faster than they do today, so light rail would likely be at an even greater time disadvantage than it is now.  The information provided by the IBR contains no explanation of how a slower train is going to attract more riders than a faster bus or why BRT would perform worse than LRT in this corridor.

Real Answer:  The LRT extension to Vancouver will be considerably slower than today’s buses.

7. How can traffic models predict more no-build traffic on a bridge that is already at capacity?

The I-5 bridges reached capacity almost two decades ago, and can’t handle additional traffic, but ODOT’s model apparently predicts that traffic will continue to grow across the bride even though there’s no capacity.  This is a classic example of a broken model that in the words of national modeling expert Norm Marshall “forecasts the impossible.”  ODOT’s own consultants, CDM Smith, said in 2013 that the I-5 bridge could handle no more peak traffic due to capacity constraints:

Traffic under the existing toll-free operating condition on the I-5 bridge reached nominal capacity several years ago, especially considering the substandard widths of lanes and shoulders on the facility. The I-5 bridge has little or no room for additional growth in most peak periods, and capacity constraints have limited growth over the last decade.

The IBR’s own modelers admitted that traffic growth on I-5 has been limited due to the bridge being at capacity and congested.  Yet they’ve created a fictitious “no build” scenario in which traffic continues to increase, essentially because it has no meaningful feedback loops to adjust travel demand to reflect how humans actually respond in the face of congestion.

Real Answer:  ODOT is using flawed models that overstate no-build traffic and pollution, and conceal the true environmental impact of freeway expansion

8. How wide will the bridges be?

The IBR team describes the I-5 Bridges adding either two or four so-called “auxiliary lanes” to the existing six freeway lanes on I-5 through the project area.  But the project hasn’t revealed how wide the structures are that its actually building.  In the project’s last iteration, the “Columbia River Crossing”, the project said they reduced the size of the bridge from twelve lanes to ten in response to objections to its width from local leaders, but in fact, public records requests showed that they didn’t reduce the physical size of the bridges (or other structures) at all.  The supposed “ten lane” bridge was 180 feet wide, just as was the proposed “twelve lane” bridge.

The cryptic information provided by the IBR says that its so-called 10-lane bridge would be just as wide as the CRC (180 feet), and the so-called 8 lane bridge (“one auxiliary lane”) would be just 16 feet narrower (“2013 LPA Minus 16 Feet”), which works out to 164 feet wide.  With standard-width 12 foot wide freeway lanes, this 164 foot wide bridge would accommodate ten traffic lanes (120 feet), with 11 foot shoulders on either side of the travel lanes, or as many as twelve travel lanes (144 feet) with five foot shoulders on either side of the twelve travel lanes).  (Alternatively, the 164 foot width would allow construction of 12 travel lanes with 2 foot wide left shoulders and 8 foot wide right shoulders, which would be common, if not generous for an urban bridge).

When it comes to bridges or freeway capacity, ignore how many “lanes” ODOT and WSDOT claim they’re building, and look at how wide the structures are.  They’ve repeatedly used this deceptive tactic to intentionally conceal the true width and environmental impact of their projects.

Real Answer:  Regardless of how many lanes IBR claims its building, its actual plans provide capacity for more, in this case a 10 or 12 lane bridge.

9. How many cars will use the bridge?

The primary argument for the IBR is that it is needed to carry a growing number of vehicles crossing the Columbia River.  But completely absent from any of the project’s materials is any specification the volume of traffic the bridge will carry.  The project makes claims about travel times and traffic delay, but can’t possibly have come up with those estimates without coming up with estimates of the number of cars that will use the bridge.  It specifically suppressed this information to undercut the public’s ability to understand–and ask questions about and criticize the modeling.  And we know that the project’s earlier modeling done for the Columbia River Crossing was simply wrong.  It predicted that traffic would grow by 1.7 percent per year on I-5 between 2005 and 2030; in fact, through 2019, traffic grew by only 0.3 percent per year.   This chart shows the average daily traffic on I-5 as predicted by the CRC (blue: no-build, red build) and actual, from ODOT’s own traffic records (black).  We can’t see how IBR’s new modeling compares to these figures, because they’ve simply refused to publish any average daily traffic totals.

The models used by IBR systematically over-estimate travel in the No-build scenario and underestimate, if not completely ignore, the additional traffic induced by adding more lanes.  It’s impossible to assess the project’s claims about traffic performance, environmental impacts, or financial viability with out transparent and accurate estimates of the number of vehicles that will use the bridge.

Real Answer:  IBR uses flawed models which overstate the need for freeway capacity to justify un-needed and expensive freeway widening.

10. How will a wider freeway reduce carbon emissions?

The IBR material makes the specious claim that it will result in lower emissions, based on the false claim that decreasing traffic congestion will reduce vehicle idling in traffic, and that the bridge will have a higher share of transit passengers (something which it cannot explain–see #6 above).  The RMI Shift induced travel calculator estimates that adding lanes to the I-5 bridge could increase greenhouse gas emissions hundreds of thousands of tons per year.

Real Answer:  Expanded freeway capacity leads to more driving and more greenhouse gas emissions.

More Congestion Pseudo Science

A new study calculates that twenty percent of all time “lost” in travel is due to traffic lights

Finally, proof for the Lachner Theorem:  Traffic signals are a major cause of traffic delay

Another classic example of pseudo-science:  Big data and bad assumptions produce meaningless results

When I was in graduate school, I shared a house in Berkeley with five roommates.  Once a week we’d pool our food dollars, and pile into Archie Lachner’s ’67 Falcon and drive across town to Lucky, Safeway or the Co-Op, and mount a group shopping expedition for the week.  This was in the late 70s, just after Berkeley had installed a series of traffic diverters to stop cut-through driving in residential neighborhoods.  Our driver, Archie, repeatedly chose routes that were blocked by one diverter and then another.  He cursed at the inconvenience:  “These traffic diverters, they get in your way, they slow you down.”  That prompted a heated debate about the merits of diverters.  Archie defended the inherent right of drivers to go wherever they wanted.  Others in the car said they could see how people who lived on these streets might appreciate the diverters cutting down on or at least slowing traffic. Archie had to turn around at least twice to avoid diverters, and as we finally got near the grocery store, we came to to a stop at a red traffic signal.  From the back seat, someone said:  “These traffic lights, they get in your way, they slow you down.”    Offended, Archie, spun the wheel and drove home–“if you can’t respect the driver, you won’t get a ride.”  Despite the protests, Archie drove a couple of miles back home, and the five other roommates had to repeat the trip in another car.

 

Traffic signals cause 20 percent of all time lost to congestion!

Thus was born the Lachner theory of traffic congestion:  Traffic lights get in your way and slow you down.  For decades the theory has been wanting for actual quantification, but at last, we have it.  Crack statisticians at the University of Maryland have sifted through reams, nay gigabytes, of big data, and have produced a comprehensive, nationwide estimate of the amount of time lost when we sit, waiting for red lights to turn green.

According to these University of Maryland estimates, time lost sitting at traffic signals amounts to 329 million vehicle hours of delay, and costs us $8.6 billion dollars per year.  Time spent waiting at traffic signals is roughly three-fifths as great as the 561 million vehicle hours of delay associated with routine “recurring” traffic congestion.

This new study from the University of Maryland finally vindicates the Lachner theorem.  By their reckoning, roughly 19 percent of all traffic congestion is due to waiting at traffic signals.  Those traffic lights do get in your way and slow you down.

Traffic signals cause delays as vehicles queue at intersections. In 10 states, traffic signals are the top cause of traffic congestion, though congestion levels overall remain relatively low in those states. For example, even though Alaska ranked highest in the country in percentage of delay caused by Signals at 53%, it ranked 42nd in terms of total hours of delay caused by signals.

As an accounting exercise, there’s little reason to doubt these calculations. But whether they constitute a “loss” is highly doubtful, because there’s no question that we’d all collectively lose more time in travel if there were no traffic lights.  The policy implication of this finding is not that we should be tearing out or turning off traffic signals.  That would be absurd, of course.  And what the claims of time spent waiting at traffic lights constitute an actual “loss” rests on the assumption that there’s some other traffic-light free way of managing the flow of traffic at intersections that would involve less total travel time for those now waiting.  Simply getting rid of traffic lights—and say replacing them with stop signs—would likely decrease the throughput of many intersections and actually increase delays (though it might beneficially reduce traffic speeds and improve safety for vulnerable road users). Theoretically one might replace every single traffic light in the US with a fully grade separated interchange without stops.

Let’s suppose, for a moment, that you could instantly replace all of the 330,000 or so traffic signals in the US with grade-separated interchanges that eliminated traffic signals.  That might eliminate all the time “lost” by vehicles waiting at traffic lights, but it would come at a cost.  At say, $10 million per intersection (which is probably a conservative estimate) that would cost about $3.3 trillion, all that to save maybe $8.6 billion per year.  Time spent waiting at traffic lights is costly, only if you ignore the vastly greater cost of doing anything to try to reduce it.

It’s easy to point out that the Lachner Theorem about the “time loss” due to traffic lights is pretty silly.  But what’s true of the elaborate (but fundamentally wrong-headed) estimates of the time “lost” to traffic signals is that it also holds for all the other estimates of supposed congestion costs.  For years, a range of highly numerate charlatans have been purporting to compute the value of time lost to traffic congestion. The congestion cost studies generated by the Texas Transportation Institute, Inrix, Tom-Tom and others invariably conclude that traffic congestion costs us billions of dollars a year.  Their copious data creates the illusion of statistical precision without providing any actually useful knowledge.  They generate heat, but don’t shed any light: The congestion cost estimates are part of the propaganda effort of the road-builders, who assert we need to spend even more billions to widen roads to recoup these losses.

It’s an example of a measurement that’s literally true, but quite meaningless.  It’s true in the sense that people probably due spend millions of hours, collectively sitting at traffic lights or traveling more slowly because of congestion.  It’s meaningless, because there’s not some real world alternative where you could build enough road capacity to eliminate these delays.  So, as an elaborate accounting exercise, you can use big data and computing power to produce this estimate, but the result is a factoid that conveys no useful, actionable information—just as we’ve shown with our Cappuccino Congestion Index, which totes up the billions of dollars American’s “lose” waiting in line at coffee shops.

The sky’s the limit if you want to generate large estimates of the supposed time “lost” to slower than imaginable travel.  Consider for example flying cars or helicopters.  If you could travel by helicopter to all your destinations, it would shave hours a day off your total travel time.  With a spreadsheet and some travel data, you could work out an estimate of how many million hours might be saved and how many billions of dollars that saved travel time would be worth.  You could produce a report arguing that the personal helicopter shortage costs us in lost time and money.  It would be a large but meaningless number, because there’s no world where its financially feasible, much less physically possible, for everyone to take every trip by helicopter.

The only way to make meaning of such numbers is in the context of plausible, real-world alternatives.  And that’s exactly what these cost of congestion studies almost invariably fail to consider.  Something is only a “cost” if there’s an actual practical alternative that would save the lost time without incurring even greater monetary costs in doing so.  Imaginary savings from an impossible, or impossibly expensive alternative aren’t savings at all.  All of the evidence about induced travel shows that expanding capacity to try and reduce time “lost” to congestion is ultimately futile:  more capacity encourages more travel, induces more sprawl, and does nothing to reduce congestion and delay.

It’s a welcome sign that one recent report acknowledged this fundamental fact.  To their credit, at least Tom-Tom acknowledges that adding capacity is futile, or even-counterproductive:

Developing road infrastructures and increasing the capacity isn’t the solution. “When a new road is built, it is only a matter of time before more vehicles are added to the road, offsetting this initial easing: it’s called the traffic demand dilemma”, Ralf-Peter Schäfer said. Change behaviours and traffic patterns can make a significant difference. Congestion is non-linear: once traffic goes beyond a certain threshold, congestion increases exponentially. Discouraging drivers to drive during peak rush hour can lead to big improvements, as proven during the pandemic.

And the purveyors of congestion cost estimates almost never point to the only solution that’s been proven to reduce congestion:  road pricing.  Even a modest system of time-based user fees could dramatically reduce congestion.

It’s tempting to believe that more data will make the answers to our vexing problems, like traffic congestion clearer.  But the reverse is often true:  an avalanche of big data obscure a fundamental truth.  That’s what’s going on here.

 

Just say no: How to deal with highway widening zealots

The Oregon and Washington highway departments are at it again, pushing a 10- or 12-lane, five mile long freeway widening project that’s likely to cost at least $5 billion.

They’re responding to objections with a combination of misleading rhetoric and feigned acceptance of “conditions” to minimize the project’s impacts

This is exactly what they did with the failed Columbia River Crossing a decade ago:  approval “with conditions” becomes unconditional approval

A warning from one of Portland’s past leaders about the deceptive high pressure sales tactics used to sell a bloated freeway boondoggle

The only sensible response from policy makers ought to be:  Just Say No.

Editor’s Note:  David Bragdon was the President of the Metro Council, Portland’s regional government, from 2003 to 2010.  He led the agency at the time the Columbia River Crossing was developed and was part of the local Project Sponsors Council.  Since 2013, Bragdon has been Executive Director of TransitCenter, a New York based foundation that works with leading transportation advocates and agencies in major cities across the nation.  This commentary was originally published at City Observatory in 2021, but is again timely, as Portland leaders ponder a multi-billion dollar highway widening project.

Legend has it that the Columbia River Crossing project died in 2013 only because a handful of right-wing politicians in Washington State killed it. This inaccurate re-writing of history was spun retrospectively by the project’s formidable public relations machine to obscure the real reason their project failed: the incompetence and mendacity of the project leadership at the Oregon and Washington State Highway Departments, ODOT and WSDOT, who made a series of errors that doomed the project long before those Washington State legislators administered the last rites. The first gentle pull on the plug occurred in 2010, when a “blue ribbon panel” of highway and bridge experts in engineering, finance, planning and design – handpicked by ODOT and WSDOT, with the assumption they’d be told what they wanted to hear with a great big rubber stamp of support – issued a damning report: the peers from agencies and firms from around the country found that ODOT/WSDOT had selected an untested bridge type, had conjured a finance and tolling plan that did not add up, had ignored or misled other agencies like the Coast Guard, and had made countless errors, large and small. Among those fatal mistakes, the two state agencies had poisoned their relationships with local agencies and the community with a pattern of half-truths, untruths, and broken promises. It was this pattern of deceit that weakened the CRC proposal to the point that the right-wingers in Olympia could ultimately provide the death blow. 

I know. I was an up-close witness to ODOT/WSDOT management’s bad faith for several years. Leadership at ODOT frequently told me things that were not true, bluffed about things they did not know, made all sorts of misleading claims, and routinely broke promises. They continually substituted PR and lobbying gambits in place of sound engineering, planning and financial acumen, treating absolutely everything as merely a challenge of spin rather than matters of dollars or physical reality. 

That history is important, because if you’re not honest about the patterns of the past, you are doomed to repeat them. Unfortunately, I understand that’s exactly what’s going on with the rebranded CRC: the same agencies, and even some of the same personalities who failed so spectacularly less than a decade ago – wasting nearly $200 million and building absolutely nothing – have inexplicably been rewarded for their failure by being given license to try the very same task, using the very same techniques of bamboozlement. It’s the definition of insanity. I ask the community members and elected leaders of the Portland-Vancouver area in 2021 to take it from me, who learned it the hard way 2007-10: do not fall for ODOT management’s chronic misrepresentations, or its outdated technical methods rooted in the 1950s. You are being misled in the short-term, and your constituents’ descendants will be stuck with a terrible project and debt for decades. The I-5 / I-205 corridor between Oregon and Washington State has serious challenges – too much congestion at peak hours and peak directions, old and out-moded infrastructure, poor air quality in adjacent communities – but the two State Highway Departments’ approach won’t fix any of those problems and will make some, like traffic and emissions, worse than today.

I can take you through ODOT’s old playbook, and you can tell me whether they are running it again now: 

The bum’s rush

I understand ODOT management has revived one of its favorite old falsehoods by claiming they are facing an “imminent federal deadline,” and that if local leaders don’t knuckle under to ODOT’s plan–and soon–the region will lose millions or tens of millions of dollars forever.  Creating fictional “federal deadlines” and other federal processes as an excuse for false urgency is a familiar ODOT tactic. From 2007 through 2013, ODOT staff frequently but vaguely claimed that quick action was needed on certain approval steps, and there “there is no more time to consider x or y” because of “impending federal deadlines.” When asked to cite specifically what deadlines they meant, ODOT officials would refuse to answer or parry with generalities. When Congressional staff would inquire with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) or other federal agencies about what deadlines ODOT could possibly be referring to, nobody could say. ODOT public relations staff had made it up. 

 In short, ODOT leadership’s claims that “federal deadlines” are urgently impending are usually fabrications, created by ODOT PR staff (who dominate the agency) to force other parties like local governments to go along with whatever ODOT staff is proposing without scrutiny. (Ironically, ODOT itself rarely meets any real deadlines, and has a terrible track record of doing anything on time. Yet ODOT management insists that everybody else adhere to deadlines that don’t exist.)

One specific example: in the summer of 2010, ODOT public relations specialist Travis Brouwer solemnly intoned that Congress was on the verge of passing a reauthorization bill, and that it was essential that certain approval steps be taken for the CRC for it to be included in this (supposedly) impending bill. Actually, as all Congressional staff knew, and as Brouwer and State Highway Department Director Matt Garrett also must have known, it was an election year and there was little likelihood of a bill passing in that time frame. (Brouwer and Garrett, like much of ODOT management, are better versed in politicking than engineering, being former Congressional staff experienced in lobbying and propaganda.  Like much of CRC’s senior team, they had little or no understanding of modern engineering, planning or finance, beyond a 1956-era grasp.) 

Some of the other ODOT falsehoods which were debunked during CRC v.1, and which you can be on the lookout for again were: 

We can’t consider less costly alternatives.  When asked about projected costs, ODOT staff claimed that federal law or regulation prevented them from considering cost and budget when developing their plan. There could be no value engineering, they said, vaguely handwaving at “federal regulations.” ODOT staff made this statement partly as an evasion so they couldn’t provide a realistic tolling and revenue plan, claiming they were “not allowed” to take realistic revenue availability or costs into account (the way transit projects must, by the way). When US Representative Peter DeFazio, who knows a thing or two about federal transportation law, scoffed at the claim, senior ODOT staff were privately dismissive of him. But ODOT’s claim sounded absurd, and indeed it was: through independent channels we learned that Obama Administration FHWA Director Victor Mendez publicly stated the opposite of ODOT’s statement, and declared that in practice FWHA was encouraging state governments to become more cost-conscious at all stages of project development, not barring them from doing so. In short, ODOT claimed the federal government prevented them from realistic budgeting, while in fact the top highway official in the nation countered that he strongly encouraged it. (This is one of those lies that cleverly twists a kernel of truth:  agencies are barred from excluding options from consideration based solely on cost, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use cost as a criterion in choosing their ultimate action).

We can’t change anything in our plan without violating federal rules.  ODOT also claimed that design parameters such as ramps, grades, turning radii etc. could not be changed because doing so would require FHWA to approve waivers, which ODOT said FHWA was highly unlikely to do. They were adamant that an enormous interchange had to be inflicted on Hayden Island, eroding property values and discouraging redevelopment, because federal regulations required it. This excuse was debunked by ODOT/WSDOT’s own hand-picked “blue ribbon” panel, when Chair Tom Warne (a veteran Utah state highway official) observed that FHWA can be expected to routinely approve hundreds of waivers like that on a project of this size. The problem was that ODOT staff, who have not successfully built anything more complicated than a simple overpass for the past thirty years, did not have the training or sophistication to deal with complex engineering challenges, and just didn’t have the skills to be bothered. In the absence of technical knowledge, ODOT leadership defaults to the one skill they do possess, word-spinning. (To be fair, WSDOT has superior technical skills to ODOT, though most of its talent is deployed in the Puget Sound region, not Southwest Washington.) 

This is special money that can only be used for this project.  Another ODOT staff whopper was the repeated claim that federal money for the CRC was somehow special, could not be used for other projects, and therefore lavish spending on CRC would not deprive other priorities of funding. This claim was exposed as untrue when the project was cancelled, and the money was quickly reprogrammed to other highway projects. (Keep in mind, this claim that billions must – must! – be spent on overbuilding I-5 comes from an agency that can’t seem to find a few nickels to fund passenger trains between Portland or Eugene, or paint crosswalks or install signals to prevent pedestrians from being killed on 82nd Avenue.) 

OK, we’ll go along with what you want (Not really:  fingers crossed).  When under more intense pressure, ODOT management will grudgingly make vague promises to “consider” things, which over and over it proved it had no intent to do. (Or, as in the case of I-5 Rose Quarter, create an advisory committee that it completely controls – or else.) ODOT leadership routinely used its control of the technical process to renege on its commitments. For example, to win support from the Metro Council, Mr Garrett pledged to commission an independent review of the project staff’s highly questionable estimates about greenhouse gas emissions. (This same Mr Garrett had a bad habit of recycling untruths: he was later caught providing falsified GHG estimates to a legislative panel, with the fantastical notion that more traffic leads to less GHG.)  Within weeks of the Metro Council accepting his pledge and voting to endorse the project, ODOT leadership reneged on the promise of an independent review, with Garrett privately telling a Metro official, “we just need to greenwash” this project. (Current ODOT management used a similar technique recently, by bringing in an expert panel ostensibly to audit traffic forecasts for their monstrous I-5 Rose Quarter proposal, but then forbidding the panel from considering induced demand, the primary factor at issue. It’s like saying, “OK, OK, OK, we’ll bring in independent experts to evaluate our claim that pigs can fly” but then directing the experts to ignore the existence of gravity.) 

In another fingers-crossed promise, under pressure from the community due to the very real probability of induced demand and an understandable community desire that Hayden Island not be further obliterated beyond the existing highway blight, ODOT leadership pretended to reduce the size of the Columbia River Crossing from a proposed 12 lanes to 10 lanes.  It cleverly changed all the project’s promotional materials to describe the road as a 10 lane facility.  But it actually made no changes to the physical width of the roadway and structures it planned to build.  What it cheekily did do was to delete from the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement every single reference to the actual width of the massive bridges it was proposing to build.  A public records request forced WSDOT to divulge plans showing that the supposed ten-lane bridge they had agreed to build was 180 feet wide—exactly the same width as it had been when ODOT described it as carrying 12 lanes. 

ODOT and WSDOT’s manipulative tactics became more and more apparent as local officials compared notes with each other in the first decade of the century. State officials probably banked on local leaders from the two sides of the river never talking to each other, but the more we did talk, the more we realized how we were being played off against each other by the self-styled amateur Svengalis in Olympia and Salem. ODOT would whisper to Oregonians, “don’t worry, the tolls are going to pay for it all, and light rail is a must,” while at the very same moment WSDOT would whisper to Washingtonians, “aw, don’t worry, the tolls are going to be low, and we’re going to get rid of this light rail component, just go along for now.” (WSDOT was far more savvy than their ODOT cousins too, by larding up the project with interchanges far to the north that functionally had very little utility for true interstate traffic but were designed for intra-Clark County short trips. WSDOT winked at their constituents and confided, “We got those rubes down in Salem to fall for Oregon paying for 50 percent of our sprawling suburban interchanges!”)

 The revived CRC, aka “Interstate Bridge Replacement,” is more of the same

 In the past year, WSDOT and ODOT have been attempting to breathe new life into the corpse of the expired Columbia River Crossing project.  They’ve started by rebranding it as the “Interstate Bridge Replacement.”  The revived “IBR” project may have changed its name, but hasn’t changed its bad faith efforts to peddle this multi-billion dollar project as if it were the only possible solution to the very real challenges in this corridor. When faced with a challenge, ODOT simply rebrands, without really changing anything. It’s the same old soup in a new bowl, brewed by cynical chefs who, cigarettes dangling from their lips, also cook the books on traffic forecasts, budgets and GHG modeling. 

The new name itself is a distortion.  It implies that they’re merely “replacing” the existing bridge, when in fact that’s no more than 20 percent of this giant boondoggle, which is in reality a 5 mile long, $5 billion 12 lane freeway that just happens to cross a river.  The reality looks like this:

Animated GIF courtesy of Bike Portland.

 

This illustration shows not the new bridge, but the planned widening of I-5 south of the bridge on Hayden Island.  This is no “replacement.”  It is as Congressman Peter DeFazio – whose cautions ODOT routinely ignored during the first chapter of this saga, despite the power and knowledge he has – aptly described it “a gold-plated project,” with most of the project’s cost being driven by highway department plans to widen long stretches of freeway on either side of the bridge itself.

As City Observatory noted, the revived CRC project kicked off with an enormous lie and yet another fictitious deadline.  Project Manager Gregg Johnson told Oregon and Washington Legislators that they’d have to repay the Federal Highway Administration $140 million if they didn’t move ahead with the project by 2024.  That, of course, isn’t true, if Oregon and Washington choose a “no-build” alternative, FHWA regulations say there’s zero repayment liability.

The Columbia River Crossing failed because state highway officials were simply dishonest every step of the way in their efforts to sell this project. Their coverup was essential to them, because as agencies whose main activity is rural, single-purpose highways, they lacked the skills to plan and build a complex, urban, multimodal project in a community that rightfully demands authentic engagement. In the face of that need, they obscured real likely costs, either bungled or intentionally exaggerated tolling forecasts, refused to release accurate renderings, and invariably substituted branding, bullying and propaganda for problem-solving.

I’m saddened to see that almost a decade later the Governors of Oregon and Washington have unleashed the same agencies again to use the same techniques and simply continue this stupefying track record of incompetence and dishonesty. Those of us who were leading the region 10-15 years ago learned a difficult and expensive lesson about the perils of trusting ODOT and WSDOT management and their methods.  We can only hope that today’s leaders profit from our experience and not repeat our mistake of trusting the phony sales pitches used to push this project, which is the wrong solution to a set of very real problems. 

While the two state highway departments are fixated on their 1950s style non-solution, the I-5 corridor is beset by major challenges: high demand in certain directions at certain hours, freight being delayed by an abundance of single-occupancy cars, one structure that is now over a hundred years old, inadequate transit and biking and walking options, and a legacy of harm inflicted on North Portland, Hayden Island and downtown Vancouver. Those are very real challenges which can be addressed only with truth, creativity, first-class planning and engineering and design, credibility with the public, and post-1950s concepts like demand management. The two State Highway Departments have already proven they have none of those attributes. Their proposal will not solve the real problems and will actually exacerbate them, and their methods and lack of credibility will lead to more wasted years and wasted money. Rather than being trusted and empowered, ODOT and WSDOT should be removed from their role as project managers – which they’ve amply proved they’re not qualified for – and replaced with an interagency team rooted in the region that can get this important job done. 

ODOT and WSDOT take one truth, and then extrapolate many untruths from it. ‘We need to do something to fix the problems in this corridor,’ is true, but ‘Therefore we need to do the most expensive, stupid something’ is not true.

Yet another exploding whale: ODOT’s freeway widening cost doubles

It now looks like Oregon DOT’s I-205 Abernethy Bridge rebuild, advertised as costing $248 million, will really cost $500 million

The project’s estimated cost has doubled in just four years, and still has further cost overrun risk

The Oregon DOT has experienced massive cost-overruns on all of its largest construction projects, and has systematically concealed and understated the frequency and scale of cost overruns

One of the most viewed clips on YouTube depicts the handiwork of Oregon Department of Transportation engineers. Over 50 years ago, in the fall of 1970, confronted with the rotting corpse of a 45-foot long sperm whale on a Pacific beach, ODOT engineers planted half a ton of dynamite under the carcass; when detonated it created a rain of blubber that sent bystanders running for their lives—a  a huge chunk that crushed a nearby car. ODOT has subsequently given up on exploding stranded whale carcasses (it now carefully buries them).  But it has found another thing to explode, and something it does regularly: project budgets.

ODOT then: Exploding Whales. ODOT Now: Exploding Budgets

The I-205 Abernethy Bridge:  Now twice as expensive

For some years, the idea of widening and seismically retrofitting the I-205 Abernethy Bridge across the Willamette River between Oregon City and West Linn (in Portland’s southern suburbs) has been on the wish list of state and local transportation officials.  The Legislature didn’t fund the project as part of a major transportation package in 2017, but did direct ODOT to produce a “cost to complete” report so that it would have some idea of how much money would be needed.  ODOT produced that report in 2018.  It said that retrofitting and widening the bridge would cost $248 million (The bridge project was identified as “Package A” in this cost estimate..

Armed with that figure, highway advocates pushed forward, and in getting the Legislature to direct ODOT to take on the project.  But—and we know you won’t be surprised—ODOT’s estimate was wrong–very wrong.  When the project went to bid this Spring, bids came back at just a shade under $500 million.  What that means is that ODOT will have to divert money from other construction projects, or as is currently being debated, charge even higher tolls for travel on I-205 (if tolling is approved for the project by federal, state and regional officials).  This is actually the second big cost bump for the project since its 2018 “Cost to Complete” report.  Less than a year ago, in the Fall of 2021, ODOT prepared a “construction phase cost estimate” of $375 million, which represented a 50 percent increase in costs.  As is common practice, the original 2018 estimate was officially forgotten when reporting the further escalation of costs in 2022, with ODOT reporting only the additional cost increase of roughly $125 million, not the full cost increase of $250 million from its original estimate. The key takeaway though, is that, in the space of just four years, the cost of this project doubled.

The irony here is that tolling is likely to depress the level of traffic demand on I-205 sufficiently that added lanes aren’t needed, which would obviate much of the need for the project.  But because ODOT has put the construction of the project ahead of final decisions on tolling, there’s a high likelihood that it will end up building vastly more highway capacity than there is demand.  West Linn and Oregon City could end up looking like Louisville, with an expensive and largely unused toll bridge as a kind of financial millstone.

Deja vu all over again.

Regular City Observatory readers will no doubt have a sense of deja vu.  Only last fall, we wrote about how the OregonDOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter freeway project had yet another cost overrun, with total costs estimated to range as high as $1.45 billion.  That in turn was an increase from a previous cost increase,  announced just 18 months earlier, in which the project doubled in cost from the estimate provided to the 2017 Oregon Legislature.   The project, which was sold to the 2017 Oregon Legislature as costing $450 million  had its price tag balloon to almost $800 million in March 2020.  That Rose Quarter freeway widening project is now in financial and legal limbo:  ODOT hasn’t identified a new source of revenue to pay for the ballooning costs, and the Federal Highway Administration has rescinded the project’s “Finding of No Significant Environmental Impact” in the face of a legal challenge.

ODOT:  Where cost overruns are just the way we do things

To some, a cost increase of this magnitude may seem like an aberration.  For anyone who has followed ODOT closely, its apparent this is very, very common.  Over the past decade and a half at least, ODOT has blown through the budget estimates of virtually every large project they’ve undertaken.

Like other highway agencies, ODOT has consistently underestimated the cost to complete its major highway projects.  A review of ODOTs own reports for the largest projects its undertaken in the past 20 years shows a consistent pattern of cost overruns, as summarized here:

Source: Compiled from ODOT reports. Note: Newberg Dundee estimates are for entire project, which is only partially complete. Other projects latest cost reflect total cost as completed.

There’s abundant academic evidence about the consistent tendency of “megaprojects” to overrun early cost estimates.  Bengt Flyvberg has literally written a book about it.

The problem isn’t unique to Oregon.  Two of the biggest bridge projects nationally (rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge N. of NYC, and SF’s Bay Bridge West Span both produced colossal overruns).

No Accountability for Overruns

There have been furtive efforts to oversee ODOT.  In November 2015, Governor Brown said she was commissioning an performance management audit of ODOT.

ODOT did nothing for the first five months of 2016, and said the project would cost as much as half a million dollars. Initially, ODOT awarded a $350,000 oversight contract to an insider, who as it turns out, was angling for then ODOT director Matt Garrett’s job.   .

After this conflict-of-interest was exposed, the department rescinded the contract in instead gave a million dollar contract to McKinsey & Co, (so without irony, ODOT had at least a 100 percent cost overrun on the contract to do their audit.)

And what McKinsey produced amounted to a whitewash, as I explained at Bike Portland.  The audit covered up a long series of ODOT cost overruns, and instead focused on a long series of meaningless measures of internal administrative processes, such as the average time needed to process purchase orders. Meanwhile, the state’s million dollar auditors excluded from their cost overrun calculations the US20 Pioneer Mountain project, the single most expensive project that ODOT had undertaken, and even though excluding it, managed to understate and mis-label the 300 percent cost-overrun.

The final report from McKinsey recommended that ODOT could become more efficient by giving more money to consultants like McKinsey (as humorist Dave Barry would say “I’m not making this up.”)

Which, in a way, brings us full circle:  Dave Barry was one of those principally responsible for popularizing the exploding whale story.  With ODOT, the explosions just keep coming, but now they’re confined mostly destroying project budgets, rather than raining blubber. At least with whales, ODOT learned from its mistakes.  When it comes to massive cost overruns, it’s simply become the way this agency does business. We give the last word to Barry, who narrates the whale explosion:

So they moved the spectators back up the beach, put a half-ton of dynamite next to the whale and set it off. I am probably not guilty of understatement when I say that what follows, on the videotape, is the most wonderful event in the history of the universe. First you see the whale carcass disappear in a huge blast of smoke and flame. Then you hear the happy spectators shouting “Yayy!” and “Whee!” Then, suddenly, the crowd’s tone changes. You hear a new sound like “splud.” You hear a woman’s voice shouting “Here come pieces of… MY GOD!” Something smears the camera lens.

 

 

The Week Observed, April 29, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

The folly of the frog ferry.  One bane of transportation policy discussions is the tendency to believe that miracle technical fixes—self-driving cars, personal aircraft, the Segway, or Elon Musk’s car tunnels–are going to overcome the physics, geometry and economics that make transportation a hard problem.  The latest iteration of this fixation is in Portland, where water transport advocates have been pushing for a “Frog Ferry” to connect Vancouver Washington and Portland Oregon.  Ferry promoters have a clever video, asking people to imagine a faster trip by boat, but the trouble is ferries are competitive with either private cars, or importantly, existing transit buses. There is a river route, but it turns out to be roughly twice as long as traveling by the roadway.

An even the fastest water ferries can’t ply the distance between the two cities as quickly as today’s buses running mixed traffic.  In fact, the ferry’s likely to be 20 minutes slower than the 40 minute bus ride, and leave you at the riverside, rather than near your destination.  A slow boat to nowhere isn’t going to be a competitive mode of transportation in the Rose City.

Must read

The hidden cost of “free” transit. There’s a decided inequity in the way we finance urban transportation. Almost everywhere, its free to store private vehicles in the public right-of-way. But in most cases, you can’t set foot on a public bus without paying a fare for each trip. Little surprise that eliminating transit fares seems like a good way to rectify this inequity and it seems like a great way to entice people out of cars, reducing driving and pollution.Writing at Bloomberg, David Zipper challenges this notion, saying that the real world evidence on this environmental benefit is weak:

 After more than a decade of transit agencies around the world experimenting with free trips, it’s far from clear that dropping fares delivers an environmental upside. It boils down to this: If fare-free transit doesn’t substantially reduce driving, it’s not mitigating emissions or slowing climate change. And all signs suggest that it doesn’t.

And in a world of limited resources for transit, eliminating fare revenue reduces the resources needed to pay drivers, and fewer driver hours means less transit service.  When transit service provides value for money (access to important destinations and good frequency) riders are happy to pay. Free service that comes less often is not a good deal for them, or a benefit to the environment.  And perhaps the best way to promote greater equity and reduce driving would be to ask cars to pay their way.

A YIMBY Victory in San Francisco. The deep blue bastion of San Francisco may seem like an unlikely place for political trend spotting, but a special election runoff for a vacant State Assembly seat signals an important shift. KQED reports that the race pitted two long time San Francisco Supervisors—Matt Haney and David Campos. Both are strong progressives, but the issue that separated the two was YIMBY v. NIMBY. Haney has supported a wide range of efforts to expand housing supply; Campos has spoken out in favor of affordable housing, but voted against proposals that expand market rate housing. For many San Francisco voters, however, housing has become a dividing line between the two candidates. In a bid to drive down the city’s sky-high rents, Haney has consistently advocated for an increase in overall housing construction, while Campos has pushed to prioritize affordable developments over anything else . The city approved more than 2,000 housing units per year in Haney’s district, compared to fewer than 200 per year in Campos’s district.

Krugman: Celebrate Earth Day by making it easier to build housing in cities.  San Francisco’s special election caught the eye of New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman, who singled out housing issue and its national implications. If the YIMBY victory in San Francisco foreshadows a national shift, he says, the implications could be positive. Not only are cities greener (people use less energy and create fewer greenhouse gases heating and cooling buildings and driving), but cities are more productive. And our failure to build enough housing to meet demand for urban living is a key driver of our national and local housing affordability problems. As Krugman notes:

. . . cities have become highly desirable places to live and work . . . but they’ve become increasingly unaffordable, largely because of local-level opposition to new construction. . . .

Allowing greater density, Krugman argues:

“. . . would be good for the economy. Some people are willing to pay very high prices for urban housing because they’re more productive in big cities. So limiting density makes America poorer by preventing workers from making the best use of their talents.” 

New Knowledge

The rise in E-Commerce during the pandemic.  The Census Bureau released its latest estimates of total US retail sales for 2020, and unsurprisingly, they show the sharp rise in e-commerce during the Covid-19 pandemic.  Total US retail sales surges to about $5.6 trillion in 2020, and e-commerce sales made up about $815 billion or 14 percent of the total.

Of course, the pandemic produced wide variations in retail sales trends across different sectors of the economy.  Sales at food stores increased noticeably, while sales for gas stations, clothing stores and electronics and appliance retailers all fell by double-digit amounts.  E-commerce rose 43 percent year over year from 2019 through 2020.

US Census Bureau, Annual Retail Trade Survey (ARTS), 2020.  https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/arts/data/tables.html

In the news

Streetsblog USA republished our City Observatory commentary on the ways that tax evasion and sprawl fuel the demand for highway widening in Portland.

The Week Observed, May 6, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

Ten questions that deserve answers before making a multi-billion dollar decision. The Portland metro area is being asked by the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation to give the go ahead to a $5 billion, 5 mile long freeway widening project.  It would be one of the biggest infrastructure investments in the region’s history, but as they’re being rushed to judgement, there are ten as yet unanswered questions that are fundamental to making a good decision on this project.  Despite spending more than two years and tens of millions of dollars on reviving the failed Columbia River Crossing, the two state DOTs have consciously chosen not to provide answers to some of the most basic questions, including: How much will the project cost? who will pay for it?  What tolls will be charged on this bridge (and on parallel routes)?  The two state DOTs have also even concealed what the bridge would look like–although City Observatory has obtained 3D renderings via a public records request, that show a giant freeway bridge and its elevated approaches would loom over much of downtown Vancouver.

A giant new I-5 bridge would loom over downtown Vancouver and its redeveloping waterfront–views that have been hidden by ODOT and WSDOT.

The time to get answers to these ten very basic questions is before the two state’s irrevocably commit to spending billions of dollars on a project which, due to flawed traffic projections and a failure to correctly analyze toll impacts on traffic, may be wastefully over-sized.

Must read

Another reason to love carbon pricing. The Frontier Group’s Tony Dutzik is a long time proponent of carbon pricing (as is City Observatory).  Looking at the the energy use of bitcoin mining, Dutzik shows that there’s an important lesson for climate policy.  Bitcoin is “created” by the process of energy intensive computation, which itself leads to additional greenhouse gases. In response to this concern, some miners have shifted to greener power sources, like wind. But as Dutzik points out, this is a classic example of the Jevons Paradox:  When something becomes cheaper, people use more of it.  So while bitcoin miners may make use of cheaper wind energy, that frees up dirtier energy to be used for other purposes.

. . . when it comes to the climate, the amount of clean energy we use is irrelevant. It’s the amount of dirty fossil fuels we burn that matters.And even if we produce enough clean energy to meet our needs, our progress toward a stable climate will be slower than needed if our consumption of energy expands without limit.

The simple minded idea that more clean energy necessarily means less dirty energy is simply wrong.  The advent of more (and cheaper) green energy, just stimulates more overall demand for energy, and as long as fossil fuel doesn’t become progressively more expensive, pollution doesn’t decrease, or decrease very much.  The economic solution is to use market forces, via a carbon tax, to push up the prices of fossil fuels, so that people use progressively less of them.Flying cars will damage cities and democracy.  While the Jetson’s billed flying cars as an travel mode for all, the reality of this technology promises to be dramatically less egalitarian and more damaging to the environment writes the Center for American Progress infrastructure expert Kevin DeGood.

General aviation already hinges on substantial subsidies from the public that chiefly benefit a small number of high income users.  Moreover, flying cars will be noisy, energy inefficient and face serious capacity constraints.  But the key problem of flying cars is that they produce negative social and environmental consequences:

Unfortunately, flying cars represent the technological apotheosis of sprawl and an attempt to eradicate distance as a fact of life for elites who are wealthy enough to routinely let slip the bonds of gravity. Proponents offer a utopian vision of seamless convenience and efficiency that delivers broad-based societal benefits. The inevitable reality is that flying cars will confer advantages on direct users while exacerbating the geographic isolation of elites—a spatial manifestation of deepening inequality that undermines the shared experiences that are necessary to sustain democracy.

Boeing moves its headquarters, again.  Before there was Amazon’s HQ2 beauty contest, one of the highest profile corporate headquarters relocations was Boeing’s 2001 move of its corporate headquarters from Seattle to Chicago, ostensibly to enable the company to become smarter and more capable by being enmeshed in that financial and professional service center.  While it was viewed as a debacle for Seattle at the time, the Emerald City economy has flourished (and boomed) since then, and Boeing moved only a few hundred jobs to Chicago.  The move to the Washington, DC metro area puts the company’s headquarters in the same town as Amazon’s HQ2:  Arlington, Virginia.  The federal government is arguably Boeing’s single largest client, and as with so many industries, being close to the source of policy-making may be a critical factor in corporate success.

New Knowledge

Average trips by distance for States and Counties.  Its an oft-repeated maxim that most travel involves only very short trips, and a new data source from the US Department of Transportation confirms that view. The data, “Distribution of Trips by Distance” contains estimates for all US states and counties, by month, from 2019 onward of the number of trips taken by distance traveled.  It’s a huge database, on a given day in

The estimates are generated from scaling up a sample of anonymized location data from mobile devices to detect travel patterns.  Home locations are imputed based on long duration stays in particular locations; trips are defined as being away from a home location for more than ten minutes.  The data are mode-blind (but probably bottom censor some very short walking trips).  A fuller description of the methodology is provided at the US DOT website.

Here’s an example of how the dataset works.  We’ve focused on Multnomah County (which contains Portland) Oregon.  It has about 820,000 residents, who took about 2.6 million trips per day in February, 2022.  The chart below shows the trend in the number of trips by trip distance from 2019 onward; the decline in travel associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, beginning in the second quarter of 2021 is quite evident.

The website shows the distribution of trips by trip distance; a majority of all trips (55 percent) were less than three miles. That’s powerful evidence that non-auto modes of transportation could be used for many daily trips.  Those very short trips don’t account for much total mileage; it’s likely that more than 90 percent of all miles traveled on a given day are accounted for by trips that are more than three miles long.People in cities tend to take more shorter trips and fewer longer ones than their suburban counterparts.  In Portland, for example, Multnomah County residents take about 2.5 under one mile trips for every 10-25 mile trip they take.  Residents in suburban Clackamas County take about 1.6 under one mile trips for every 10-25 mile trip; and in further outlying Yamhill County, the ratio is 1.4.

Historic travel patterns provide some useful insights about urban transportation, but it’s important to recognize that trip lengths are a product of the built environment and the transportation system.  Sprawling, car-dependent development patterns increase average trip distances.  If we chose different travel modes, the distribution of economic activity would likely be different, and the pattern of trip differences would differ as well.

Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Distribution of Trips by Distance:  National, State and County level.  2022.

The Week Observed, May 13, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

Just Say “No” to freeway widening zealots.  George Santayana meet David Bragdon:  Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat the failures of the past.  A year ago, we published this commentary by David Bragdon, now Director of the Transit Center, but a decade ago, President of Portland’s Metro regional government.  He warned that the region’s leaders were on the brink of repeating exactly the same mistakes of trusting two state highway departments pitching a multi-billion dollar freeway widening project.  The project, re-christened the “Interstate Bridge Replacement” is marching along exactly the path Bragdon foretold, the project claims to be reducing the number of lanes it will build, but is still planning a structure wide enough for ten or even twelve lanes of traffic.

The bridge width lie. Next time you see a story about the “Interstate Bridge Replacement” project, see if you can spot the project’s misleading talking points.  The whopper they’re asking you to repeat now is the false claim that they’re adding only a single so-called auxiliary lane to the existing I-5 crossing.  The reality is that their plans for a “narrower” bridge call for a 164 foot wide structure, enough to easily carry 10 or even 12 lanes of traffic.

This is the same lie ODOT and WSDOT used to try to sell the failed Columbia River Crossing a decade ago.  And this lie is just on the top of a pile of others, notably the name of the project, while it’s called a “bridge replacement” it’s really a 5-mile long, $5 billion highway widening project that mostly involves rebuilding every interchange for miles north and south of the bridge, and building enormous elevated highways in downtown Vancouver and across Hayden Island–facts concealed because the two DOTs have refused to release any renderings showing what the project would look like to people standing on the ground anywhere.  No one should take at face value claims about the number of lanes to be built:  Demand to look closely at the actual plans, which reveal they’re actually going to build a mammoth structure that can easily be re-striped, once built, to carry as many as twelve lanes of traffic.

Must read

How single staircase buildings could make multi-family housing more affordable, livable and interesting.  This story has that “one weird trick” vibe:  A fairly arcane building code regulation is primarily responsible for making US multi-family housing more expensive, more boring and less livable than in the rest of the world.  It’s the “dual staircase” rule:  Most multi-story buildings have to offer each dwelling unit two different staircase accesses.  That’s why multi-family buildings in the US are universally dominated by long, sterile, windowless corridors.

Flickr User Oatsy40

The requirement is a huge space waster, and makes it impossible to have apartments with cross flow ventilation.  It’s especially onerous for small lots, and precludes buildings with a single, central stairway with all apartments abutting a common stair landing. In theory, dual access provides greater safety, but there’s virtually no evidence showing life safety is any greater in such buildings. Allowing single staircase buildings on up to five story structures–which is common in the rest of the world, would give architects vastly more flexibility to design interesting and more affordable apartment buildings.

The real housing speculators, BC edition.  There’s a persistent search for villains in the face of high housing prices, and in Canada, it’s been fashionable to blame foreign buyers for home price inflation.  But an insightful analysis from the Sightline Institute shows, to paraphrase Pogo, “we have met the enemy, and he is us” (or maybe our parents).  Even in places like Vancouver, foreign ownership is a vanishingly small fraction of total home ownership.  Most homes are owned by Canadians, especially older, wealthier ones, who benefit from an array of public policies, notably a broad exemption from capital gains taxes on increasing home values.  Likewise, the policy establishment is dominated by homeowners; Sightline estimates that 93 percent of the members of the provincial assembly are homeowners, and a majority of these own more than one property.  As we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, the real burden of rising home prices represents an intergenerational transfer of wealth from the young to the old, and homeownership subsidies serve mostly to magnify the wealth gap between homeowners, who get generous support, and renters, most of whom get little or nothing. Blaming foreigners is politically convenient, but dodges the issue.

Austin:  A swirl of sprawl, housing inflation, gentrification and “democracy.”  Austin Texas is so hot right now.  The economy is booming, people and companies are moving in, and house prices are exploding.  The famously liberal oasis in the heart of Red Texas aims to have progressive policies, and has been struggling to revamp its zoning code to allow more housing construction to match burgeoning demand.  Writing at Bloomberg, Megan Kimble explains that while well-intended, these efforts have hung up by a state law that requires individual notifications to property owners in advance of zoning changes.  In one case, plans for a denser, mixed income development in the city were thwarted by neighboring homeowners:

. . . the opponents represented 31% of the land within 200 feet of the property, triggering a state law that would require Austin City Council to pass any rezoning with a three-fourths majority rather than a simple two-thirds majority. Perhaps reading the writing on the wall — namely, that city council did not have the nine votes to pass the rezoning — the development company withdrew its request.

Handing out sweeping veto authority to handfuls of current residents is a sure-fire recipe for making sure that little new housing gets build, especially in more central, and walkable locations.  The practical effect of this policy is to further push up prices, create more displacement, and drive housing development to an ever-expanding suburban fringe, locking in more sprawl and car dependency and undercutting efforts to promote transit and reduce greenhouse gases.

New Knowledge

How a loss of face-to-face interaction hurts innovation.  There’s a lot of debate and speculation about the ability of highly innovative firms to flourish in an environment with extensive remote work.  While some people and firms are claiming they can be just as productive working at a distance, it seems premature to make that claim, as many of the effects may be extremely long-term in nature.  A new study from Japan looks back at the impacts of the Influenze epidemic of the 1920s, and finds that the loss of opportunities for face-to-face interaction has significant long term impacts on innovation.

As with the Covid pandemic, social distancing to fight influenza dramatically reduced the amount of face-to-face interaction in society and workplaces. The authors of the study used Japanese patent application records to check the growth of patenting in different industries, and found that in the wake of the early 1920s influenza epidemic, patent activity fell fastest in collaboration-intensive industries (those industries in which multiple researchers jointly file for patents).

As with other patent-studies that have looked at “star-scientists” and network effects in inventive activity, this study also looked at how the influenza pandemic and the associated decline in face-to-face activity influenced longer-term productivity of researchers.  They found that early career collaboration is one key to later productivity (as measured by patents) and that the decline in collaboration associated with the pandemic depressed life-long productivity of researchers.  They summarize:

‘. . . the results show that the number of patent applications declined by 19% during the pandemic in the collaboration intensive fields. We further find that the decrease in patent applications in the collaboration intensive fields during the pandemic was mainly driven by the decrease in new entries into patent applications. These findings suggest that face-to-face communication indeed contributed to innovation by collaborative work. In addition, they also reveal that opportunities of technical guidance, communication, and knowledge exchange with seniors and colleagues in the early career of an inventor were especially important.

Hiroyasu Inoue, Kentaro Nakajima, Tetsuji Okazaki and Yukiko U. Saito, The Role of Face-to-face Contact in Innovation:
The Evidence from the Spanish Flu Pandemic in Japan, RIETI Discussion Paper Series 22-E-026 March 2022, https://www.rieti.go.jp/jp/publications/dp/22e026.pdf

In the news

Oregon Public Broadcasting cited City Observatory’s Joe Cortright on the battle over the Interstate Briddge freeway widening project in Portland.
As part of his three-part series on solutions for congestion relief at Planetizen, James Brasuell cited our commentary on Louisville’s experience showing the even modest tolls eliminated traffic congestion on I-65.
Bike Portland directed is readers to the ten un-answered questions we raised confronting the controversial bridge project.

The Week Observed, May 20, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

Another exploding whale:  The cost of the I-205 bridge project doubles in four years. Famously in the 1960s, the Oregon State Highway Department tried to dispose of the carcass of a whale that had washed up on an Oregon beach with several cases of dynamite. They predicted that the whale would be atomized, but in one of the most-watched youtube videos in history, the results are a disaster, with onlookers fleeing to avoid being crushed in a rain of blubber.  While it no longer blows up whales, the Oregon Department of Transportation has repeatedly blown up project budgets, with similarly embarrassing and even more devastating results.

In four years, the price of widening this bridge doubled from $248 million to nearly $500 million

Virtually every major ODOT highway project has ended up costing twice as much as its initial estimates.  The latest example is the proposed seismic upgrade and widening of the I-205 Abernethy Bridge over the Willamette River.  In 2018, ODOT told the Legislature, the project would cost $248 million.  Bids opened earlier this spring showed the actual cost of the project was going to be nearly $500 million.  No one should trust ODOT to make reliable project cost estimates, any more than they should let them use dynamite for whale disposal.

Must read

Denver drops plans to widen I-25.  Score one victory for freeway fighters in the Mile High City.  According to the Colorado Sun, the Colorado Department of Transportation has dropped plans to widen Interstate 25, the principal North-South route through the city.  Instead, they’ll focus on improving rail transportation and redeveloping rail yards near the city center.  Colorado has adopted some forward looking climate policies, that require some consideration of the effect of new highway capacity on increasing travel and climate pollution.  This is a positive step, but like so many battles, isn’t final:  CDOT could revive this project in some future year.

America’s increasingly deadly streets.  The latest data on traffic deaths shows that, far from making progress toward “Vision Zero,” the carnage on US streets and roads continues to increase.  The number of traffic deaths grew 10.5 percent  to nearly 43,000 according to the data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  Traffic deaths increased to a 16-year high.  Fatalities increased in 44 of the 50 states, and the increase in deaths was higher for some vulnerable road users, with pedestrian deaths up 13 percent over the past year.

The miracle of “reduced demand”.  Regular City Observatory readers are familiar with the term ‘induced demand”–the idea that building more roadway capacity induces more automobile travel. While well documented in the scientific literature, the concept is utterly baffling to billionaire car and tunnel builder Elon Musk, who attempted to refute induced demand last week, by expressing his disbelief for its logical corollary:  if we reduce road capacity that should reduce traffic.  StreetsblogLA has the refreshing news that in spite of Musk’s skepticism, that is also true.  As freeway removal projects around the world (and even temporary closures) have shown, removing highway capacity has the effect of reducing car travel (and pollution and crashes).  Kea Wilson offers a succinct telling of the three reasons that reduced demand works.  Her article is ought to be “Musk-reading” this week.

In the news

StreetsblogLA cited City Observatory’s analysis of “reduced demand” in its article challenging Elon Musk.

The Week Observed, June 17, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

There’s nothing green about free parking, no matter how many solar panels you put on the garage.  The US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory brags about its sustainable parking garage, festooned with solar panels.  But the garage, designed to hold about 1,800 cars is essentially fossil fuel infrastructure, a problem exacerbated by the lab’s suburban location, and policy of not charging anyone for parking. We first wrote about the parking garage in 2017, and now revisit it to see how it has performed.

Unsurprisingly, an event smaller share of the lab’s commuters travel to the lab in anything other than single-occupancy vehicles than before the garage was built.

Must read

The real villains in gentrification. There’s a lot of finger-pointing and virtue-signalling in the arguments over gentrification, but as The Atlantic’s Jersualem Demsaas explains, most people are looking in the wrong direction when assigning blame for gentrification (and rising home prices).  The real cause of gentrification is pervasive restrictions on increasing density in higher income neighborhoods, chiefly through restrictive single-family zoning.  These limits effectively displace demand to other places (chiefly lower income neighborhoods), in addition to excluding lower income households from higher resource areas.  And overall, the constriction of supply tends to drive up home prices, which works to the disadvantage of low income households.

Local governments have, in particular, chosen to respect the class interests of wealthy homeowners by giving them the power to reject the construction of new and more affordable types of housing, in effect allowing them to economically segregate their neighborhoods. . . In genuflecting to the class interests of wealthy homeowners, local officials have, then, set the stage for gentrification. Yes, in a narrow sense, gentrification happens when young, college-educated, and predominantly white people move to racially and economically diverse neighborhoods. But notice how insidious this framing is and who it leaves out: the homeowners and city officials who made equitable growth impossible. This framing foments conflict among young newcomers and lower-income communities of color and turns a structural problem into an individual one.

This is a deeply insightful and precise analysis of the root causes of gentrification and the political misdirection of blame away from exclusionary zoning that serves the financial interests of wealthier and whiter homeowners:  It is a must, must read for anyone who cares about cities, housing affordability or equity.

Washington State simply ignores climate issues as it plans more freeways.  The Urbanist’s Ryan Packer takes a close look at Washington State’s climate policies, as implemented by its transportation department.  Governor Jay Inslee portrayed himself as a “green” candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, but the policy of his administration makes it clear that the state is turning a blind eye to the role of highway expansions in increasing greenhouse gases.  The state transportation agency, WSDOT looked at three scenarios for transportation spending, and concluded that whether it spent a lot or a little on more highways had essentially no impact on climate emissions.  Packer writes:

But when it comes to analyzing the environmental impact of these scenarios, things come off the rails. WSDOT told the commission that its initial analysis concluded the three scenarios had essentially the same impact on the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, according to WSDOT, spending $10 billion on expanded highways (in the “maintain and innovate” scenario) would have exactly the same impact as spending more than double that (in the “maintain and expand” one).

All this flies in the face of the demonstrated science of induced demand (more roadways stimulate more driving and increase emissions), something that WSDOT claims it understands in other technical work.  What this shows is that when it comes to actually spending money, highway departments are still in deep denial about the scientific realities of both climate change and induced travel.

The problem with district representation in city government.  Many cities elect their governing bodies by district, and by rule or tradition, systems of “aldermanic privilege” or “courtesy” mean that nothing happens in a district (development approvals, zone changes and so on) without the explicit approval of the person elected from that area.  It’s a system that inherently tends to favor “NIMBY” politics (Not-in-my-backyard), as a person elected by a district will be more sensitive to local concerns.  And it also creates deal-making opportunities for city councilors.  Trading development approvals for political or financial favors often becomes the norm.  In St. Louis, three Aldermen were indicted by Federal prosecutors for accepting bribes in connection with land sales, tax abatements and rezonings.  According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the indictments have:

. . . shined a light on a practice often referred to as “aldermanic courtesy” and the direct involvement of city alderman in many of the bureaucratic functions of city government.  Federal prosecutors zeroed in on lucrative tax abatements and the sale of property owned by the Land Reutilization Authority, the city’s land bank. But aldermanic influence can also affect which streets get repaired, where speed bumps are installed and whether the planning department even takes up a rezoning request.

This problem is endemic to ward-based election systems:  elected officials have a narrow base of support, and are naturally more interested in serving their districts than the city at large.  This coupled with a tendency toward “log-rolling”—deferring to the local interests of other members, as they defer to your local interests—undermines the political support for consistent, rules-based administration.

New Knowledge

The persistent racial gap in Covid death rates.  A recent New York Times story claimed that Covid-19 death rates, which have previously been higher for non-white, non-Asian populations, have either converged with white death rates, or actually decreased below them.

The trouble is, that isn’t true.  The New York Times statistic failed to adjust for the different age composition of each racial-ethnic group.  The aggregate death rate of non-white Americans has declined more than for whites, but this is chiefly an artifact of the much younger average age of this group.  Tyler Black posted on Twitter age-specific death rates by race and ethnicity.  They show a persistent gap in death rates.

Black computes the “odds-ratio”–the likelihood that a non-White/Asian person will die of covid relative to the likelihood that a White/Asian person will die of Covid.  The horizontal axis shows the odds-ratio for each age group.  The different colored lines correspond to the three years of the pandemic (2020, 2021 and 2022).  Overall, the disparity is lower in 2022 than it was in 2020, but its still the case that age-specific death rates are higher for non-white/Asian persons in each age group.

Many factors influence Covid-19 infection rates and mortality; age is clearly a principal risk factor, and failing to control for it in one’s analysis is a serious flaw.  Too often with Covid-19 statistics there’s been an undue eagerness to jump to unwarranted conclusions based on fragmentary or poorly analyzed data (at City Observatory, we spent a considerable amount of time debunking early claims that density was a key risk factor for Covid spread).

In the News

Willamette Week quoted City Observatory Director Joe Cortright on the proposed $5 billion Interstate Bridge freeway widening project:  ““The project’s traffic forecasts are inaccurate, the cost estimates are based on decade-old engineering work, and the selected high bridge option is the riskiest, most expensive and least affordable approach to solving this problem.”

The Week Observed, July 1, 2022

Must read

The most gas guzzling states. The sting of higher gas prices depends on where you live, not so much because of the variation in prices, but because in some states, you just have drive a lot more.  The website Quotewizard took a look at federal data from the energy and transportation departments, and calculated the average change in fuel consumption per capita since late last year; it also ranked states on fuel consumption per driver and per person.

In this study, Texans use about 60 percent more gasoline per capita (240 gallons) than people who live in Massachusetts (150 gallons). In general, higher gas prices have reduced consumption since last October by between 5 and 10 percent.  In the short run, people have few options for reducing gasoline consumption, but over time, responses tend to be greater.

Barack Obama:  YIMBY.  In a recent speech to the American Institute of Architects, former President Barack Obama sounds off with strong urbanist and YIMBY arguments, questioning “progressive” housing policies that have hurt affordability and integration.

“Frankly, some very well-intentioned laws and regulations at the local level, often generated from the left and from my own party, sometimes are inhibiting the creation of affordable housing and powering NIMBY attitudes and make it very difficult to integrate communities and allow people to live close to where they work. The most liberal communities in the country aren’t that liberal when it comes to affordable housing”

Official portrait of President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, Dec. 6, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

He even invokes the classic Jane Jacob/Robert Moses dichotomy on urbanism, with a clear nod to Jane Jacob’s view of the organic nature of urban development.  Obama even decries the ravages of sprawl:

“Sprawl in America is not good for our climate,” he said. “And so we have to think about creating livable density that allows us to take mass transit and take bicycles.”

New Knowledge

Rent control reduces the amount of rental housing. Cities around the world are always trying new variations on rent control, hoping that they can overcome some of the fundamental economic problems with capping rental prices.  In Spain, Catalonia implemented a so-called “second generation” rent control scheme that set reference prices for apartments.

A new study looks at the impact of this rent control on apartment rents and the number of apartments that are rented out.  It has some interesting findings.  The author’s report some reductions in rents, but also find that many apartment rental contracts are set for higher amounts that allowed by the rent control law.  It is invariably difficult to enforce rent controls, as landlords are always looking to get more money, anda in a tight market, some prospective tenants will be willing to bid more than the regulated price. (That’s why you frequently find payments for “key money” in rentals of regulated apartments.

One of the unfortunate assumptions of rent control is that landlords have no choice but to continue to rent their apartments:  That’s not the case.  They can choose to occupy them themselves or sell them to others who will occupy them.  And that’s exactly what this paper finds happened in Catalonia:  The restriction on rental prices led to a reduction in units for rent.  Overall, the authors found that there was a very elastic supply response to rent restrictions:  an estimated elasticity of about four means a one percent reduction in rents led to about a four percent reduction in apartment supply.  The reductions appeared to be in larger units, where the rental regulation constraint was greatest.

Catalonia represents one of the interesting experiments in rent control.  Also, as in Germany, this rent control regime has been ruled unconstitutional after a few years of operation, meaning that scholars will now have the opportunity to observe what happens when rent control is removed.  This should provide additional insights into how housing markets work.

Joan Monràs and José García-Montalvo, The effect of second generation rent controls: New evidence from Catalonia, Universitat Pompeu Fabra,Economics Working Paper Series, Working Paper No. 1836. Updated version: April 2022

In the News

City Observatory director Joe Cortright is quoted in the Portland Business Journal’s reporting on the proposed Interstate Bridge Replacement project.

The Week Observed, July 15, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

A Bridge too low.  The Oregon DOT is fundamentally misrepresenting the process and legal standards for setting the height of a proposed new multi-billion dollar I-5 bridge across the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver.  Ignoring the Coast Guard’s determination that a new bridge must provide 178 feet of navigation clearance likely dooms the I-5 Bridge Project to yet another failure.

The Oregon and Washington DOTs have again designed a I-5 bridge that’s too low for navigation.  In their rush to recycle the failed plans for the Columbia River Crossing, the two state transportation departments have failed to address Coast Guard navigation concerns. State DOT PR efforts are mis-representing the approval process:  The Coast Guard alone, decides on the allowable height for bridges, and only considers the needs of navigation.

Those who refuse to learn from the past are condemned to repeat its mistakes.  That is certainly the case for Portland’s Metro Council which voted on July 14 to wave on the Oregon and Washington highway department plans for a multi-billion dollar freeway widening project packaged as a “bridge replacement.”  Then-Metro Council President David Bragdon weighs in with a warning for the Council, arguing that they have been systematically lied to by highway advocates, and that they will rue their decision.

Must read

Are state highway forecasters committing scientific fraud?  The statistical foundation of every highway expansion project in the country is a forecast of future traffic.  Planners build models incorporating demographic, economic and spatial data and attempt to predict how roads will perform, and what pollution will result if projects are (or aren’t built).  Typically, models are built by and for state highway departments, and are a key part of their efforts to justify and sell bigger roadways.  And unsurprisingly, these DOT models routinely produce just the results their sponsors want:  not widening a road will lead to cataclysmic gridlock; widening as planned will lower traffic congestion and speed travel times.  Its well known that these models have serious structural limitations and flaws–chief among them the inability to model induced demand, and the models themselves are impenetrable black boxes that are almost never available for external scrutiny and verification.  Ben Ross of Maryland alleges that dodgy models and opaque processes have produced scientific fraud in Maryland.  He and colleagues point to inexplicable anomalies in model results, which as usual, reach just the conclusion the state DOT wants.  They’re asking the Federal Highway Administration to independently verfify the modeling.

Dangerous by design, 2022.  Driving may be down, but the number of pedestrians killed on America’s streets and roads is going up. That’s no accident, according to the latest version of Smart Growth America’s report DAngerous by Design.  The nation’s road systems are built in a way that encourages speeding and other risky driving behaviors that put vulnerable road users at greater risk. As roads became less crowded in the during the pandemic, drivers drove faster and more recklessly, with predictable results.  The report’s data show that crash rates and fatalities are systematically higher in a series of Sunbelt metros with hevaily auto dominated road systems.

 

Tragically, this problem is getting worse.  Even though SGA’s reports have shown this geographic pattern for years, the traffic fatality rate has continued to increase in every one of the top 20 metros shown on the map above.  Once again, the report signals that traffic safety can’t be achieved by largely symbolic “Vision Zero” pledges or vapid public relations campaigns.  We have to change the way our streets and roads are built and used.  Until then, we can expect more of the same.

New Knowledge

The importance of two way streets.  One of the key adaptations of the urban road system to automobiles has been the creation of one-way streets. Prior to the automobile, pedestrians, vehicles and horses all mixed and traveled in both directions and all streets were “two-way.” But to facilitate faster car travel, engineers created one-way streets.  One-way streets may be faster, but they come at a cost to the urban fabric.  For example the “back sides” of one way streets (corners facing away from the direction of vehicle traffic) essentially disappear from view and lose value

A new paper from Geoff Boeing and William Riggs points out another cost to one-way street systems:  Longer trips.  By definition, one way streets require at least some out of direction travel to go between most pairs of destinations.  Boeing and Riggs have applied some big data to this question, and they estimate that in the typical city, a system of one way streets results in 1.7 percent percent more vehicle miles of travel due to more circuitous routes.

Applied to San Francisco, their estimates show that converting one-way streets to two-way operation would likely reduce vehicle miles traveled and associated pollution:

If San Francisco converted its one-way streets to two-ways, the new network efficiencies could improve travel distance minimization by 1.7%. This allows us to sketch out a simple back-of-the-envelope ceteris paribus estimate of surplus fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, assuming an average US fuel economy of 10.5 kilometers per liter and 2.4 kilograms of CO2 released per liter of gasoline combusted. All else equal, a citywide two-way conversion policy in San Francisco could reduce annual VKT by 27 million kilometers, fuel consumption by 2.6 million liters, and carbon dioxide emissions by 6,200 metric tonnes (6.2 million kilograms)—just for intra-city trips that begin and end within San Francisco proper.

There are already many urban design and safety reasons to favor two-way streets in urban settings.  They tend to calm traffic, and create environments more conducive to walking and biking.  The Boeing & Riggs analysis also suggests a noticeable opportunity to shorten trips and reduce pollution.
Boeing, G., & Riggs, W. (2022, April 23). Converting One-Way Streets to Two-Way Streets to Improve Transportation Network Efficiency and Reduce Vehicle Distance Traveled. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/fyhbc

In the News

Bike Portland quoted City Observatory Director Joe Cortright’s testimony to the Portland City Council on the proposed I-5 bridge replacement/freeway widening project.

The Week Observed, July 22, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

Failing to learn from the failure of the Columbia River Crossing.  Last week, Portland’s Metro Council voted 6-1 to wave on the Oregon Department of Transportation’s plan for a multi-billion dollar freeway widening project branded as a bridge replacement.  In doing so, the Council is ignoring the lessons of the project’s decade-old doppelganger, the failed Columbia River Crossing.

In this commentary, then-Metro President David Bragdon explains how the Oregon and Washington highway departments systematically lied to and misled regional officials to advance the project, something they’re repeating chapter and verse again to sell the “Interstate Bridge Replacement Project.”  Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of of history are condemned to repeat them.

Must read

Killing the Smart City.  Was there any idea more overwrought than the Google-backed Sidewalk Labs plan to turn Quayside—part of Toronto’s waterfront—into a tech-laden “Smart City?”  After years of hype, millions spent on plans of questionable merit on the turgid and non-sensical promise of “building a city from the Internet up,” the project collapsed of its own weight in 2020.  It predictably blamed the pandemic, but that’s not the real story. Writing at the Technology Review, Karrie Jacobs diagnoses our fascination with—and the flaws of—these sweeping top-down visions of how urban areas are transformed.  Sidewalk Labs smart city plans had the conceit that it was new and better technology that was the key to cities improving, rather than building a better place for people.

The real problem is that with their emphasis on the optimization of everything, smart cities seem designed to eradicate the very thing that makes cities wonderful. New York and Rome and Cairo (and Toronto) are not great cities because they’re efficient: people are attracted to the messiness, to the compelling and serendipitous interactions within a wildly diverse mix of people living in close proximity. But proponents of the smart city embraced instead the idea of the city as something to be quantified and controlled.

We’ve made this mistake before:  The story of twentieth century urbanism was conforming cities to the latest technology—the private automobile.  That tech-led approach to development has ravaged cities and damaged the planet; Toronto, and the rest of us were lucky that Sidewalk Labs effort failed.

External costs.  Climate change is, without doubt, the most global crisis humanity has ever confronted.  Our standard way of thinking about the costs and benefits, which focuses on individuals, neighborhoods, communities, and occasionally nations, misses the fact that the environmental consequences of our decisions are profoundly global, and not local.  Climate change is real to us when we see the effects locally, as when last summer, temperatures in Portland hit 117 degrees.  What that insular perspective misses is that the cumulative effects of climate change are larger and more widespread than any of us individually experience. A new study puts some numbers to this idea.  It estimates that the global cost of US carbon emissions is $1.9 trillion over the past quarter century.

Rising renter incomes and higher rents.  There’s no question that our constrained housing supply (especially in cities) plays a key role in causing housing affordability problems.  But housing prices and rents are driven by both supply and demand.  One of the key elements of demand is household incomes, and in the past couple of years, rising incomes have helped push up rents.  While housing discourse focuses on low and moderate income renters who are cost burdened, its the case that incomes have risen substantially for households renting market rate housing.  And if your income goes up, you are able, and might be willing to bid more for housing.  A new study from RealPage suggests that’s exactly what is happening:

Between 2016 and 2019, market-rate apartment renter incomes climbed around 4.5% annually up to a high of $66,250 in 2019. Incomes among lease signers then dropped 1.9% in 2020 due to the pandemic before surging up 7.7% in 2021 and another 7.1% so far in 2022 up to a new high of $75,000.

RealPage’s study aligns with previously published research from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, which showed the majority of net new renter households over the last decade had incomes above $75,000.

What makes the pandemic-era results al the more remarkable is the sheer volume of renters coming in with higher incomes. Roughly 1 million net new households entered the professionally managed, market-rate apartment sector since the start of 2020 – the biggest wave of demand in RealPage’s three decades of tracking apartments. Those numbers are even more impressive given that they occurred at the same time demand flowed heavily into for-sale homes and single-family rentals, as well.

These data don’t mean that housing affordability isn’t a problem, in fact, just the opposite:  the fact that well off households have more income, and more such households are bidding for apartments means that those with lower incomes face even greater competition (and therefore, higher rents) in the marketplace.  Ultimately, the policy solution has a lot to do with supply, and importantly, more supply at every tier of the marketplace, because if the demand of higher income households isn’t met by new construction, they’re likely to further bid up prices of existing housing.

New Knowledge

Estimating the size of our housing production deficit.  Up for Growth has an ambitious new report attempting to comprehensively measure the nation’s shortage of housing, suggest policy solutions for increasing housing supply and estimating economic, social and environmental benefits of doing so.

The report estimates that nationally, we’ve “underproduced” about 3.8 million housing units.  And the report offers a reasonable set of estimates of how big a housing gap there is in each state and large metropolitan area.  That’s a valuable insight, but as the report makes clear, this isn’t just simply about producing more housing units in the aggregate:  we need more housing in the high opportunity locations that would enable people to advance economically and live more sustainably.

The report sketches out a “new foundation” for growth that targets a graduated series of infill development strategies for different communities and neighborhoods.  It recommends that new housing development be focused in neighborhoods with high levels of economic opportunity, that are job-rich and housing poor, and that have adequate infrastructure (indicated in part by high levels of walkability).  The report identifies census tracts that meet these criteria.  It recommends density increases based on the current development pattern of an area:  “missing middle” housing in low density single family areas; low- or mid-rise apartments in somewhat denser areas, and high rises in the densest neighborhoods.

The Housing Underproduction Report also makes key connections to equity, social justice and sustainability and housing supply:  many of our worst social problems (racial wealth disparities and limited intergenerational economic mobility) stem, at least in part, from constraints on housing supply.  Overcoming housing underproduction is a key strategy for rectifying these disparities.

More of the same housing policy drives poor climate outcomes. We intentionally designed A Better Foundation to realize tangible climate benefits while increasing housing availability and affordability. Key to this framework is locating new housing in areas with high concentrations of jobs and community assets, and in walkable neighborhoods with generous pedestrian or transit infrastructure. This method increases land efficiency, lowers vehicle miles traveled, and decreases the social cost of carbon.

And the “better foundation” pattern of economic growth pays economic and fiscal dividends as well.  More intensive infill development reduces the need for expensive infrastructure investment, and lowers housing and transportation costs (more supply can be expected to reduce housing costs; more concentrated development will reduce vehicle miles traveled).

Mike Kingsella and Leah MacArthur (Editors), Housing Underproduction in the US, Up for Growth, July 2022, https://www.upforgrowth.org/sites/default/files/2022-07/UFG_Underproduction_Report_Spreads_1.pdf

The Week Observed, July 8, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

Building a bridge too low–again.  In their effort to try to revive the failed Columbia River Crossing (a $5 billion freeway widening project between Portland and Vancouver) the Oregon and Washington transportation departments are repeating each of the mistakes that doomed the project a decade ago.  The latest blunder:  again planning for too low a bridge to accomodate river navigation.  The Columbia River is a major industrial thoroughfare in its own right, and the protecting river navigation is the charge of the US Coast Guard under the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act.  The two state DOTs have planned for a fixed, 116-foot high span in place of the existing lift-bridge which allows for vessels as high as 178-feet to traverse the bridge.  Last month, the Coast Guard issued its finding that “reasonable needs of navigation” require at least the 178-foot vertical clearance.

The Oregon and Washington DOTs are in full denial mode, arguing that building a span with that clearance would be unnecessarily expensive and inconvenient to vehicle travel (with a high fixed span) and that building a new moveable span would require building the largest moveable span in the world.  A quick look around the Portland region shows that isn’t true:  The region has at least three bascule bridges with comparable clearances, some built almost a century ago.  But the DOTs seem determined to try to pressure the Coast Guard to allow a lower fixed span, something the agency has signalled its not willing to do.  Just as a decade ago, the failure to realistically address navigation needs is going to delay, and perhaps defeat, efforts to replace the I-5 bridges.

Must read

What “Ban Cars” really means.  There are few things less incendiary in public discourse that the “War on” framing of an issue.  Just a bit tongue in cheek, there’s the “War on Cars” podcast, which explores the pervasive costs, externalities and inequity of our car based transportation system.   While it grabs attention, to some, the framing seems needlessly provocative.  Writing at Jalopnik, Doug Gordon provides some background and nuance beyond the battle cry.  As he explains, the opposition to cars is really about creating better choices.

The goal of “the ban cars movement,” as I see it, is not to render cars obsolete. It’s to give people the choice to live a life where car ownership, and car dependence, are unnecessary — regardless of socioeconomic status or physical ability to operate an automobile. It starts in dense urban areas, places where a few policy tweaks could turn public transit, cycling and walking into the lowest-stress, most convenient options.

In short, our car-dependence has become so deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life that we’re unable to recognize or question it.  The “ban cars” rhetoric is one way of shocking people into re-thinking these unquestioned assumptions.

In the News

Willamette Week quotes City Observatory’s Joe Cortright on the problems associated with building a high bridge—with an excessively steep grade—across the Columbia River.

The Week Observed, May 27, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

Our apologies to City Observatory readers for our website outage on 19-22 May. 

More meaningless congestion pseudo science.  A new study from the University of Maryland claims that traffic lights cause 20 percent of all time lost in traffic.  The estimate is the product of big data analysis of anonymized cell phone data, and claims that we collectively lose more than $8.6 billion per year waiting 329 million hours hours at stop lights.  The computation may be right, but in the real world is meaningless.

Once can’t speak of that time as somehow being “lost” unless there were some other alternative without traffic lights in which travel times would somehow be less.  The “loss” is purely imaginary because it would cost vastly more than the value of lost time to say, eliminate all traffic lights by building grade separated interchanges, and stop signs at intersections would likely result in even slower travel (which might improve safety).  This study is emblematic of the underlying flaw in almost all “congestion cost” studies:  they implicitly assume that there’s some way to reduce travel times–usually by widening roads–but that would cost vastly more than the value of time supposedly lost, and is ultimately futile and self-defeating because induced travel quickly erases any time savings from wider roads.

Must read

CalTrans acknowledges induced demand.  State highway departments have long been in denial about the reality of induced demand:  wider urban roads cause more travel. In a few states, DOTs are beginning to acknowledge the well-documented science of induced demand.  CalTrans has even produced a helpful non-technical diagram explaining why building more lanes is a futile and self-defeating approach to reducing traffic congestion.

The graphic was prompted by state legislation directing CalTrans to more fully consider the greenhouse gas impacts of its investments.  Perhaps they can share it with other state highway departments. (Hat tip to @EngineerDustin for flagging this graphic).

Higher registration fees for large vehicles.  Trucks and SUVs have been getting both larger and more numerous, and are particularly problematic in cities, where they pollute more and are deadlier in crashes than smaller vehicles.  While the federal tax code subsidizes larger vehicles, some cities are starting to look at levying registration fees that reflect back to large vehicle owners a portion of the cost their vehicles impose on others. David Zipper, writing at Bloomberg offers the details of a Washington, DC proposal to charge a $500 registration fee for vehicles larger than 6,000 pounds, and amount that’s about seven times higher than the standard vehicle registration fee in the district.  While local governments are generally barred from regulating vehicle characteristics, they can use fiscal incentives to discourage excessively large vehicles.  As Zipper concludes:

With traffic fatalities climbing and the effects of climate change growing more dire, passage of the District’s new fee structure could serve as a model. Even if federal officials continue to turn a blind eye, state and local leaders need not stand by while drivers of these massive vehicles impose costs on everyone else around them. Instead, they can send motorists a clear message: If you want to buy a mammoth-sized vehicle, no one is going to stop you — but you’re going to have to pay extra.

New Knowledge

The declining salience of race in emissions exposure.  Many studies have noted a strong correlations between race and income and exposure to pollution.  People of color and the poor tend to live in homes and neighborhoods with greater exposure to air pollution and toxics.  That’s true for a variety of reasons:  politically, it’s often been easier to route highways through poor neighborhoods than rich ones, and there’s usually more effective demand to eliminate or preclude pollution in wealthier neighborhoods.  Economically, neighborhoods with high levels of pollution tend to hemorrhage population:  one thing people do when they get more income is to move to places that are less polluted.

A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research looks at recent trends in air pollution to see how the relationships between income, race and pollution have changed in the past couple of decades.  It draws on a kind of natural experiment, a reduction in pollution levels triggered by stricter limits on particulate pollution.  In 2005, the EPA began enforcing a new air quality standard on fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) requiring areas that violated the standard to enforce stricter pollution control requirements.  Over the next 15 years, the new standards lead to a reduction in fine particulate pollution overall, but the study showed that the reductions in pollution were greatest in neighborhoods of color (where pollution tended to be higher).  The result of the enforcement of these new standards was to both dramatically reduce overall pollution levels, and to greatly shrink the racial gap in pollution exposure.

The authors conclude:

. . .  racial differences in ambient particulate exposure declined significantly between 2000 and 2015. . . .  We focus on PM2.5 and show that the gap between African Americans and non-Hispanic Whites narrowed from -1.6 µg/m3 in 2000 to -0.5 µg/m3 by 2015. . . . We find that very little of the decline in the gap in mean exposure levels can be accounted for by changes in mobility, individual, or neighborhood-level characteristics. Similarly, we find that racial gaps in exposure have narrowed at each quantile of the PM2.5 distribution, and that little of this narrowing can be explained by the demographic characteristics available in Census data. Instead, we find that virtually all of the closure of the gap is due to falling pollution levels in the areas where African Americans are more likely to live. There is little evidence that movement of African Americans to relatively cleaner neighborhoods or non-Hispanic Whites to relatively dirtier neighborhoods has played a significant role in the observed convergence.

This is a clear example of a scientific and health based standard having substantial and positive equity effects.  The same likely applies to dealing with climate change:  because low income people and people of color are generally at greater risk from climate change than the overall population, measures that reduce greenhouse gas emissions tend to have intrinsically equitable effects.

Janet Currie, John Voorheis, and Reed Walker, What caused racial disparities in particulate exposure to fall?  New evidence from the Clean Air Act and satellite-based measures of air quality, 2020, NBER  Working Paper 26659 http://www.nber.org/papers/w26659