The Color of Money: Bailing out highways with flexible federal funds

ODOT grabs a billion dollars that could be used for bikes, pedestrians and transit, and allocates it to pay highway bills.

Oregon highways are out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the cost of fixing them can–and should–be paid for out of the State Highway Fund. But instead, ODOT plans to take more than a billion dollars in future federal grant money over the next decade or more, and use it to pay off this highway liability.

What this strategy does is to take money that could be used for a wide variety of different transportation needs and use it only to bail out the State Highway Fund.

By taking this liability out of the State Highway Fund, ODOT can then claim it has plenty of funds for highway expansions. This shell game uses the ADA liability as cover to use flexible federal funds, in essence, to build more highway capacity.

Oregon’s constitution contains a retrograde provision that has been interpreted to require that moneys from gas taxes be used only to build roads, based on a fallacious argument that we have a “user pays” transportation system. The state highway departmetn, ODOT, routinely inovkes that constitutional argument when asked by the public to spend more on things like transit, pedestrian improvements or cycling. We can’t because that money can’t be used for anything other than building roads, they say. As a result, the truly innovative and “multi-modal” uses of funds in Oregon have been paid for disproportionately from federal funds, which are much more flexible. Not only does the Oregon constitutional limit not apply to federal funds, but federal law explicitly allows states to transfer funds among a variety of different categories. You’d think that flexible federal funds would be a key way to diversify our transportation portfolio. But ODOT has hit on a new gimmick to grab these federal funds and use them to bail out the struggling State Highway Fund.

It’s a complex story, and it involves changing the “color of money.”

For decades, the Americans with Disabilities Act has required private businesses and public agencies to provide accommodations for persons with disabilities. For nearly all of that time, the Oregon Department of Transportation has largely flouted that requirement, seldom providing sidewalks and ramps on state highways. As a result, disability advocates hauled them into court, and In 2020 reached a billion dollar settlement, in which ODOT agreed to make the necessary investments to bring highways into compliance with this long-established federal law.

Let’s just talk for a moment about what people in transportation finance call “the color of money.” You may think that all money is green, but in the transportation world, there are different kinds of money, with different strings attached. Funds raised by the state, for example, from the gasoline tax, are governed according to the dictates of state law, and importantly, constitutional restrictions.

ODOT loves to tell advocates it would gladly do more to help promote transit, but its hands are tied by the state constitution: It simply has no choice but to spend these dollars in the roadway.

There’s another color of money in the transportation world, though, “federal money.” Federal money is not governed by the state constitutional restrictions on state taxes. Federal money can be used for a wide variety of purposes, and the federal law gives the state wide flexibility to reallocate money among different categories. It doesn’t all have to be spent on highways.

Consequently, that’s why, when it comes to how we should use federal funds, there’s a lot more debate. In 2022, the Oregon Transportation Commission had a lengthy debate about how to allocate more than $400 million in federal funds coming to the state under the IIJA. Transportation advocates around the state came up with an alternate scenario to allocate about $130 million to local transportation projects. The OTC largely rejected this path.

Transportation Commission makes final decision on $412 million in federal funds

When it comes to getting a different allocation of these highly flexible federal funds, advocates are largely fighting for crumbs—and getting very little.

And ODOT is largely pre-empting any future option to use these funds differently by proposing to use them to repay a huge pile of debt. By pledging to use these federal grants to pay back debt, it will be impossible to use them for other purposes.

So let’s go back to ODOT’s ADA settlement: Under the terms of the deal, ODOT needs to bring its highways into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act by spending $1 billion. To be clear, this is a cost of the highway system—these ODOT roads don’t comply with ADA requirements. This spending is plainly a liability and a responsibility of the highway system. There’s no question that it can constitutionally be paid for with state gas tax revenues. But instead of paying for this cost with those monies, ODOT instead is planning to pay these costs by diverting flexible federal funding for the next decade, to the tune of a billion dollars, to pay these costs.  It will issue $600 million in “GARVEE” bonds (grant anticipation revenue bonds), and then use future federal funds to pay the debt service.

In essence, this reduces the amount of money potentially available for alternative transportation investments, unfettered by the state constitutional limits, by a billion dollars. It amounts to tying up a big chunk of potential revenue.

And what’s worse, ODOT is planning to bond against these federal revenues, spending the money now, and paying it back, with interest, over the next decade or more. So that means a substantial portion of those federal revenues are spent on interest payments, rather than on transportation projects.  At 5 percent interest, $600 million in bonds paid back over 15 years would mean that the state would pay about a quarter of a billion dollars in interest.  In the end, the State Highway Fund would be bailed out by more than $1 billion, and there would be that much less flexible federal funding for other projects around the state.

As we’ve said, when it comes to transportation finance, ODOT is the master of three-card monte: It’s ability to move dollars among categories–to change the color of money–systematically advantages its policy priorities (chiefly building more and wider highways) and leaves advocates of other policies fighting over crumbs.

By using flexible federal funds to pay the costs of the state highway system—plus a hefty pile of interest—ODOT is foreclosing the possibility that future decision-makers will have any ability to use these funds for alternatives in the future. It’s literally the priorities of the past dictating the choices of the future. If ODOT paid its ADA liability out of the State Highway Fund, as it legally can, and arguably should, it would have even less money to spend on road expansion projects.

Oregon’s transportation fiscal crisis

Oregon’s transportation finance in crisis:  Testimony to the Joint Ways and Means Committee. 

On March 16, City Observatory’s Joe Cortright testified to the Oregon Legislature’s budget-writing committee about the financial crisis confronting the state’s transportation agency.  The Oregon Department of Transportation’’s traditional sources of revenue are collapsing, and will certainly decline further in coming years.  The agency is failing to maintain existing roads, and has a huge backlog of maintenance, safety, seismic and other needs that continue to grow.  In the face of declining revenues and deferred maintenance, the agency is embarking on an unprecedented spending spree for expensive megaprojects.

ODOT has shown no ability to manage project costs, with every major project incurring massive cost overruns.  The agency is moving to start construction on these projects and commit the state to paying for them without a financial plan in place.  It claims it will use toll revenues to pay for megaprojects, but has no experience collecting or accurately estimating tolls.  It is planning to take on billions of dollars in debt backed by the promise of tolls. It has used short-term borrowing—the government version of a payday loan—to get projects started while avoiding the independent, investment grade analysis that will be required to get long-term financing.  Repaying the debt incurred for these projects will take legal precedence over all other state transportation priorities, leading to further cuts in maintenance and repair, and jeopardizing every other capital construction project in the state.

The Legislature needs to inject some prudence into transportation finance by requiring a “fix it first” policy, telling ODOT to live within its means, right-sizing bloated megaprojects, and securing independent expert financial advice


Houston’s I-45: Civil rights or repeated wrongs?

Editor’s Note:  For the past two year’s the Federal Highway Administration has been investigating a civil rights complaint brought against the proposed I-45 freeway expansion project in Houston.  This week, FHWA and TxDOT signed an agreement to resolve this complaint.  

Urban freeways have been engines of segregation and neighborhood destruction for decades, a fact that even highway builders are now acknowledging.  You might think that civil rights laws might provide some protection against a repetition of the devastating consequences of such projects, but this case shows that federal and state highway builders aren’t about to make any serious changes to their plans to either right historical wrongs or avoid making them worse.  Officials will give lip service to the egregiousness of past mistakes, but then blithely repeat them.

Kevin DeGood of the Center for American Progress has taken a close look at the agreement, and published his analysis as a series of tweets.  His analysis deserves a wider audience, and with his permission, we’re repeating it here.  The twitter original is available here.

1/ FHWA and TxDOT have signed a Voluntary Resolution Agreement (VRA), which allows TxDOT to build the massive $10 BILLION I-45 North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP). It’s not good. Let’s take a look.


2/ Numerous complaints against the NHHIP project argued the design violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Why? Because the expansion will cause massive displacements — especially of low-income residents in communities of color:

3/ The disparate impacts from the NHHIP are not limited to affordable housing loss. The Air Alliance complaint states the project would degrade air quality in “predominantly lower-income communities of color…” (Note: MSATs are mobile source air toxics)


4/ I-45 will also supercharge sprawl. The transportation improvement program (TIP) for 2021-2024 shows how the exurban growth machine leverages highway expansions like I-45. This $386M for highway widening in Montgomery County is a small sample of the region total.


5/ This is FHWA’s quick summary of the Voluntary Resolution Agreement (VRA). Let’s dig in a little, starting with “Highway ‘Footprint’ Reduction.” Wow, that sounds promising. But what has TxDOT actually promised to do…?


6/ Short answer: Nothing. TxDOT has only committed to…”evaluating reasonable opportunities to reduce the project footprint…” but ONLY if they would “not compromise the integrity and functionality of the purpose and need…” Welp.


7/ Ok, what about “Mitigating displacements”? Since TxDOT isn’t reducing the project footprint, the displacement totals will not change. Instead, TxDOT will provide $30M for affordable housing. But TxDOT already agreed to $27M in the ROD [Record of Decision]! The $3M is an…11% increase.

8/ Ok, what about “Air Quality Mitigation“? TxDOT has agreed to install air quality monitors. Be still my heart. Billions of additional VMT producing emissions and PM 2.5 and residents will get a few monitors and some data buried on TxDOT’s website.


9/ Ok, what about “Structural Highway Caps“? Again, FHWA is bragging about something that TxDOT already agreed to. TxDOT is set to build 4 caps. But, it’s up to a third party to “fund the design, construction, operations and maintenance of amenities…” Piece of cake!



10/ The NHHIP will result in:
– More VMT, GHG emissions, & auto dependence
– Worse air quality
– Huge residential displacements
– Huge business displacements
– More sprawl
– More wetlands loss
The VRA has not meaningfully changed the project design or its negative impacts.

Housing affordability? Localism is the problem, not the solution

Do we need a federal commission on housing affordability?

Bruce Katz, author of “The New Localism” is calling for a national commission to come up with recommendations for dealing with the nation’s housing crisis.



A truly serious, national discussion of housing affordability, and what we could do to expand housing supply, is a good idea. To his credit, Katz does a thorough and workmanlike job of cataloging the symptoms of our housing market malaise:  a shortage of housing, rising prices and rents, increased un-affordability, rising homelessness.  All these points are inarguable.

But there’s a certain irony hearing this call from the unabashed advocates of localism.  Our historical excess of localism in land use planning is perhaps the principle underlying cause of our national housing crisis.  Left to their own devices due to deference to “local control”—municipalities and neighborhoods have wielded zoning, building codes, parking requirements and similar regulations to make it impossible or illegal to build housing to meet demand in wide swaths of the nation.

We’ve long been skeptical of the over-selling of localism.  Local organizing and solutions are great for some problems, and we’ve been champions of the importance of local distinctiveness as a virtue and asset of cities.  But localism, like any attribute, is never an unmitigated good.  And it’s abundantly clear that in the United States, its the stultifying embrace of localism that’s a major contributor to, if not the the primary cause of our housing affordability problem.

While the authors mention zoning in passing, they mostly downplay or overlook the role of local governments and localism in promoting the exclusion and supply restrictions that generate housing shortages around the nation.  As we’ve written at City Observatory, we’ve created a world where cities and neighborhoods use zoning powers to restrict how much housing can be built, to exclude those of limited means as a way of hoarding civic assets and opportunity.

When it comes to affordable housing, it should be abundantly clear, without convening a national commission, that a solution will require reigning in and proscribing local control of land use.  The crucial policy advances in housing affordability are premised on taking exclusionary powers away from local governments.  State governments in Oregon, Washington and California, for example, have recently enacted legislation reducing the power of cities to use zoning to exclude housing.  Oregon and Washington have legalized fourplexes in nearly all residential zones.  California has mandated “regional housing needs assessments” that assign minimum building targets to even the most exclusive suburbs.  The critical intervention in each of these cases is restricting the ambit of localism.  And even when locals have innovated, it has been the political cover and impetus provided by state reforms that has helped propel these efforts, as Michael Andersen has explained in the case of Portland’s Residential Infill Strategy, which was politically stymied until the passage of state legislation.  It is much easier for local governments to innovate when the state government provides a legal prod and political cover.

Why localism is inimical to housing affordability

The reason we can’t rely on localism is that zoning creates a literal “beggar-thy-neighbor” situation for local governments.  No one local government wants to allow denser development, for fear that other jurisdictions (or neighborhoods) won’t be as permissive, and that all of the burden of accommodating additional growth will fall on the few that allow it.  It’s exactly this dynamic that requires intervention from a higher level of government, where the perspective and the politics are broader.

We identified this issue when we reviewed “The New Localism” when it was published five years ago.  We wrote:

It’s also worth noting that a key aspect of localism that has been effectively exempt from federal control—local control of zoning and land use—has worsened the economic segregation of our nation’s metropolitan areas.  In sprawling metros, separate suburban cities have used the power of land use regulation to exclude apartments, directly contributing to the problem of concentrated poverty that intensifies and perpetuates the worst aspects of income inequality. Cities have been implicated in the nation’s housing affordability and segregation problems, but that’s hardly mentioned in Katz & Nowak. The word “segregation” appears only once in the book (page 40). The word “zoning” occurs on 8 pages. Housing affordability is mentioned just once (page 28).

The root of the problem here is too much localism. The most localized governments have the strongest incentives to exclude neighborhood groups within cities lobby against density. Suburbs within metropolitan areas do the same. Only larger units of government have the incentives and ability to challenge this kind of parochialism.

If anything, it’s been the state and federal government unwillingness to do anything to rein in unfettered localism that is the principal cause of the housing crisis.  Local control isn’t sacrosanct in every policy area.  For example, the federal government is more than willing to strictly limit local discretion:  Federal Communication Commission regulations pre-empt local laws that regulate the siting and appearance of cell-phone and satellite television antenna.  The FCC struck down a Philadelphia ordinance requiring satellite TV companies to remove un-used dish antenna, to avoid driving up the cost of watching TV.  But when it comes to housing, the federal government has done nothing to proscribe local practices that drive up housing costs.  Arguably housing affordability is more important than the cost of TV programming.

How a national commission might help

A big challenge in housing policy is the continued prevalence of false explanations for a lack of affordability.  There’s still a widespread belief that building more market rate housing somehow makes housing more expensive (it doesn’t).  And others would like to blame private property generally, or developer greed in particular, for rising rents and home prices.  Very much in this vein, Katz et al offer an extended and largely gratuitous swipe at institutional investors as the source of the current affordability crisis

 But the housing crisis is not just worse than in the late 1980s; it has structurally changed in important ways due to new technologies, new investors and new corporate landlords. The mismatch between supply and demand has created a new way for private capital to extract higher rents and higher profits with minimal risk or action. A wave of parasitic capital is sweeping the country as investors, large and small, buy single family homes at scale, boosting rents, displacing residents and altering the fabric of entire neighborhoods. A new class of slumlords now occupies the urban landscape.

This scapegoating has been thoroughly debunked by The Atlantic’s Jerusalem Demsas.  A national commission ought to be a vehicle for debunking these misleading myths, but the danger is that NIMBY and localist interests would perpetuate them instead.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some good ideas here, that a national commission my develop.  To their credit, Katz and his co-authors flag our excessive reliance on homeownership as a wealth building scheme, and argue that we need to find ways to build wealth for the 40 percent or so of the population who rent, rather than own their homes.

We can’t help but think of this Internet meme when we hear of the advocates of new localism fretting about housing affordability.




Why does a $500 million bridge replacement cost $7.5 billion?

The “bridge replacement” part of the Interstate Bridge Replacement only costs $500 million, according to new project documents

So why is the overall project budget $7.5 billion?

Short answer:  This is really a massive freeway-widening project, spanning five miles and seven intersections, not a “bridge replacement”

Longer (and taller) answer:  The plan to build half-mile long elevated viaducts on both sides of the river, and the need to have interchanges raised high into the air make the project vastly more complex and expensive.

In November of 2022, the Interstate Bridge Replacement team (a collaboration of the Oregon and Washington highway departments), released a document called the “River Crossing Option Comparison” sketching out the advantages and disadvantages of several different alternatives crossing the Columbia River.  The alternatives examined included tunnels under the river, and a series of bridge designs—two different moveable span bridges, and two fixed spans, a high level and and mid-level (116 foot clearance crossing.)

Here’s the bottom line of the report—buried away on page 50 of a 68-page PDF file—the IBR’s preferred design, a mid-level fixed span, is supposed to cost $500 million.

That’s a fascinating number, because in December, the IBR team released another document, a long-awaited financial plan describing the total cost of the project.  It told a joint committee of legislators from Oregon and Washington that the project’s budget had increased from a maximum of $4.8 billion (estimated in 2020) to a new “maximum” of $7.5 billion (although the two agencies still maintain that they’re trying to bring it in for a mere $6 billion).

All this raises a fascinating question:  Why does this project cost $7.5 billion when the price tag for actually replacing the bridge is only $500 million?

Most of the project cost is highway widening, not the bridge

More recently, the project has offered a few additional details, summarized in the graphic below.  As we’ve noted at City Observatory, the name “bridge replacement project” is clearly misleading.  The IBR is really a five-mile long freeway widening project that requires rebuilding seven closely spaced interchanges.  According to the IBR, the cost of the four major segments of the project is about 1 to $1.5 billion each for the Oregon and Washington interchanges and highway widenings (segments A and D), about 1.3 to $2 billion for the transit portion of the project, and about 1.6 to 2.5 billion for the bridge and approaches (segment C).

At between $2 and $3 billion, it’s clear that the interchange rebuilding and roadway widening is more expensive than the river crossing. And an earlier expert review of the Columbia River Crossing version of this same project, commissioned by the two state highway departments and the behest of the then Governors, recommended strongly that the project eliminate one or more interchanges, to save cost, improve safety and performance, and enable a better bridge design.  By rebuilding these too closely spaced interchanges, the panel warned, the DOTs were repeating–at enormous cost–a decades old design error..

A high bridge requires long, steep approaches

The IBR budget breakdown unhelpfully combines the cost of the “bridge” and its “approaches.”  As this illustration shows, what IBR calls the combined “bridge and approaches”—shown in red—extend for about a half a mile on either side of the river:  to Evergreen Boulevard (more than half a mile north of the riverbank on the Vancouver side of the river, and almost all the way across Hayden Island (a bit less than half a mile) on the Oregon side of the river.

We know from the “River Crossing Options” report that the actual bridge itself—that is the portion between the north and south river banks—would cost approximately $500 million to build.  What the IBR doesn’t talk about is the “approaches” which are actually elevated viaducts that have to reach 100 feet or more into the air in order to connect to the high level crossing.  These are vastly higher (and wider) than the existing bridge approaches, which are fully at grade on the Oregon and Washington sides of the river with the current low-level lift bridge.

The mile of elevated freeway that IBR plans to build to connect its high level bridge to the existing freeway at either end of the red-shaded area is what is driving the cost of this segment of the project. If, as IBR says, the bridge structure costs $500 million, this means that most of the cost of this part of the project—as much as $1.5 to $2.0 billion—are the lengthy, elevated approaches.  What IBR has failed to do is consider how much less expensive the approaches could be if it chose one of the alternate bridge designs (either a moveable span or immersed tube tunnel).  Either of these designs would allow approaches to be built mostly or entirely at grade, eliminating the expense and environmental impact of elevated viaducts.  The lower level would also greatly simplify and reduce the expense of the SR 14 interchange, which currently involves convoluted spiral ramps with grades of 6 or 7 percent.

It’s also worth noting that the IBR project hasn’t itemized the cost of demolishing the existing I-5 bridges.  Because these structures cross over sensitive river habitat, and because the bridges themselves have toxic lead paint and other environmental contaminants, the cost of bridge removal could be enormous.

Engineers gone wild, said then-Congressman DeFazio

Clearly, what’s going on here is that highway engineers at ODOT and WSDOT see this project as their opportunity to build the project of their dreams.  Not just a giant bridge, but massive new interchanges, wider freeway lanes, and if people insist, a short light-rail extension.  The bigger, the better.  The grandiose and costly bias of the state highway departments has been long known to key local leaders.  Former Congressman Peter DeFazio (until last year, Chair of the House Infrastructure Committee), in a characteristically frank admission said:

“I kept on telling the project to keep the costs down, don’t build a gold-plated project,” a clearly frustrated DeFazio said. “How can you have a $4 billion project? They let the engineers loose, told them to solve all the region’s infrastructure problems in one fell swoop… They need to get it all straight and come up with a viable project, a viable financing plan that can withstand a vigorous review.”
(Manning, Jeff. “Columbia River Crossing could be a casualty of the federal budget crunch”, The Oregonian, August 14, 2011).

Later, DeFazio told Oregon Public Broadcasting:

“I said, how can it cost three or four billion bucks to go across the Columbia River?  . . . The Columbia River Crossing problem was thrown out to engineers, it wasn’t overseen: they said solve all the problems in this twelve-mile corridor and they did it in a big engineering way, and not in an appropriate way.”
“Think Out Loud,” Oregon Public Broadcasting, August 18, 2011.

At long last, there are some signs that the problems with their super-sized design are dawning on IBR staff.  Project director Greg Johnson recently let slip that IBR is now looking at a “single-level” design—something they ruled out more than a decade ago.  This may mean the states are actually going to consider a lower level crossing. IBR has also conducted a “Cost Estimate Validation Process” or CEVP—which they’ve declined to reveal to the public.  This engineering review likely highlights the cost and risk of the project’s current bloated design.

There’s no reason a $500 million bridge replacement should cost $7.5 billion.  If this project were right-sized—simply replacing the bridge structure, and maintaining a low-level crossing that could connect to existing approaches, and eliminate the need to rebuild seven different intersections and widen miles of freeway, the cost could be brought down substantially.


What are they hiding? Why highway builders won’t show their $7.5 billion freeway

Oregon and Washington are being asked to spend $7.5 billion on a giant bridge:  Why won’t anyone show pictures of what it would look like?

The Oregon and Washington highway departments are using an old Robert Moses trick to make their oversized bridge appear smaller than it really is.

The bridge will blot out much of the reviving waterfront and downtown in Vancouver, and put Hayden Island in the shadow of a half-mile long viaduct.

The IBR has distributed misleading and inaccurate images of the proposed bridge, attempting to make it look smaller.

The agency is spending $1.5 million to create a “digital twin” computer model of the IBR, but is keeping it secret to avoid public scrutiny of its design.

Computer visualizations, complete with human-scale animations, are cheap and common for construction projects, such as Vancouver’s proposed waterfront public market–but ODOT and WSDOT have steadfastly refused to provide such visualizations for the IBR.

The proposed Interstate Bridge Replacement Project would be the largest and most expensive public works project in the Portland metro area’s history.  You’d think that if you were spending $7.5 billion, you’d be proud to show the public and elected officials what it will look like.  But in the case of the IBR, you’d be wrong.  What do the Oregon and Washington highway department’s have to hide?

While the IBR project has only released distant aerial photos that make the project look tiny, we obtained a copy of a preliminary version of their 3D computer model, and used it to show how the view from Hayden Island changes with the construction of the new bridge.  (You can use the slider to show how the view changes between the current bridge (on the left) and the proposed IBR (on the right).

The striking difference in the height and scale of the two bridge images shown above contrasts sharply with the official image crated by IBR from the same digital model.  They use the well-worn trick of showing the bridge, not from anywhere on the ground, or where humans are likely to see it, but from a point suspended in the sky, high above the project.

The very, very short and small Interstate Bridge Replacement.

You’d have to be several thousand feet in the air to get this view of the IBR.  This false perspective makes the bridge look tiny.  It’s simply impossible to compare the height of the bridge, for example, to the height of buildings in downtown Vancouver, or get a sense of how much taller the freeway viaducts across Hayden Island are than any of the other structures on the island.

Blotting out the Vancouver waterfront

The proposed bridge will have a river clearance of at least 116 feet—the Coast Guard is asking for 178 feet—and the structure itself is a double-decker that will be between 35 and 40 feet tall, making the overall structure roughly 150 feet tall over much of the river.  Because of that elevation, the bridge requires half-mile long viaduct approach ramps to get traffic from ground level north and south of the river, up to the high level of the crossing (the lengthy viaducts and elevated intersections are more costly than the bridge itself).  This giant structure will tower over the Vancouver waterfront, which in the past decade has been the site of a remarkable urban redevelopment, with offices, shops, housing, and hotels.

Yet ODOT and WSDOT, who’s massive project will completely remake this part of the city has yet to provide a single illustration showing how the city would be affected.  Again, using the IBR’s crude digital model, we were able to produce this image showing how the view along Vancouver’s riverfront will change if the IBR is built.

Just as a point of reference for local residents, the proposed IBR river crossing will be the size of three of Portland’s I-5 Marquam Bridges side-by-side.  The massive new IBR bridge will tower over the waterfront, with associated noise and pollution.  In addition, the viaducts leading to the bridge will be as high, and in some cases higher than adjacent downtown and waterfront buildings.  Seattle just spent more than a decade and $3 billion to remove the Alaskan Way viaduct that blighted the city’s waterfront for more than half a century.  Vancouver appears to be signing up to create the same kind of roadway scarred landscape that Seattle is trying to fix.

Using manipulated drawings to make the new bridge look smaller

The IBR project has purposely avoided providing an elevation, or profile view of the proposed bridge, in order to keep its height and bulk a secret. But a year ago, it did produce a profile drawing, but one that was purposely inaccurate.   In March, 2022, when IBR as part of a navigation report with the US Coast Guard’s bridge permitting process, it produced an intentionally misleading drawing comparing the existing bridge and the new IBR.  The image was dutifully published by the Vancouver Columbian (March 25, 2022):

Original drawing: IBR project. As published in the Columbian, March 25, 2022). Yellow annotations: Bob Ortblad.

The diagram of the navigation clearance of the new bridge and old bridge, shown one-over-the-other uses different vertical scales to make the new bridge appear smaller and shorter than the old bridge.  See this from CRC (yellow markings and red text are added by Engineer Bob Ortblad).  The broad yellow band superimposed on the top diagram shows the true height and size of the new bridge.  Notice that the top panel says “not to scale” and while the diagrams use the same horizontal scale, they use different vertical scales.  This is intentional distortion.

A $1.5 million “digital twin”

This agency has no need of crude, not-to-scale drawings.  It has detailed plans, and what’s more, buying a state-of-the-digital model of the bridge. IBR is spending $1.5 million to build a so-called “digital twin“—a deeply detailed computer model of every aspect of the proposed bridge, that will be used for design, construction, monitoring and maintenance.  What, you might reasonably ask, is a digital twin?  It’s not a mere computer model, it’s really much more complicated (and expensive) than that.  IBR explains:

A digital twin, as envisioned in this project, is a portal (a 3D model of the bridge and other associated visual dashboards), through which authoritative data and information about the bridge and related road network can be accessed efficiently and quickly by authorized users along its entire lifecycle—from early project planning to real time operations. It is expected to not only serve as a digital record of the physical structure but also as a process twin whereby future “what if” scenarios related to design decisions, constructability, construction or maintenance activities, emergency operations, etc. can be simulated to a very high degree of precision

The contractor IBR hired to build the “digital twin,” WSP, touts its modeling as being an example of the “metaverse,” essentially a digital alternate reality:

Also today, we can use IoT and artificial intelligence [AI] to add data to visualizations and make decisions across departments; we can put ourselves inside of the virtual model of a city, for example, and interact with it—a process now called the metaverse; we can better relate the design to the context of the world around us We can test and validate elements of infrastructure—bridges, roadways, transit, and buildings—before construction;. we can create dynamic models that simulate and predict how these assets will perform in real-life contexts. Three-dimension reality models provide the basis for visualizing, collaboratively managing, and monitoring changes to infrastructure during the project and when the asset is in operation. (Emphasis added)

WSP has been working on the digital twin of the IBR for nearly three years, since at least June, 2020, according to company documents.  WSP’s software vendor, Bentley, also flogs the IBR digital twin work in its promotional material, saying modeling tasks that formerly took months and months to do, can now be done instantly. In theory, the “digital twin” ought to be a way for the public to see exactly what the project will look like, from any angle,  It is fully possible with such a model to create realistic, on-the-ground images and “walk throughs” of the project that convey exactly what it will look like.  But that’s just a theory, because IBR has explicitly chosen not to create or share such images or visualizations with the public.

The digital twin is a secret

But IBR is doing its best to keep the “digital twin” and the images it would show of the IBR project a secret.  At a March 16, 2023 meeting of a construction industry group in Seattle, IBR’s consultant, WSP, admitted that they were being told to keep the project under wraps so as not to provoke public outcry about the design:

Last night at Construction Management Association of America NW Chapter meeting Kevin Gilson, Director of Design Visualization at WSP USA, presented 3D/4D modeling. When he was asked about a 3D model for the Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR), he said “Yes, but it isn’t public yet. There is a model on the website. It’s being produced by the communications team. There is a very detail 3D model. I was going to try and show it, but I am not working on that project. It’s very, very, it’s kept under wraps quite a bit, and I think it’s because of their experience with the first round, trying to tread carefully.”

Personal communication from Bob Ortblad, who attended this meeting, March 17, 2023 (Emphasis added).

City Observatory has filed a public records request to obtain a copy of the model.  IBR officials have declined to provide that model until no earlier than the end of April, 2023.

Concealing images of the proposed giant bridges is a calculated PR strategy

The Interstate Bridge Project has contracted for nearly $10 million in public relations and communications consultants, and they’ve kept a tight lid on project images. A little over a year ago, the IBR project showed its first sketchy images of what the IBR project might look like.  At the time, one of their public relations consultants, Millicent Williams, described the project’s desire to control the dissemination and interpretation of the images:

Thank you, Commissioner Berkman.  I will share that the communications team has discussed,  first of all the fact that once images like this get shared, there will be the opportunity for people to develop a narrative and we’re working to manage that— making direct contact with media outlets to ensure that they have the accurate information and are clear about what these images represent.  Additionally we have asked that disclaimers drafts watermarks all the things that could make sure that folks know that this is not final.  This is concept.

We recognize that there is the possibility that someone might have taken a screenshot of what we just shared and so hopefully, um, we can manage that messaging as well,  and i’m sure that the team is prepared to do that but um that those are things that we’ve thought long and hard about because we want to make sure that we are not stymieing the process or the progress based on our failures to fully disclose where we are in the process and what these images represent.

IBR Executive Steering Group, January 20, 2022 (at 39:54)

Much smaller projects have sophisticated visualizations

Computer graphic simulations of new buildings and construction projects are commonplace—often as a sales and promotion tool.  Developers want to let potential investors and local governments know what a project will look like before it gets built.  That’s exactly what’s happening on the Vancouver waterfront—just not for the IBR project.  The Port of Vancouver is building a new public market building—its take on Seattle’s Pike Place Market—at Terminal One (site of the now demolished Red Lion Hotel).  The port’s architects prepared a detailed model of the public market building and the surrounding area, complete with a video “fly through” showing what the area will look like when the project is complete in a couple of years.  You can even see the current I-5 bridge in their computer video.

The Vancouver waterfront in a computer rendering showing a forthcoming public market–but not the proposed $7.5 billion IBR. (Youtube: Click image to view video)

The total cost of the public market is on the order of $10 million—roughly the same as what the IBR project has spent on public relations in the past few years.  Yet even though the IBR will cost about 750 times as much, and has such a copious budget for communication, it has not produced a comparable computer rendering, much less a human-level fly-through of the project.

Ironically, the public market modeling doesn’t include the new Interstate Bridge, which will slice through and tower over the Vancouver waterfront.  It will likely go right over the top of this particularly bucolic native garden:

Computer rendering of Vancouver’s forthcoming Public Market site: “Native plantings throughout bolster the project’s connection to the environment. . . The site’s design was guided by LEED-ND requirements.”  No mention that a 180-foot wide concrete freeway will tower ten stories above the garden.

The Columbia River Crossing images were hidden as well.

Hiding the images of what they are planning to build has been going on for more than a decade.  In 2010, Columbian reporter Eric Robinson wrote a front page story for the Vancouver paper, noting that the project had done virtually nothing to show the visual impact of the giant new bridge on downtown Vancouver and its waterfront.  He wrote:

Stand for a minute along Columbia Street near the railroad berm in downtown Vancouver.

Now look up.

A massive steel and concrete structure that today exists only in technical engineering schematics will materialize high above Vancouver’s riverfront within the decade if the proposed Columbia River Crossing sticks to its current schedule. The Interstate 5 bridge will deliver thousands of cars, heavy trucks and light rail trains into the city at roughly the height of an eight-story building.

Washington-based bridge architect Kevin Peterson is appalled.

“It looks like a big damn freeway crossing a railroad staging yard,” he said.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt acknowledged the new bridge will cast a long shadow.  . . . 

“It’ll be a monumental structure,” he said.

Yet, you’d scarcely know it by the tenor of public discussion.

Robinson, Erik, “Casting a long shadow.” Columbian; Vancouver, Wash. 01 Aug 2010: A.1.

City officials asked for a ground-level eye-view of the project, but were told it would be too expensive, and no renderings were produced. CRC official Carley Francis (now Southwest Washington WSDOT regional administrator), told Robinson that there was no guarantee they’d produce a street-level simulation of project before construction began in 2012, chiefly because the project—which at the time had spent about $134 million on planning—had “limited resources” to produce such a rendering.

Jonathan Maus, writing at Bike Portland (in 2013), reported much the same when he tried to find realistic and detailed images of the multi-billion dollar bridge project, as Oregon and Washington were being asked to fund the project:

You’d think that with all the support for the Columbia River Crossing down in Salem, lawmakers and their constituents would have a good idea about what their votes — and their tax dollars — will be going toward. But for some reason, CRC and ODOT staff have hidden the project from public view. Despite spending nearly $170 million on consultants and planning thus far, detailed renderings and/or visualizations of key elements of the project are nowhere to be found.

This is not typical of other large infrastructure projects across the country and it begs the question of whether or not CRC and ODOT staff are purposefully pulling the wool over our eyes. (emphasis added)

Our own work at City Observatory shows that the two state DOTs have been going out of their way to conceal what they’re planning to build, and to avoid showing how it will affect downtown Vancouver. For example, it took a public records request to learn that after promising to reduce the width of the CRC highway bridge from 12 lanes to 10 lanes, all the two DOTs did was erase all the references to the actual physical width of the bridge from the project’s environmental impact documents, while leaving in place plans to build a 180 foot wide highway bridge–enough for 12, or even 14 14 travel lanes.

At one point, the Oregon and Washington highway departments actually built a physical 3D model of the bridge.  Photographs of the model were published by a local television station.  But there are no photographs or other evidence of this physical model on the IBR or CRC websites.

A physical model of the Columbia River Crossing (now disappeared). This is the original shorter 95′ vertical clearance version of the bridge, not the final 116′ clearance. (KGW)

The Long History of Using Misleading Images to Sell Urban Highways

Using this kind of illusion  and creatively mis-representing the visual impact of a new construction has a long history in the world of selling highways. Robert Moses famously skewed the illustrations of his proposed Brooklyn Battery Bridge (which would have obliterated much of lower Manhattan and Battery Park); we turn the microphone over to Moses’ biographer Robert Caro, from The Power Broker:

Moses announcement had been accompanied by an “artist’s rendering” of the bridge that created the impression that the mammoth span would have about as much impact on the lower Manhattan Landscape as an extra lamppost. This impression had been created by “rendering” the bridge from directly overhead—way overhead—as it might be seen by a high flying and myopic pigeon. From this bird’s eye view, the bridge and its approaches, their height minimized and only their flat roadways really visible, blended inconspicuously into the landscape. But in asking for Board of Estimate approval, Moses had to submit to the board the actual plans for the bridge. . . .

The proposed bridge anchorage in Battery Park, barely visible on Moses’ rendering, would be a solid mass of stone and concrete equal in size to a ten-story office building. The approach ramp linking the bridge to the West Side Highway, a ramp depicted on the rendering as a narrow path through Battery Park, would actually be a road wider than Fifth Avenue, a road supported on immense concrete piers, and it would cross the entire park—the entire lower tip of Manhattan Island—and curve around the west side of the island almost to Rector Street at heights ranging up to a hundred feet in the air. Not only would anchorage and piers obliterate a considerable portion of Battery Park, they—and the approach road—would block off much of the light not only from what was left of the park but also from the lower floors of every large office building they passed; because the approach ramp was really an elevated highway that would dominate the entire tip of Manhattan, it would depress real estate values throughout the entire area.

The Week Observed, March 10, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Why does a $500 million bridge replacement cost $7.5 billion?  For the past several years, the Oregon and Washington highway departments have been pushing for construction of something they call the “Interstate Bridge Replacement” project, which is a warmed-over version of the failed Columbia River Crossing.  The project’s budget has ballooned to as much as $7.5 billion.  New documents have come to light that show that the “bridge replacement” part of the Interstate Bridge Replacement only costs $500 million, according to new project documents. So why is the overall project budget $7.5 billion?

We dig into the limited information provided by the state DOTs.  There are two big answers to the question as to why a $500 million bridge ends up costing $7.5 billion.  The shortest and simplest answer is that it is really a massive freeway-widening project, spanning five miles and seven intersections, not a “bridge replacement.”  A longer (and taller) answer is that the cost of the river crossing is inflated because of the need to raise the roadway to clear a 116-foot navigation channel.  This fixed span requires half-mile long elevated viaducts on both sides of the river, and the need to have interchanges raised high into the air make the project vastly more complex and expensive.  As then-Congressman Peter DeFazio observed of the project some years ago, ““I kept on telling the project to keep the costs down, don’t build a gold-plated project . . . They let the engineers loose, . . .  it wasn’t overseen: they said solve all the problems in this twelve-mile corridor and they did it in a big engineering way, and not in an appropriate way.”

Must Read

USDOT and TXDOT “settle” Houston I-45 civil rights complaint.  It’s well established that freeway construction has been an engine of segregation in US cities.  Belatedly, the US Department of Transportation is acknowledging this fact, and has spent the last two years investigating the whether the Texas Department of Transportation’s plan to widen I-45 through Houston complies with civil rights laws.  USDOT has entered into an agreement with TXDOT, which includes allocating $30 million to building affordable housing, building trails and greenspaces, monitoring pollution and  (surprise!) holding more meetings.  The housing money and amenities are no doubt welcome, but that hardly undoes the damage done by this freeway and its pending expansion.  Houston Public Media quoted Tiffany Valle, an organizer with Stop TxDOT I-45:

“The agreement that TxDOT and the FHWA have voluntarily agreed upon, it’s really just more of the same,” Valle said. “They are continuing to allow the destruction of Black and brown communities, something that has been done for decades.”

Opponents of the project won’t be mollified by these superficial steps.  They will fight on, as they should.

America Walks grades the USDOT’s “Reconnecting Communities” Grants.  America Walks calls out some of the positive steps–like grants to advance freeway removal efforts in Buffalo, Long Beach and Kalamazoo.  But at the same time, USDOT failed to provide funds to some other efforts that could clearly benefit from these resources, like the Claiborne Avenue Alliance in New Orleans.  And some of the project are simply providing state highway departments with a generous dose of greenwash for clearly egregious highway widening projects, as in Austin.  Too much of the money, in fact, simply went to state highway agencies, who historically caused most of the problems this program aims to solve, and who in many cases are half-hearted or duplicitous in their support for really rethinking the effects of urban highways.  Too seldom has USDOT taken the opportunity to empower local groups to fundamentally challenge the highway orthodoxy. They write:

Only three of the 39 winning planning grant applications have a community-based organization as their lead applicant. If USDOT is serious about developing reconnecting communities solutions tailored to local needs, it should aim to fund more community-based organizations so they can bring information and professional expertise from outside the normal channels of infrastructure development that in the past haven’t served residents.

Pity the poor airports–victims of climate change.  Our friends at the Brookings Institution have a new report detailing the costs airports will have to bear to cope with the effects of climate change.  Many airports are built on or near floodplains, and are vulnerable to severe weather and flooding, which are likely to become more common with climate change.  It’s likely that they’re under-prepared, and more spending is needed to harden airports against these effects.  The Brookings Report makes a good case, but largely ignores one salient detail:  Airports themselves are some of the most carbon-intensive activities in any metropolitan area.

The business model of every airport hinges primarily on sources of revenue tied directly to greenhouse gas emissions:  jet aircraft and parking garages.  We ought to have a national program that reflects the costs of climate adaptation back on big greenhouse gas emitters.  Air travel fees should not only pay for hardening airport infrastructure, but offsetting the damage from air travel related emissions on the rest of the economy as well.  Maybe if air travel paid these costs, other alternatives, like rail, would look more economically feasible.

New Knowledge

New housing helps drive down local food prices and improve product variety.  Over the past few years there’s been of spate of research confirming what economists have long held: building new housing in urban areas tends to hold down rents.  A new study from Montevideo looks at a related issue:  the effect of new housing on prices of goods in local stores.

Its long been a trope of the gentrification debate that new development leads to the demise of long-established and perhaps prosaic local stores and their displacement by twee boutiques and overpriced shops.  But focusing on prices actually charged in local markets, and counting the variety of goods available to local shoppers, this study from Fernando Borraz and his colleagues shows just the opposite:  the construction of new housing tends to lower the price and increase the variety of products on offer in local stores.

The Borraz, et al, paper is an extension of a line of research from Jesse Handbury, who observed that residents of larger cities actually face lower prices for a market basket of goods and services, because cities provide a better fit between what consumers want and what’s actually available.  It’s also more proof for Ed Glaeser’s thesis about the “consumer city—that the competitive advantage of cities stems not simply from greater productive efficiency, but because they offer residents a more diverse (and less expensive) array of goods, services and experiences.

What this paper means in practice is that the new neighbors who live in the apartments that get built in your neighborhood provide the customer base to attract more merchants, and increased numbers lead stores to compete harder for their trade.

Fernando Borraz, Felipe Carozzi, Nicolás González-Pampillón and Leandro Zipitría, Local retail prices, product varieties and neighborhood change, Centre for Economic Performance, Discussion Paper No.1822 January 2022   ISSN 2042-2695


The Week Observed, March 17, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Why does a $500 million bridge cost $7.5 billion?  For almost two decades the Oregon and Washington highway departments have been saying they want to replace the I-5 bridges over the Columbia River connecting Portland and Vancouver.  Late last year, they announced that the total cost of the project could run as high as $7.5 billion.  But the project’s detailed comparison of different bridge types shows that the actual structure crossing the river will cost only about $500 million.  Here’s the detail from the project’s “river crossing” report:

The reason the project is so expensive is not because of the bridge, but because the two agencies plan to rebuild seven interchanges on either side of the river, widen the freeway to a dozen lanes, and build almost a mile of elevated viaducts to connect their high river crossing to the existing highway.  As then Congressman Peter DeFazio observed a decade ago, the “problem was thrown out to engineers, it wasn’t overseen: they said solve all the problems in this twelve-mile corridor and they did it in a big engineering way, and not in an appropriate way.”  If this project were simply about replacing the actual bridge, rather than widening the freeway, and rebuilding interchanges, it would be vastly cheaper.

Civil rights or repeated wrongs:  Houston moves ahead with a $10 billion I-45 Freeway.  We publish as a guest commentary an analysis prepared by the Center for American Progress infrastructure expert Kevin DeGood, who looks at the aftermath of a negotiated settlement between FHWA and TxDOT to a civil rights complaint against the giant freeway widening project.

As DeGood points out, the settlement offers mere procedural window dressing, largely just masking past damage, and setting the stage for another round of neighborhood destruction by freeway construction.

Must Read

More flat earth thinking from highway engineers.  Who knew that building more roads was the key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions?  IN a guest opinion for Greater Greater Washington, Bill Pugh takes a close look at the Washington DC region’s bold climate goals, contrasting them with its stated “build more highways” transportation strategy.  Throughout the region, highways agencies routinely repeat the discredited claim that they’ll reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the amount of time cars spending idling in traffic.  As Pugh points out, the thousand miles or so of additional lane-miles of roadway the region’s jurisdiction’s plan to build will generate as many as 3 to 4 billion additional miles of auto travel every year–more that wiping out any gains from “less idling.”

Scapegoating (the wrong) greedy investors for housing unaffordability.  The indispensable Jersusalem Demsas once again takes out the trash on a pet housing market theory:  blaming hedge funds and investment bankers for housing unaffordability.    Demsas digs deep into the statistics that people use to blame big finance for invading housing.  Numbers focus on recent sales, rather than the entire housing stock, and more importantly, conflate “institutional investors” with all investors–which includes a lot of mom-and-pop homeowners who rent out a house or two.  Institutional finance represents only a small share of new purchases, and has even peaked in some markets.  Overall, Demsas concludes that the flow of institutional capital into single family home purchases is an effect, rather than a cause of unaffordability:

“Institutional Investors” are not why rents are so high or why homeownership is out of reach for so many. Investors are not driving the unaffordability; they are responding to it. Many different investors are all flocking into the housing market; what is most relevant is the fundamental reason they are all being drawn there. Housing is primarily unaffordable in this country because of persistent undersupply. In fact, institutional investors are entering the single-family-home market precisely because supply constraints have led to skyrocketing prices.

The imbalance of demand and supply is really what’s behind the unaffordability, and scapegoating institutional investment maybe politically popular, but misses the mark.  And, as we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, institutitonal investors are pikers in the housing market:  it is incumbent owners that racked up literally trillions of dollars in capital gains in the last few years due to growing housing unaffordability.

New Knowledge

PM 2.5 pollution across the United States.  There’s a growing awareness that fine particulates (pollution smaller than 2.5 microns) cause significant health effects.  These tiny particles can be inhaled deeply into the respiratory system, and prolonger exposure leads to higher rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases.

A new mapping project published by The Guardian looks at the geographic variation in PM 2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns) across the US.

Maps are available for the entire nation and show the hot spots for the concentration of these dangerous small particles.  Here, for example, is the map of the St. Louis region.

The Guardian has looked at the pattern of hot spots compared to the demographics of local neighborhoods, and–unsurprisingly–finds that there’s a strong correlation between race, ethnicity and exposure to fine particle pollution.  People living in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods tend to be exposed to much higher levels of PM 2.5.

. . . across the contiguous US, the neighborhoods burdened by the worst pollution are overwhelmingly the same places where Black and Hispanic populations live. Race is more of a predictor of air pollution exposure than income level, researchers have found.

The Guardian’s maps and findings are based on research from scientists at the University of Washington and other institutions that have developed a sophisticated model of the generation and transmission of these particles.  Data are from the years 2011 to 2015.

Erin McCormick and Andrew Witherspoon, “America’s dirty divide:  
US neighborhoods with more people of color suffer worse air pollution,” The Guardian, March 8, 2023

In the News

Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, cited our parable of how Louisville showed how to solve traffic congestion at Planetizen.

The Week Observed, March 23, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Oregon’s transportation finance in crisis:  Testimony to the Joint Ways and Means Committee.  On March 16, City Observatory’s Joe Cortright testified to the Oregon Legislature’s budget-writing committee about the financial crisis confronting the state’s transportation agency.  The Oregon Department of Transportation’’s traditional sources of revenue are collapsing, and will certainly decline further in coming years.  The agency is failing to maintain existing roads, and has a huge backlog of maintenance, safety, seismic and other needs that continue to grow.  In the face of declining revenues and deferred maintenance, the agency is embarking on an unprecedented spending spree for expensive megaprojects.

ODOT has shown no ability to manage project costs, with every major project incurring massive cost overruns.  The agency is moving to start construction on these projects and commit the state to paying for them without a financial plan in place.  It claims it will use toll revenues to pay for megaprojects, but has no experience collecting or accurately estimating tolls.  It is planning to take on billions of dollars in debt backed by the promise of tolls. It has used short-term borrowing—the government version of a payday loan—to get projects started while avoiding the independent, investment grade analysis that will be required to get long-term financing.  Repaying the debt incurred for these projects will take legal precedence over all other state transportation priorities, leading to further cuts in maintenance and repair, and jeopardizing every other capital construction project in the state.

The Legislature needs to inject some prudence into transportation finance by requiring a “fix it first” policy, telling ODOT to live within its means, right-sizing bloated megaprojects, and securing independent expert financial advice.

Why localism is the cause, not the solution, of our affordability problems.  Bruce Katz, author of “The New Localism” has offered a call for a national commission to make recommendations on how to solve our housing affordability problems.  While it makes sense to have such a national conversation, and Katz puts his finger on many of the key symptoms of the housing crisis, all the evidence points to an excess of localism, in terms of our obsequious deference to “local control” in permitting new housing, as the principal cause of the problem.

Must Read

Climate and the land use imperative:  An interview with Jenny Schuetz.  The latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is out, and it continues to be grim.  We’re well on our way to a hotter, more turbulent world.  The Triangle Blog from North Carolina interview Brookings scholar Jenny Schuetz about the report’s recommendations and some key insights.  She made a couple of trenchant observations.  She noted that the IPCC report specifically calls out a series of related land use and housing policies as key strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including more density, greater infill development, more robust transit service and a greater emphasis on building bikeable, walkable neighborhoods.

In addition, Schuetz makes a critical point about how climate change has been framed largely as an individual and moral issue, rather than a collective social issue.  She says:

Americans have been misled into thinking that fighting climate change is an individual choice, about our own personal behavior (guilting people over recycling is a great example). . . . For too long, we’ve bought into the idea that each person individually can choose to live a climate virtuous life, without having policies and market structures in place to guide everyone’s actions. That’s not going to get the job done, and it’s a distraction from the collective action we desperately need.

Environmental Groups finally start talking about reducing VMT.  Writing at Slate, David Zipper notes an encouraging trend among environmental advocates.  For a long time, most environmental organizations have chiefly endorsed the “technical fix” notion of simply electrifying cars as a way to reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions.  The limits of that strategy are becoming more and more apparent; heavy electric vehicles still require massive amounts of energy to move, and the continued (and perhaps expanded) dominance of auto-dependent development patterns would lead to increased driving, crash related injuries and deaths, as well as not addressing fine particle emissions from brakes and tires.  But for years, supporting vehicle electrification was the politically low-hanging fruit, as it didn’t challenge auto-dependent orthodoxy, and created powerful allies among automakers and their workers.  But with substantial incentives for EV purchases baked in to the Inflation Reduction Act, environmental groups are now looking harder at land use and transportation alternatives.  Zipper notes that both the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sierra Club have made moves in this direction.  He writes:

 . . . it’s encouraging that those who have waged often-lonely fights for transit, biking, and walking are poised to gain powerful new allies. “We legitimately need to do mode shift to achieve our climate goals,” said [Sierra Club’s  Katherine] Garcia. ”That’s the message we are sharing regarding the Sierra Club’s national priorities.” You weren’t likely to hear something like that from her organization’s leaders twenty years ago.

For too long, environmental groups have been the dogs that barely bark, if at all, during debates about the calamitous damage inflicted by American autocentricism. For the planet’s sake, let’s hope everyone hears them now

One rallying point:  a $1,500 rebate for e-bike purchases, which passed the House, but was left out of the final Inflation Reduction Act, seems like a way to fight climate change, assist households of modest means, and reduce VMT.  It’s a first step in the right direction.

New Knowledge

The economic benefits of freeway removal.  Around the nation, community and neighborhood groups are looking for opportunities to remove urban freeways as a way of revitalizing damaged cities.  Their work has gotten impetus from the $1 billion allocated to the Reconnecting Communities program included in the bipartisan infrastructure law.  A new study from Duluth summarizes the economic case for freeway removals.

Duluth is studying converting its existing waterfront I-35 freeway to restore better access to the waterfront.  A study from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, looks at what the city can learn from freeway removals in other similar cities.  They present a series of case studies of mid-sized US cities that have removed or substantially reduced their urban freeway footprint in the past decade or more.  Getting rid of freeways and urban traffic has led to new investment in the nearby area, as cataloged here.

In addition, removing freeways creates construction jobs just as building them did.  In the case of the proposed Duluth project, the authors estimate that the conversion project will create 450 construction jobs and nearly $30 million in labor income.

Haynes, Monica; Bennett, John; Chiodi Grensing, Gina; Hopkins, Erin; Nadeau, Kenny; Perry, D’Lanie, Economic Effects of the Potential I-35 Conversion in Downtown Duluth,  (University of Minnesota Duluth, 2023)


The Week Observed, March 31, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

What are they hiding?  Oregon and Washington are being asked to spend $7.5 billion on a giant bridge:  Why won’t anyone show pictures of what it would look like?  The Oregon and Washington highway departments are using an old Robert Moses trick to make their oversized bridge appear smaller than it really is. The bridge will blot out much of the reviving waterfront and downtown in Vancouver, and put Hayden Island in the shadow of a half-mile long viaduct.

The IBR has distributed misleading and inaccurate images of the proposed bridge, attempting to make it look smaller. The agency is spending $1.5 million to create a “digital twin” computer model of the IBR, but is keeping it secret to avoid public scrutiny of its design. Computer visualizations, complete with human-scale animations, are cheap and common for construction projects, such as Vancouver’s proposed waterfront public market–but ODOT and WSDOT have steadfastly refused to provide such visualizations for the IBR.

The Color of Money:  How ODOT is using flexible federal funds to bail out the state highway fund, and permanently cut funding for transportation alternatives.  In Oregon, there are two colors of transportation money:  state highway funds that thanks to an arcane (and misinterpreted) constitutional provision supposedly can only be used to build and repair road, and federal funds, which are highly flexible and can be used for transit, biking and walking.  ODOT has hit on a gimmick to divert a billion dollars of those flexible funds to pay off a liability of the State Highway Fund (bringing roads into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ramps and sidewalks needed to comply with ADA can and should be paid for with state highway funds, but ODOT will instead use flexible federal dollars, and will borrow $600 million and commit future federal funds (plus hundreds of millions in interest payments) to paying back the debt, permanently precluding future decisions to use those funds for transportation alternatives.

Must Read

Writing at, Harvard’s David Zipper contemplates what it will take to avoid a transit doom loop.  The big decline in transit ridership during the pandemic, the contraction of the office market in the face of continuing work-at-home trends and the likely disappearance of the pandemic related bail out funds seem to be posing an existential challenge for transit agencies.  Zipper acknowledges the challenge and offers some suggestions.  First, he suggest, this may not be the time to be thinking about eliminating fares—while this might have some apparent equity benefits, the costs, in terms of reduced service would cause far greater harms, especially now.  We probably should be spending more on transit, but “free” transit that doesn’t serve people or destinations, or doesn’t come often enough isn’t equitable.  Instead, Zipper argues, transit agencies should be focusing on maintaining, and where possible improving service, especially frequency.

Service improvements like these are indispensable, but some of the other priorities transit agencies are currently balancing are not. For instance, with ridership still depressed, now seems like a good time to deprioritize expensive capital projects like vehicle purchases and rail expansions, and reallocate the money toward maintenance that makes service more reliable and frequent.

The planet isn’t on track to meet its climate goals–and growing transportation emissions are the major culprit.  The Internationa Energy Agency (IEA) tracks carbon emissions by major sector of the global economy.  In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, transportation greenhouse gas emissions have rebounded sharply.

The IEA’s summary makes it clear that transport is actually growing again, and that we have a long way to go to get on the path to net zero emissions.  They write:

In 2021 global CO2 emissions from the transport sector rebounded, growing by 8% to nearly 7.7 Gt CO2, up from 7.1 Gt CO2 in 2020, as pandemic restrictions were lifted and passenger and goods movements began to pick up following their unprecedented decline in 2020. Even with anticipated growth in transport demand, following the Net Zero Scenario requires transport sector emissions to fall by about 20% to less than 6 Gt by 2030.

While the IEA calls for vehicle electrification to put a dent in carbon emissions, its report also highlights the importance of urbanism in reducing car travel, and calls for more transit-oriented development.

New Knowledge

Parking:  Lots.  Between a tenth and a third of every major downtown area in the United States is given over to car storage.  A new study published by the Parking Reform Network has detailed maps showing the amount and location of parking in the core of nation’s largest cities.  The maps are the brainchild of Chris Carpenito, who harnessed data from Open Street Maps to identify the land area given over to surface parking in the 50 largest cities.

Here’s a typical map showing downtown Portland, Oregon.  Red areas are dedicated to parking.  About 11 percent of Portland central city is dedicated to parking.

The studies findings are summarized in a “Parking Score,” which really grades on a curve.  Larger more populous cities are expected to be denser and have less land dedicated to parking.  Smaller cities tend to have more land dedicated to parking.  Here are the downtowns of the largest US cities with the lowest parking scores (meaning least land area given over to surface parking).

For full details, see the maps of the 50 downtown areas, and the city parking score rankings at the Parking Reform Network.  The project’s methodology is described here.  This is extremely useful information that provides a new perspective on the way parking affects the urban landscape.

In the News

Clark County Today republished our article, “What are they hiding?” about the Oregon and Washington highway department’s efforts to conceal the height and bulk of the freeway widening project they’re planning between Portland and Vancouver.

The Week Observed, April 28, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Testifying on the Oregon Transportation Finance.  City Observatory director Joe Cortright testified to the Oregon Legislature on HB 2098, a bill being proposed to fund bloated freeway widening projects in the Portland Metropolitan area.  As we’ve previously reported at City Observatory, proposed amendments to this bill would give the Oregon Department of Transportation a virtual blank check towards the construction of the multi-billion dollar Interstate Bride Replacement Project and the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening.  The draft amendments establish a vague and legally dubious statement of legislative “intent” to fund both projects, which on its face seems harmless.  But the Oregon Transportation Commission could use those statements of intent, coupled with its broad discretion to borrow funds, to launch both of these multi-billion dollar boondoggles, and present subsequent Legislature’s with a fait accompli—a reprise of the classic Robert Moses strategy of “driving stakes and selling bonds” to lock in freeway construction.

General funds for this massive bridge would take precedence over funding for education, health care and reducing homelessness.

The HB 2098 amendments also propose raiding the state general fund to the tune of $1 billion–breaking down a decades old fiscal firewall that separated road finance from other public expenditures, and is the backbone of the state’s “user pays” policy for transportation.

Links to written testimony submitted to the Joint Transportation Committee are here.

Must Read

Lessons from a century of transit decline. The heyday of American transit was nearly a century ago, and virtually every American city had a robust streetcar network. Bloomberg’s David Zipper interviews Nicholas Dagen Bloom, a professor author of the  new book, The Great American Transit Disaster, that chronicles that decline.  Bloom argues that the ascendancy of car wasn’t so much the result of conspiracies or some technological inevitability, but conscious (and, at the time, widely supported) policy choices. In the interview, Bloom offers some insights from history that might help us now.  In particular, he emphasizes maintaining transit service, and making transit more competitive by catering less to cars.

. . . we should be thinking about maintaining the quality of service for what we now have. Current levels of service could be shredded and ridership shattered as the post-pandemic financial realities sink in. Given that, I don’t know that we should be building any new transit lines at this point.

. . . the compelling case for greater ridership is the aggravation of driving. For that reason, the most positive things might be rezonings, the multifamily boom, and the end of parking minimums. If we remove highways in certain areas, there’s an opportunity for transit to be competitive. But barring that, it’s very hard to know what an agency on its own can do because they’re now in survival mode.

Bad Models, Bad Decisions.  The irreplaceable Todd Litman takes a look at the scientific basis of traffic modeling and traffic impact statements, and finds them wanting, with devastating effects.  Whether its assumptions about inexorable and unending traffic growth, or fixed (and exaggeratedly high) estimates of traffic generation from new development, planning and engineering decisions are dictated by some dubious statistics.  Total vehicle miles traveled in the US have been routinely over-predicted leading to overbuilt highways.

Litman points to this chart from the Frontier Group showing how Department of Transportation and Department of Energy forecasts have consistently over-estimated the growth in driving in the US (forecasts are colored lines; actual is black).  With this as their future worldview, it’s little wonder that planning gets biased in favor of accommodating an assumed surge in automobile travel.  As Litman writes:

. . . practitioners use demonstrably inaccurate models that often result in inefficient, unfair, and environmentally harmful decisions. In the past, practitioners hid behind their technical expertise, but they are starting to face legal challenges.

Why do transportation agencies spend so much more on automobile infrastructure than other modes, despite their lower total costs and greater benefits? It is partly the fault of practitioners who perpetuate biased planning practices. It is time for reform. Either we create more accurate, comprehensive and multimodal planning practices ourselves, or we will be forced to, by litigation.

Like Litman, we share the hope that policymakers (and courts) will insist on data, models and regulations that are scientifically based and free from implicit biases.

A worthwhile Canadian Initiative:  Cancelling a highway tunnel, building a transit tunnel.  For decades, Quebec has been contemplating a third highway crossing of of the St. Lawrence River.  Though its long been a campaign promise of the incumbent provincial government, in a surprising turnaround, Premier Francois Legault’s government, after a careful scientific review, has ditched plans for the highway tunnel and is now proposing to move forward with  a transit-only tunnel as the third crossing. The government’s review concluded, that in the wake of increased work-from-home in the wake of the Covid-21 pandemic traffic growth had attenuated, eliminating the need for the $6.5 billion highway tunnel.  Bloated, polluting road projects have always done more to damage urban economies than to bolster them.  We can only hope that leaders of US cities will similarly reconsider the wisdom of such projects.

New Knowledge

Has the Covid-21 effect run its course in urban neighborhoods?  The Covid-19 pandemic produced some abrupt shifts in population migration patterns within and across US cities.  The big question is whether these are short-lived changes that will be quickly reversed to underlying trends, or whether a post-pandemic world will be fundamentally different.  Brookings Institution demographer Bill Frey has a readout of the overall county level population trends from the latest US Census data.

Frey’s work shows that at least some of the decline in the densest, most central US counties has abated or reversed in the latest data.  (Brookings uses a typology that classifies metropolitan US counties as either “urban core” or “suburban.”  It’s a useful, rough-and-ready way of contrasting urban-suburban trends, but due to the variability of county boundaries, as we’ve noted, its an imperfect way of characterizing what’s happening in city neighborhoods.

Frey’s key finding is that, aggregated across large metro areas, the decline in population in central counties has attenuated. Urban Core counties racked up impressive population gains early in the last decade, but their growth slowed, and was negative in the pandemic year of 2020.  The Census data show that decline attenuated sharply in 2021-22.

Frey’s work helpful digs into the components of population change across the different county types.  Population changes for a variety of reasons:  natural increase (the difference between births and deaths), migration to and from other locations in the US, and international immigration.  While much of the narrative surrounding the pandemic was a supposed increased in out-migration from urban core areas, a bigger factor in many cases may have been the decline in international immigration (a trend very evident during the Trump years), which was particularly sharp during the pandemic.  Urban core counties have traditionally been the biggest magnets for international immigrants, and so they were particularly affected by the decline in international immigration.

The data show that international immigration (the orange line) bounced back in 2022 in every county classification, but was most significant for urban core counties.

William H. Frey, “Pandemic-driven population declines in large urban areas are slowing or reversing, latest census data shows,”
Brookings Institution, April 19, 2023

In the News

BikePortland featured our analysis of proposed legislation in Oregon providing a virtual blank check for two huge freeway expansion projects.

The Week Observed, March 3, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

More induced travel denial.  Highway advocates deny or minimize the science of induced travel. We offer our rebuttal to a reason column posted at Planetizen, attempting to minimize the importance of induced demand for highways.

Induced travel is a well established scientific fact:  any increase in roadway capacity in a metropolitan area is likely to produce a proportional increase in vehicle miles traveled. Highway advocates like to pretend that more capacity improves mobility, but at best this is a short lived illusion.  More mobility generates more travel, sprawl and costs.  In theory, highway planners could accurately model induced travel; but the fact is they ignore, deny or systematically under-estimate induced travel effects.  Models are wielded as proprietary and technocratic weapons to sell highway expansions.

Must Read

Consultants gone wild. There’s little dispute that the US has some of the highest urban rail construction costs on the planet.  The big question surrounding this unfortunate American exceptionalism is, “Why?”  Writing at Slate, Henry Grabar summarizes a recent study that poses a provocative answer:  It’s our excessive reliance on consultants.  The study comes from Eric Goldwyn, Alon Levy, Elif Ensari, and Marco Chitti of New York University’s Transit Costs Project, who’ve taken a close look at construction projects in the US and around the world.

Not only are the consultants themselves more expensive than permanent staff, there are two related problems:  incentives and capacity.  Consultants don’t get paid for building subways–they get paid for studying things and offering advice.  That gives them strong financial incentives to prescribe further study and more advice.  The related problem is capacity:  the agencies commissioning all this consultant work have to have the capacity to read, digest and act on the expertise, and the reductions in staff, and the diminished expertise in the public sector mean that they may not have the ability to do so–or critically, to ask hard questions.  And for the record, the problem of excessive consultant costs isn’t limited to transit projects:  The Oregon and Washington highway departments  spent nearly $200 million on planning and engineering for the never-built Columbia River Crossing a decade ago, and are on track to spend more than $200 million for planning and engineering of its star-crossed successor, the Interstate Bridge Replacement–with most of this money going to years upon years of consulting contracts.

They dare not call it zoning.  Houston’s au courant NIMBYs want to authorize conservation districts.  It sounds innocent enough, the City of Houston wants to authorize neighborhoods to form “conservation districts” to allow a majority of existing landowners in a particular area to impose restrictions on new development, including minimum lot sizes, building setbacks, roof pitches and the like. A conservation district could limit any of these features:

Ostensibly, the purpose of the conservation districts is to protect neighborhoods from untoward change.  Advocates point to the city’s famous Fourth Ward, which lost most of its historic housing, and has seen a recent wave of redevelopment, which many residents consider “out-of-character” with its history.  If this all sounds familiar, it’s because it’s awfully similar to traditional exclusionary zoning measures.  Recall that zoning was originally designed to protect established neighborhoods from scourges like slaughterhouses, tanneries, and, of course, apartments.  In some cities, historic designations have become the more fashionable way to cloak exclusion with the color of law.  And Houston, which purportedly has no zoning–at least not by that name–would never implement it, except that these conservation districts could easily be applied almost anywhere.  It’s an open invitation for NIMBY’s to craft their own bespoke zoning.  There’s apparently no limit to the number of such districts that can be created, or their size; so long as 51 percent of property owners agree, and the City Council approves, you can have your very own district.  Because wealthier neighborhoods likely have the political capital and wherewithal to navigate the process, its probable that, just like single family zoning, this will become a tool of exclusion.

Downtown Chicago gains population, despite the pandemic.  The received wisdom about the pandemic is how bad it was for city centers, especially due to a decline in office occupancy because of increasing work at home.  But a new survey from downtown Chicago underscores the changing economic role of city centers as prime residential locations, especially for well-educated young adults.  As reported in Bloomberg CityLab, downtown Chicago’s population grew by xx,xxx since before the pandemic.  The study looked at population in Chicago’s Loop (the area bordered by the elevated train that circulates around down town.

Most of the Loop’s population is 25 to 34 years old, with more than 80% living alone or with one person. Almost half don’t own a car and the majority cite the ability to walk to places, the central location and proximity to work as top reasons for living downtown.  The future of the Loop will also be more residential. Another 5,000 housing units are expected to be added by 2028, bringing the district’s total population to 54,000, according to the report

New Knowledge

A hidden climate time bomb in US home values.  A new study published in Nature estimates that home values in flood prone areas across the US are significantly over-priced because markets are ignoring likely damage from climate change.

When buyers pay for homes, they may not be aware of the likely damage from climate change, especially due to the increased risk of flooding.  To some extent, buyers already recognize that homes located in flood prone areas may be less valuable than otherwise similar homes in drier places.  Overall, homes in the 100-year flood plane sell at about a 3 percent discount to otherwise similar homes elsewhere.  But there are systematic patterns in how well markets accurately reflect flood risk. The author’s conclude:

. . . residential properties exposed to flood risk are overvalued by US$121–US$237 billion, depending on the discount rate. In general, highly overvalued properties are concentrated in counties along the coast with no flood risk disclosure laws and where there is less concern about climate change.

This study uses home value data and new data on increasing flood risks to identify the discrepancy between current market values, and values that would reflect a more realistic appraisal of likely climate risk.

There are distinctly regional patterns to climate risk.  The greatest concentration of losses (relative to the total fair market value of properties) is along the Gulf Coast, and in Appalachia and in the Pacific Northwest.

Property overvaluation as a proportion of the total fair market value of all properties.

A big policy question going forward is how we incentivize people to avoid building in high-risk areas and allocate the costs of climate related damages.  Historically, the National Flood Insurance Program has paid out much more in benefits than it has collected in premiums, and still fails to fully account for growing climate risk.  Over time, higher premiums will shift some of these climate costs to property owners in risky areas, but Congress has capped premium increases, which slows the adjustment. In theory, mortgage lenders should be less willing to lend for housing in risky areas, but as the authors point out, many use federal loan securitization to disproportionately shift the riskiest properties into the portfolios of federally guaranteed home lending programs.

Jesse D. Gourevitch, Carolyn Kousky, Yanjun (Penny) Liao, Christoph Nolte, Adam B. Pollack, Jeremy R. Porter & Joakim A. Weill

Unpriced climate risk and the potential consequences of overvaluation in US housing markets,” Nature Climate Change (2023).

In the News

The Urbanist and Investor Minute republished our commentary on the Oregon Department of Transportation’s plans for tolls of as much as $15 to travel between Wilsonville and Vancouver under the title “How to finance a highway spending spree”

Thanks to Streetsblog for their shout out on our commentary about induced demand; as they put it: “How is it that, despite all evidence to the contrary, anyone still believes widening roads will reduce congestion?”