A blank check for the highway lobby: HB 2098-2

The HB 2098 “-2” amendments  are perhaps the most fiscally irresponsible legislation ever to be considered by the Oregon Legislature.  They constitute an open-ended promise by the Oregon Legislature to pay however much money it costs to build the Interstate Bridge Replacement and Rose Quarter freeway widenings—projects that have experienced multi-billion dollar cost overruns in the past few years, before even a single shovel of dirt has been turned.

HB 2098-2 amendments would:

  • Raid the Oregon General Fund of $1 billion for road projects
  • Give ODOT a blank check for billions of dollars of road spending
  • Allow unfettered ODOT borrowing to preclude future Legislatures from changing these projects and forcing their funding
  • Eliminate protective sideboards enacted by the Legislature a decade ago
  • Enact a meaningless and unenforceable cap on project expenses.

Oregon’s transportation department is going broke:  Its major source of revenue, the gas tax, is in terminal decline, thanks to growing vehicle fuel efficiency and electrification.  The agency doesn’t even have enough money to maintain current roads, and has been cutting back on maintenance, and yet is set to embark on an unprecedented spending spree.

The “-2” Amendments will serve as a pretext for ODOT to borrow money to get each of these projects started, regardless of how much the projects will actually cost, and whether federal grants for these projects or toll revenues will cover even a fraction of their cost.

The bill does this because it knows that if legislators were asked to come up with the money for these projects today, by raising gas taxes or other road user fees, there’d be no stomach (or votes). So, instead, they’s simply let ODOT max out its credit cards, and sign construction contracts, and come back to the 2025 Legislature with a giant bill that it will have to pay.

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”

The Legislature seems bound and determined to enact into law this old Scottish proverb.  Section 3 of the -2 amendments declares the Legislature’s “intent” to borrow $1 billion in General Obligation Bonds, to be repaid over the next couple of decades or more from the state General Fund.  Section 11 of the -2 amendments further declares the Legislature’s “intent” to appropriate whatever it ends up costing to build the I-5 Rose Quarter project, with no reference to a specific dollar amount or source of funds.

The -2 amendments to HB 2098 don’t contain an explicit appropriation of funds, or a new source of revenue, or even a specific authorization to issue new debt.  Instead, we have just vague indications of intent:

“The Legislative Assembly intends to support the Interstate 5 bridge replacement project through an investment of $1 billion . . ”

“The Legislative Assembly affirms its intent to fully fund the Interstate 5 Rose Quarter Project in the 2024 and 2025 regular sessions of the Legislative Assembly.”

It’s far from clear what the legal meaning of these statements of “intent” have.  But the authors of the -2 amendments are trying to have it both ways:  they are trying to appropriate money, without actually appropriating money.  They’re not actually taking the step to spend these funds (and say where the money will come from) but are trying to commit future Legislatures to making those difficult decisions.  It might seem that statements of intent (like legislative resolutions and memorials) are merely legislative window-dressing, with no legal weight.  But it’s clear that the Oregon Department of Transportation has other plans.

“Intent” plus debt:  Committing future Legislatures to pay billions

Superficially, HB 2098-2 might seem like an empty letter—the Legislature often makes sweeping, feel good statements of intent—but the danger with this one is that it could serve as the basis for the Oregon Department of Transportation to pull out its credit card and borrow hundreds of millions of dollars, based on the vague promise that some future Legislature will pay these bills.  And this is no idle speculation:  this is exactly what ODOT did with the I-205 Abernethy Bridge Project.

It’s worth spending a minute to review that project.  In 2017, the Oregon Legislature adopted a major transportation package, which provided $450 million for the I-5 Rose Quarter project (paid for with a $30 million per year increase in gasoline and weight mile taxes).  That package conspicuously did not provide funding for the Abernethy Bridge, but instead the Legislature directed ODOT to come up with a plan to use tolling to pay for I-205 improvements, and to report back with a “Cost to Complete” report that would tell how much this project would cost.  In 2018, the Cost to Complete report came in with a $250 million price tag for the Abernethy Bridge.  The I-205 project languished for a couple of years, and in 2021, ODOT persuaded the Legislature to adopt HB 3055, which made two significant changes.  HB 3055 authorized ODOT to dip into the $30 million per year fund designated for the Rose Quarter project to pay for I-205 (as well as the I-5 Boone Bridge), and also gave ODOT the authority to issue short-term bonds (the public sector equivalent of a payday loan).

In 2022, ODOT used the newly granted authority in HB 3055 to move forward with the Abernethy Bridge Project.  First, it told the FHWA that it could build the project entirely without toll financing—thus evading federal environmental review of tolling on the Abernethy Bridge.  Second, it took advantage of its short term borrowing authority and the HB 2017 Rose Quarter funding to start construction on the Abernethy Bridge, even though the price tag of the bridge had doubled to $500 million from the number it quoted the Legislature.  As a result of ODOT’s action, Oregon is now obligated to pay the full price of the Abernethy Bridge project, presumably through the HB 2017 $30 million appropriation and toll revenues.

It’s likely that the Abernethy Bridge project will use up all of the $30 million per year available from HB 2017, leaving little or nothing to pay for the I-5 Rose Quarter project, which meanwhile, has tripled in cost to as much as $1.45 billion—and which still faces major questions over its design.

A Blank Check for the Highway Lobby

Combining Oregon DOT’s short term borrowing authority from HB 3055 (its basically unfettered ability to get a payday loan of hundreds of millions of dollars), with a statement of “intent” that the Legislature will some day deliver whatever money is needed for the I-5 Interstate Bridge Replacement Project and the Rose Quarter freeway widening is likely all ODOT needs to get these projects started.  It will issue perhaps $500 million in such bonds, covering the initial interest and principal repayments from its current revenue and with the assumption that it will ultimately refinance the balance of the costs in balloon-mortgage fashion with the “intended” funding from some future Legislature.

And when these blank checks are filled in, the numbers will be very large.  The Interstate Bridge Replacement Project’s estimated cost has risen from a supposed maximum of $4.8 billion in 2020, to a new maximum of $7.5 billion today.  Similarly, the cost of the I-5 Rose Quarter project was sold to the 2017 Legislature as being $450 million.  The latest estimate now runs to $1.45 billion–and that figure is already out of date.  And these are just preliminary, pre-construction estimates;  if past experience is any guide, both of these projects will both end up costing significantly more once actual construction begins.

Once started, both the IBR and the Rose Quarter projects are designed in such a way that it may be impossible or prohibitively expensive to reduce their scope.  The IBR is planned as a fixed, high-level crossing that will necessitate lengthy elevated viaducts and the rebuilding of freeway interchanges (which constitute a majority of project costs).  Once the bridge is started to that design, it will be difficult to reduce its cost.  Similarly with the Rose Quarter project, where its 160 foot width dictates excavation costs and drives up the cost of proposed covers.  If ODOT starts these projects, the state will be stuck with bloated, over-sized projects it can’t change.  And that, as we have long said, is the point:  This is the classic Robert Moses strategy of “driving stakes and selling bonds” and putting the Legislature in a position where it has no ability to control what the highway building agency does.  That was tragic and stupid when Moses first did it in New York in the 1930s; it is even more tragic and stupid today, when we know with a certainty that highway widening doesn’t reduce congestion, that it destroys the fabric of urban neighborhoods, and worsens air pollution and climate destruction.

Eliminating the Sideboards

In legislative parlance, “sideboards” are conditions or limits included in legislation to prevent bad things from happening.  In 2013, the Oregon Legislature was considering spending $450 million for the I-5 bridge project, and after lengthy debate, it approved a series of such sideboards, trying to limit the cost of the project (more about that in a minute), and then also prohibiting the state treasurer from issuing any bonds for the project until after the Washington has contributed its share of the project’s costs, the federal contribution to the project was clearly committed, there had been prepared an independent financial plan for the project, and the state had conducted an “investment grade analysis of possible toll revenues.  All of those provisions are still codified in Oregon Law (Section Chapter 4 of Oregon Laws 2013).

And every one of those sideboards is eliminated, without acknowledgement.  Even the amendment’s “Staff Measure Summary” which is meant to disclose to Legislators the impact of the bill only cryptically and opaquely says:

“Repeals sections of House Bill 2800 (2013).”

Project Cost “Cap”–a legal limit from “Camelot”

We already know that a project cost cap is meaningless and unenforceable.  We already have such a cap!  It was enacted into law a decade ago and officially limited the total cost of the IBR to not more than $3.4 billion. 2013 Oregon Laws, Chapter 4, (Enrolled House Bill 2800) reads:

Conveniently, the “-2” amendments to HB 2098, without any fanfare, simply repeal this limit.  In its place, is an entirely new limit, which is worded identically–except of course that now the cost is more than twice as much.

As the Oregonian‘s “Politifact” reporters noted when they looked at the original so-called “cost cap” provisions for the Columbia River Crossing adopted by the Oregon and Washington Legislatures a decade ago, the caps are meaningless and unenforceable.

. . . if legislators greenlight the CRC, the state could ultimately owe more than $450 million on its share of the bridge. But setting a cap on the project or limiting Oregon’s share with legislative riders won’t stop that. And thanks to the agreement between Oregon and Washington to pay for the bridge jointly, if Oregon ever needs to pay more, Washington would need to join in.

PolitiFact Oregon doesn’t do prophecy. We can’t say whether the bridge will be over budget — as much as history might tempt us to offer a guess.

What we can say is that the Washington toll rule won’t matter. The Washington Legislature’s cap won’t matter.

The Legislature has no more ability to prescribe the cost of this project by edict, than it has to regulate temperature or rainfall.  Yet, the author’s of the “-2” amendments are simply performing a refrain from Camelot:

It’s true! It’s true! The crown has made it clear.
The climate must be perfect all the year.
A law was made a distant moon ago here:
July and August cannot be too hot.
And there’s a legal limit to the snow here
In Camelot.
The winter is forbidden till December
And exits March the second on the dot.
By order, summer lingers through September
In Camelot.

Crossing the Rubicon:  Raiding the General Fund for Road Projects

For the better part of a century, Oregon has prided itself on its “user-pays” transportation finance system.  Oregon was the first state to adopt a gasoline tax to pay for roads, and has observed a long tradition of having a “State Highway Fund” that is strictly segregated from other tax revenues and dedicated exclusively to paying for roads.  For the first time, the -2 amendments to HB 2098 would raid the General Fund to the tune of $1 billion to pay for a road project–which we’ve pointed out at City Observatory chiefly benefits residents of Washington State, as 80 percent of daily commuters and two-thirds of all bridge users live across the border in Washington.

Repealed Sideboards from HB 2800.

Here’s the language that would be repealed, featuring the provisions that weren’t disclosed in the text of the “-2” amendments or the Staff Measure Summary.

SECTION 3. (1) As used in this section, “Interstate 5 bridge replacement project” means the project described in section 2 of this 2013 Act.

(2) The total cost of the Interstate 5 bridge replacement project may not exceed $3.413 billion after the effective date of this 2013 Act.

(3) For the purpose of financing the Interstate 5 bridge replacement project, the State Treasurer may not have outstanding, at any one time, bonds in an amount exceeding $450 million of net proceeds, plus an amount determined by the State Treasurer to pay estimated bond related costs of issuance, for the purpose of funding Oregon’s share of the aggregated contribution to the project from Oregon and the State of Washington as described in the Final Environmental Impact Statement submitted to the United States Government for the project. It is the intent of the Legislative Assembly that moneys from the United States Government or toll revenues be used to directly fund the project, be used to repay other borrowings for the project or be pledged alone or with other security to lower the costs of other borrowings for the project

(4) The Department of Transportation may not request and the State Treasurer may not issue any bond to finance the Interstate 5 bridge replacement project unless:

(a) No later than September 30, 2013, the State of Washington has appropriated, authorized or committed sufficient funds to:

(A) Satisfy the United States Department of Transportation requirement for a proposed full funding grant agreement application; and

(B) Meet the requirements of the finance section included in the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement published on September 11, 2011, and endorsed by the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Highway Administration in the record of decision dated December 7, 2011;

(b) The United States Department of Transportation has submitted a full funding grant agreement application, in an amount of at least $850 million of Federal Transit Administration funds, for congressional review;

(c) The State Treasurer has participated in and approved the findings of an investment grade analysis of toll revenues associated with the project’s application for a loan from the Federal Highway Administration’s Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, and provided for ongoing financial analysis of the project;

(d) The State Treasurer has reviewed and approved a comprehensive financing plan for the project, after making written findings that there are sources of funds committed by contract or law or otherwise obligated that are reasonably expected to be available and that will provide sufficient cash flows to pay the estimated costs of the initial phase of the project described in the full funding grant agreement without revenues from borrowings in addition to those described in subsection (3) of this section; and

(e) The United States Coast Guard has issued a general bridge permit for the main channel of the Columbia River for the project.


Proposed Amendments to HB 2098-2

If the author’s of the “-2” amendments were being candid, there’s what their amendments should actually say:

  • This act shall be known as the Blank Check, Pass-the-Buck, Cost-overrun, Send the Bill to our Kids Act of 2023.
  • The Legislature finds and declares that it doesn’t have the guts to pay for any of the billions of freeway widening projects ODOT is pursuing, and that it is unwilling to raise gas taxes to pay for them.
  • The Legislature intends that ODOT borrow billions of dollars based on vague “intentions” that the Legislature will miraculously find the will and the money to pay for these projects two or four or six years from now, and that ODOT should go ahead and borrow the money to get these projects started so that the Legislature will have no choice but to raise money someday in the future.
  • The Legislature intends that it will spend billions of dollars today to widen freeways that will increase car dependence and greenhouse gas emissions, and send the bill to future generations of Oregonians, who will also have to deal with the increasingly devastating effects of climate change.
  • The Legislature finds and declares It is powerless to do anything to limit ODOT cost overruns and that it will simply sign a blank check to ODOT for whatever amount of money it wants to spend on the Rose Quarter project.  that even though it approved the I-5 Rose Quarter project at a cost of $450 million in 2017, and that the cost has tripled to as much as $1.45 billion now, that it will fully fund whatever ODOT decides to spend on this project.
  • The Legislature finds and declares that the reasonable and prudent “sideboards” adopted by the Legislature a decade ago, when the state’s expected contribution to the IBR project was only $450 million, should be eliminated.


IBR’s plan to sabotage the moveable span option

IBR officials are planning to sabotage the analysis of a moveable span options as part of the Interstate Bridge Project

The Coast Guard has said a replacement for the existing I-5 bridges would need a 178 foot navigation clearance.  The highway departments want a 116′ clearance fixed span.

The Oregon and Washington DOTs say they are going to study a “moveable span” as a “design option” but are plainly aiming to produce a costly design that just grafts a lift-span on to their current bridge design.

A moveable span would enable a lower crossing, eliminate the need for lengthy viaducts, and reduce construction costs—but ODOT is refusing to design an option that takes advantage of these features.

And the DOTs have completely ignored an immersed tube tunnel option, implying that the Coast Guard directed them to study the moveable span (which it didn’t).

IBR staff have signaled they have no intention of seriously considering the fixed span, and are engaged in malicious compliance

Our story so far:  Oregon and Washington highway departments have proposed a new, fixed span highway bridge over the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver as part of their massive $7.5 billion I-5 freeway widening project.  The bridge would have a 116 foot clearance over the river, but that’s not enough to satisfy the Coast Guard–which regulates bridge heights–and says a 178 foot navigation clearance is needed.

IBR simply chose to ignore the Coast Guard’s determination, and decided to move ahead with only the 116 foot clearance fixed span design.

The Coast Guard objected, saying this violated the terms of a 2014 memorandum of agreement between USDOT and the USCG.  (Ironically the MOA was created in the wake of the highway agency’s efforts to subvert and undercut Coast Guard review of the Columbia River Crossing, the previous iteration of this project).

Coast Guard officials wrote the FHWA and FTA to insist that they include an alternative in the project’s supplemental environmental impact statement that complies with the 178 foot height requirement.  The Coast Guard warned that the IBR should not proceed with an environmental impact statement that omitted a 178 foot clearance option:  “Including only one alternative in the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) introduces risk that no permittable alternative will be evaluated in the SEIS.”

Importantly, USCG did not specify whether this should be a moveable span or a tunnel.

In response, IBR said it would look at a moveable span as a “design option” for the IBR.  That may sound like an “alternative,” but in fact when it comes to complying with environmental review requirements, it plainly is not.  A “design option” means that IBR will build exactly the same bridge it would build if it were a 116 foot fixed span, but they’d simply graft a moveable span (either a lift span or a bascule bridge) onto that very tall structure.  The IBR plan will likely look something very much like this:

“High Bascule”. — Bascule bridge grafted on to IBR’s 116 foot clearance fixed span

A camel is a horse designed by an devious highway engineer

Simply adding a moveable span to a high-level fixed span design eliminates the key design and cost advantage of the moveable span.  Because the moveable span allows tall vessels to pass through a very high (178′ in the case of lift span, or unlimited height, in the case of a bascule) there’s no reason why the remaining fixed portions of the bridge need to be nearly as high as the IBR’s current 116′ design.  The bridge can be built at a much lower level.  Conceptually, a bascule bridge would allow a much lower and shorter bridge structure, roughly like this:

“Low Bascule”. — Bascule bridge at profile of current I-5 bridges

That’s hugely important because the bridge can be much cheaper:  The current high IBR design requires half mile long elevated viaducts on both the North and South ends of the bridge in order to get the I-5 roadway from ground level in Vancouver up to the 150 height of the bridge roadway (the road level of the bridge is about 35′ to 40′ feet above the bottom of the double-deck bridge structure).  Lowering the height of the bridge makes it much cheaper to build; it also eliminates the need to rebuild intersections North and South of the river to reach up to the new higher bridge.  In addition, the lift span will have different and mostly fewer environmental impacts.  Because it will be less tall, it will be less steep, meaning trucks can get over it without slowing (which is a hazard to other traffic), plus all vehicles will burn less fuel (and create less pollution) on a shorter, less steep bridge.

It’s clear, however, that IBR officials have no intention of looking at using the lift span to reduce costs or minimize environmental impacts.  Greg Johnson, the IBR administrator, has fully indicated his intent to sabotage the moveable span design.  It is highly likely that they will specify a moveable span that is impractical and excessively expensive.  Greg Johnson telegraphed as much in his comments to the Columbian

The “movable span” option, which came at the request of the Coast Guard and federal government, will be explored in addition to the program’s original plan of a fixed-span bridge with 116 feet of vertical clearance.
The program will study both a lift span like the current Interstate 5 Bridge and a bascule bridge like the Burnside Bridge in Portland.
Program Administrator Greg Johnson said he believes a fixed-span bridge will ultimately end up spanning the Columbia.
He said a movable span would likely cost $500 million more than a fixed-span bridge and noted that the Columbia River Crossing project received a record of decision from the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transportation Agency for a fixed-span bridge with the lower river clearance.
“I would be totally shocked if we can’t get to a fixed-span,” Johnson said.

(emphasis added)

The missing tunnel option

Press accounts, fueled by IBR statements, create the false impression that it was the Coast Guard that insisted on the inclusion of a moveable span option.  Oregon Public Broadcasting reported:

Planners in charge of the new, multibillion-dollar overhaul have recently been told by federal regulators they must include plans for “moveable span” on the bridge. Greg Johnson, who is leading the team of planners, said federal regulators made the order in late February.

The Vancouver Columbian reported:

The “movable span” option, which came at the request of the Coast Guard and federal government, will be explored in addition to the program’s original plan of a fixed-span bridge with 116 feet of vertical clearance.

In fact, the Coast Guard made no recommendation as to the kind of option that the project should study.  Either a moveable span or a tunnel under the river could satisfy the Coast Guard’s 178 foot height requirement.  Here’s what the Coast Guard letter, from Rear Admiral M. W. Bouboulis (not included in any press accounts) actually says:

I recommend that the Notice to Supplement clearly state the alternatives to be evaluated in the SEIS to include the no build alternative, the locally preferred alternative (116-foot vertical clearance), and an alternative that meets the 178-foot vertical clearance established in the PNCD. This will ensure that an alternative that meets the initially identified needs of navigation is evaluated in the SEIS and could be adopted by the Coast Guard.

(emphasis added)

This wasn’t the Coast Guard asking for something new in February, 2023–it was actually the Coast Guard repeating pretty much exactly what it asked for in its Preliminary Navigation Clearance Decision in June of 2022.  The Coast Guard made it clear that a 116 foot bridge interfered with river navigation:

Our PNCD concluded that the current proposed bridge with 116 feet VNC [vertical navigation clearance], as depicted in the NOPN [Navigation Only Public Notice], would create an unreasonable obstruction to navigation for vessels with a VNC greater than 116 feet and in fact would completely obstruct navigation for such vessels for the service life of the bridge which is approximately 100 years or longer.

B.J. Harris, US Coast Guard, to FHWA, June 17, 2022, emphasis added.

In response to the Bouboulis letter,  IBR (through the FHWA and FTA) replied that it would study a moveable span.  This was IBR’s decision, not Coast Guard’s decision.

What ends up on the cutting room floor, here, is the possibility of an immersed tube tunnel, a technology that is widely used around the word, and which would provide unlimited vertical (and horizontal) navigation clearance.  The immersed tunnel would also remove the visual blight and noise pollution from downtown Vancouver and its rapidly redeveloping waterfront.  To hear the IBR tell it, the reason the immersed tube tunnel isn’t being considered is because the Coast Guard directed them to study a moveable span.  That’s simply untrue.  In its June 2022 preliminary determination of navigation clearance, the Coast Guard specifically identified the tunnel option as one way to comply with its navigation requirements.  It is IBR, not the Coast Guard, that is declining to take a hard look at the immersed tube tunnel.  This seems likely to be a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, because the immersed tube tunnel would have very different (and much reduced) environmental impacts than the bridge options.

A “Design Option” not an “Alternative”

There’s one other seemingly minor wrinkle in the IBR’s latest gambit.  They’re talking about including the moveable span as a “design option.”  While that might sound like an “alternative” to the layman, it actually has important legal and practical implications.  “Design option” means they’ll look at the moveable span not as a full fledged separate alternative, but rather as just simply one feature grafted on to the existing IBR design.  As noted above, this means we’ll get something that looks almost exactly like the IBR 116′ clearance bridge with a bascule or lift-span “cut and pasted” on it.
The reason for calling it a “design option” rather than an alternative is to escape a requirement that the highway department’s fully evaluate the environmental and other impacts of the moveable span design.  A moveable span would be expected to have very different cost, traffic, and environmental impacts than IBR’s proposed high fixed span.  Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) the two state highway departments should fully flesh out this alternative, and evaluate those differing impacts.  Treating the moveable span as a design option is a transparent ruse to avoid NEPA scrutiny.  This could turn out to be a fatal legal error by the project:  NEPA is clear that sponsoring agencies have to give a “hard look” to reasonable alternatives, something this “design option” approach is designed to avoid.

Coast Guard Letter, February 8, 2023


The Case Against the Interstate Bridge Replacement

Here are our 16 top reasons Oregon and Washington need to re-think the proposed Interstate Bridge Replacement Project.  The bloated size of the project and its $7.5 billion cost, and the availability of better alternatives, like a bascule bridge, call for rethinking this project, now.

  1. It’s not a bridge, it’s a freeway widening and interchange rebuilding project.  Contrary to the project’s name, it’s not merely a “bridge replacement.”  The bulk of the cost is widening 5 miles of freeway and rebuilding 7 major interchanges.  IBR’s own “River Crossing Options” study says the proposed IBR bridge only costs $500 million.

  2. The budget is out of control: $7.5 billion.  In 2020, the IBR was projected to cost a maximum of $4.8 billion. The price tag for the project jumped 54 percent in December, 2022.  The total cost is now estimated at $7.5 billion, but ODOT has a long history of having its major projects end up costing twice as much as budgeted.  Contrary to claims made by the IBR, recent construction cost inflation accounts for only $300 million of the more than $2.5 billion cost increase since 2020.
  3. A tunnel or bascule bridge would be vastly cheaper, avoiding the need to widen the freeway and rebuild intersections. IBR’s design will allow only 116 feet of navigation clearance, and IBR has refused to seriously consider either an immersed tube tunnel or lower level bascule bridge, both of which would eliminate most or all bridge lifts, and eliminate the need to rebuild intersections on I-5. The I-95 Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Washington DC is recently constructed bascule, and carries twice as much traffic as the I-5 bridges.
  4. Its really a 12-lane wide freeway.  The IBR likes to describe the project as just adding “auxiliary lanes” to I-5, but a close look at its actual plans shows it will build a 164-foot wide highway bridge–enough for as many as 12 lanes.  Once built, ODOT and WSDOT can easily re-stripe this very wide structure as a 12-lane roadway.
  5. ODOT is ignoring the Coast Guard’s direction.  The Coast Guard, which has authority to regulate bridge height–says that IBR’s bridge needs to have a 178-foot clearance over the Columbia River.  With the CRC, the failure to follow Coast Guard guidance resulted in a costly year-long delay as the project was redesigned.
  6. ODOT’s high, fixed span crossing creates dangerous and expensive elevated roadways and steep on-and-off ramps. The IBR would have a main span with a grade of 4 percent, higher than almost every interstate bridge in the US, and ramps would have 6-7 percent grades.  The steep grades will slow trucks and create dangerous conditions in winter weather.
  7. Planned tolls of up to $5.69 each way will permanently reduce traffic to less than 90,000 vehicles per day (from 135K today).  IBR has refused to release its proposed toll rates.  Documents obtained by public records request show IBR is looking at tolls as high as $5.69 each way at the peak hour.  According to the Investment Grade Analysis performed for the Columbia River Crossing in 2013, even $3 tolls would permanently reduce traffic on I-5 to less than 90,000 vehicles per day–dramatically below its current traffic level of 135,000.
  8. High IBR tolls would produce gridlock on I-205.  The IBR project plans to toll the new I-5 bridge, but not the parallel I-205 Glen Jackson Bridge.  The Investment Grade Analysis prepared for the Columbia River Crossing in 2013 concluded that this would divert tens of thousands of vehicles to I-205, producing gridlock on the I-205 bridge.
  9. ODOT has ignored its own expert panel which recommended breaking the project into three independent phases.  In 2010, Governors Kulongoski and Gregoire appointed a panel of national bridge and highway experts to review the Columbia River Crossing.  They recommended that the project be broken into three separate, independent phases, to minimize financial risk.  They also recommended eliminating one or more interchanges to improve traffic flow, reduce cost and simplify bridge design.
  10. IBR traffic projections have been proven dramatically wrong:  They grossly over-estimate future traffic levels on the existing bridge, which is capacity constrained.  The CRC FEIS predicted I-5 traffic growth of 1.3 percent per year; actual growth was 0.3 percent per year through 2019. They also fail to accurately predict future traffic levels.  The independent Investment Grade Analysis in 2013 showed that the IBR forecasts overstated future I-5 traffic levels by about 80,000 vehicles per day, leading to the design of a grossly over-sized project.
  11. IBR staff altered the output of Metro’s traffic models, and increased predicted peak hour traffic on the existing I-5 bridge above that predicted by the Metro model, and in excess of the actual physical capacity of the bridge.  This so-called “post-processing“–which isn’t documented according to ODOT’s own analysis procedures–inflated no-build traffic volume artificially worsened predicted future congestion, and created a false baseline for assessing the need for and impacts of the proposed bridge widening.
  12. The IBR project mostly benefits Washington residents.  According to Census data produced by IBR, approximately 80 percent of daily commuters across the Columbia River are Washington residents.  According to a license plate survey conducted for the two states, twice as many Washington cars use the I-5 bridge as do Oregon cars.  Yet Oregon will have to pay just as much as Washington state, plus pay for the entire cost of the $1.45 billion Rose Quarter project (which is heavily used by Washington commuters).
  13. IBR has falsely portrayed the income, race and ethnicity of typical bridge users.  The median peak hour drive-alone commuter from Clark County Washington to jobs in Oregon has a household income of $106,000.  About 86 percent of these commuters are non-Hispanic whites.  These commuters are whiter and have higher incomes that the rest of the Portland metropolitan area, and are half as likely to be people of color as the region’s population.
  14. IBR has no meaningful cost controls.  ODOT & WSDOT claimed in legislative testimony in December 2022 that future cost escalation would be managed using a “Cost Estimate Validation Process (CEVP)” that they say that had already completed.  A public records request showed that no documentation existed for the CEVP.
  15. IBR has put off doing an “Investment Grade Analysis” which will be required for federal TIFIA loans andtoll bonds.  The investment grade analysis done for the CRC showed that traffic would be dramatically lower, and tolls would have to be dramatically higher than the figures ODOT and WSDOT used to sell the CRC.
  16. A massive IBR will be a visual blight on Vancouver’s revitalized waterfront, and a massive viaduct across Hayden Island.  The elevated approaches required by IBR’s 116 foot high fixed span are the equivalent of three Marquam Bridges side by side as they cross the waterfront in downtown Vancouver. Seattle just spent several billion dollars to remove a similar waterfront eyesore.

What we should do instead.

  1.  Refocus the project on replacing the bridge, not widening the freeway
  2. Re-appraise low cost options to a high, fixed span  (a bascule bridge or immersed tube tunnel) that could use existing approaches and eliminate the expense of rebuilding interchanges and creating massive elevated viaducts.
  3. Right-size the bridge’s capacity to reflect the traffic levels that can be expected with tolling

Note:  This commentary has been updated to include additional images and links.

Why should Oregonians subsidize suburban commuters from another state?

Oregon is being asked to pay for half of the cost of widening the I-5 Interstate Bridge.  Eighty percent of daily commuters, and two-thirds of all traffic on the bridge are Washington residents.  On average, these commuters earn more than Portland residents.

The 80/20 rule:  When it comes to the I-5 bridge replacement, users will pay for only 20 percent of the cost of the project through tolls.  Meanwhile, for the I-205 project in Clackamas County, users—overwhelmingly Oregonians—will pay 80 percent (or more of the cost in tolls).

Meanwhile, state legislators are looking—for the first time—to raid the state’s General Fund (which is used to pay for schools, health care, and housing) to pay for roads by subsidizing the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project to the tune of $1 billion.

The proposal for Oregon to fund half of the cost of the Interstate Bridge Replacement is a huge subsidy to Washington State commuters and suburban sprawl.

A draft proposal currently circulating in the Oregon Legislature—the so-called “-2” amendments to HB 2098—would have Oregon General Fund taxpayers contribute $1 billion to the cost of the proposed Interstate Bridge Replacement Project.  That’s a huge break from established tradition.  For the better part of a century, Oregon has theoretically had a “user pays” transportation system, which pays for roads out of the State Highway Fund.  The state’s constitution supposedly draws a hard line around the state highway fund (which is filled from gas taxes, weight mile fees and vehicle registration charges) to pay for the cost of building and maintaining roads.

But the HB 2098 “-2” amendments would, for the first time, use General Fund money to subsidize road construction.

The Oregon Constitution contains provisions that have been interpreted to limit the State Highway Fund revenues to only road expenditures, a key part of a “user pays” system that the state has ostensibly had for nearly a century.  This would be a massive break from that philosophy, taking money from the general fund—something that is used to pay for schools, for health care for the poor, and for social services for the homeless.

Twice as many Washington cars on the bridge as Oregon cars.

On any given day, twice as many Washington residents cross the Columbia River as Oregon residents.  These data are from a license plate survey conducted in 2012 for the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation.

Four-fifths of all commuters on the I-5 and I-205 bridges are from Washington State.

The Census Bureau regularly surveys Americans about their commuting patterns.  We very detailed data on who commutes within the Portland metropolitan area, and these data confirm what everyone already knows:  vastly more Washington residents commute to jobs in Oregon than vice-versa.  These data show that 80 percent of all commute trips across the Columbia River are Washington residents; only 20 percent are Oregonians commuting to jobs in Washington.

The real reason for expanding the I-5 bridge is to deal with traffic congestion, and especially peak afternoon traffic congestion in the Northbound direction:  specifically, Washington residents driving home from their jobs in Oregon.  The I-5 bridges are typically not congested in the off-peak direction—because there are far fewer Oregonians driving to jobs in Washington than vice-versa. The highest levels of traffic congestion are Southbound in the morning peak hour (Washington residents commuting to jobs in Oregon), and Northbound in the afternoon peak hour (Washington residents returning home from their Oregon jobs).  In a very real sense, the cost of the I-5 bridge expansion is to serve these commuters.  There is no need to expand capacity on the I-5 bridges for Oregon workers because their commutes are not congested.

Washington Commuters have higher incomes than Oregonians

Peak-hour, drive alone commuters from Washington state to jobs in Oregon have average household incomes of $106,000 according to Census data—about 25 percent higher than for residents of the Oregon side of the Portland metropolitan area.  Clark County’s median household income of $80,500 is higher than for the region ($78,400) and for the City of Portland ($76,200).

Much of the traffic across the river is Washington residents driving to Oregon to evade Washington State sales tax.  Estimates are that the average Clark County household avoids more than $1,000 in state sales taxes each year by shopping in Oregon.  Collectively Clark County households avoid $120 million in state sales taxes per year, and this tax evasion accounts for 10 to 20 percent of traffic across the I-5 and and I-205 Columbia River Bridges.

A tale of two counties, and two toll bridges

Why do Washington residents get a big taxpayer subsidy from Oregon, and Clackamas County residents get a high toll bill?

There are two toll bridge projects before the Oregon Legislature right now.  One is the I-5 bridge, which as noted above, largely serves Washington residents, and the other is the I-205 Abernethy Bridge and I-205 freeway widening project in Clackamas County.  The I-205 project serves mostly Oregon residents, and most of them live in Clackamas County.  There’s a world of difference between how these two projects are going to be financed.

Oregon is being asked to pay for half the cost of the I-5 bridge, even though 80% of commuters and two-thirds of users are from Washington.  Oregon, of course, will pay for all of the cost of the I-205 projects.  And both projects will be paid for in part with tolls, but the tolling policy of the two projects couldn’t be more different.  The IBR project will ask users to pay only about 20 percent of the total cost of the project (about $1.5 billion of a total $7.5 billion price tag).  Meanwhile, users of the I-205 project will be asked to pay 80 percent or more of the cost through tolls.  The Oregon Department of Transportation estimates that tolling will cost the typical Clackamas County family in the project area about $600 per year in toll payments.

ODOT currently says that the I-5 bridge tolls will be as high as $3.55, while the tolls for using I-205 will be $4.40.

A key part of the reason that the tolls will be lower on I-5 is that Oregon is being asked to chip in $1 billion for the Interstate Bridge Replacement, with a HB 2098 “-2” amendment saying that money will come from General Funds.  So while Clark County commuters are getting a $1 billion subsidy from Oregon for their new bridge—and enjoying lower tolls that cover only 20 percent of the cost of the project, Clackamas County drivers on I-205 will get little or no subsidy from the State, and bear 80 percent or more of the cost of this new project.

If we’re going to ask Oregon residents, especially those from Clackamas County to pay tolls to cover nearly all of the cost of new Tualatin River and Willamette River Freeway Bridges, which are we requiring Oregon taxpayers to pay half the cost of the I-5 bridges?  Put simply:

  • Clackamas County residents will be asked to pay a $4.40 toll to cover the cost of a $1 billion project.
  • Clark County WA residents will be asked to pay a toll of $5.60 (or as IBR claims, $2-3) to cover the cost of a $7.5 billion project.
  • ODOT’s plan will charge much relatively much higher tolls to Clackamas County residents for I-205 than it proposes to charge Clark County residents for the I-5 bridges. (I-205 is $4 of toll per billion dollar of project cost; I-5 IBR is $1 of toll per billion of project cost).

It’s hard to understand why the Oregon Legislature would treat Oregon voters and constituents in Clackamas County so much less generously than  it is proposing to treat the people in Clark County, Washington.

Subsidizing Sprawl

The effect of building more road capacity to Clark County is essentially to encourage more people to live in Clark County.  And Washington’s land use laws are far less strict that Oregon’s, meaning that much of that growth is car-dependent sprawl.  When we look at the pattern of urban growth over the last couple of decades, its apparent that Clark County Washington has grown substantially through ex-urban sprawl.  While most new growth on the Oregon side of the Columbia occurred within the Urban Growth Boundary, Clark County Growth sprawled widely.

Why should Oregon taxpayers subsidize yet another round of exurban housing development in Washington?

Fairness and the User Pays Principle

For nearly a century, Oregon has relied on the “users pays” principle to guide road finance.  In theory, gasoline consumption is roughly proportional to miles driven, and apportions to users the costs of the system in direct relation to how much they drive.  Raiding the Oregon General Fund is a dramatic break with that principal, and deserves to be questioned in any event.  But its really hard to understand why Oregon taxpayers should take money that could be used to educate children, care for the sick, or address homelessness, and use it to subsidize commuters (and shoppers) from another state.  And it’s doubly hard to understand why we’d do that, while we’re asking another group of Oregonians, those living in Clackamas County to pay for almost the entire cost of fixing another bridge.

As Governor Tina Kotek said, the financing plan for the I-5 bridge shouldn’t unfairly burden low income Oregonians.

. . When the bridge that we have now across the Columbia, the I-5 bridge, that was tolled at some time to create that bridge. I’m going to always be honest with Oregonians. We have to figure out how to pay to maintain and modernize our system of bridges and roads. And the plan right now to pay for the the improvements on the Abernathy bridge on I 205 and to pay for new I-5 bridge is planned on tolling. Now I’m open to other ideas but I think we should be honest, if we need those types of infrastructure. We’re gonna get as much money as we can from the federal government, and we have to have a conversation about how to pay for it locally. My goal is to make sure whatever we do, it does not unfairly burden our lowest income Oregonians who need to be on those roads. We have to figure out how to modernize and maintain our infrastructure.

Governor Kotek interviewed on KOIN-TV February 24, 2023 (Emphasis added)

But that’s exactly what this proposal does.  It keeps tolls low for Washington residents (they cover only 20 percent of the cost of the bridge they use) while it charges high tolls to Oregon residents (who pay 80 percent or more of the cost of their bridge).  And the HB 2098 “-2” amendments propose to take money that is key to helping low income Oregonians (the State General Fund) and use it to subsidize out of state travelers.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the original bridge (built in 1912) and the parallel second span built in 1958, were both paid for entirely with toll revenues. In theory, we have a “user pays” transportation system—although that’s increasingly become a myth, as nationally we’ve bailed out the federal highway trust fund with general revenues to the tune of more than $200 billion, and we grossly subsidize heavy, over-the-road freight trucks that cause vastly more damage to roads, the environment and people.  Tolling is a “user pays” system:  If 80 percent of the peak hour users of the I-5 bridge are Clark County commuters, and we’re expanding the capacity of the bridge to meet their peak hour travel choices, its incredibly fair and reasonably to ask them to pay for most of the cost of the project.  Washington taxpayers are getting a great deal:  even though they account for roughly twice as much bridge traffic as Oregonians, Oregon is going pay just as much as they are toward the bridge.




Wile E. Coyote hits bottom: Portland’s inclusionary zoning

Portland’s inclusionary zoning requirement is a slow-motion train-wreck; apartment permits are down by sixty percent in the City of Portland, while apartment permitting has more than doubled in the rest of the region

Inclusionary zoning in Portland has exhibited a Wile E. Coyote pattern:  apartment starts stayed high initially, until a backlog of grandfathered units got built.  Since then Portland apartment permits have plummeted.

The Wile E. Coyote Inclusionary Zoning Story in Portland

In December 2016, Portland’s City Council enacted a strong inclusionary housing requirement.  Henceforth, all new apartment buildings in Portland would have to set-aside a portion of their units for low- and moderate income housing. Unlike other cities that either made compliance voluntary, or largely (or entirely) offset the cost of the added units with density bonuses or subsidies (or other quid pro quo), the Portland ordinance applied to nearly all apartment buildings larger than 20 units. The new requirement didn’t kick in until February 2017, and there was a land rush of developers who filed under the old rules.  That produced a temporary flood of new apartment buildings, that have, over the past four years, mostly been built.

Investment markets work with lags for a variety of reasons.  It takes time to plan, obtain permission for, and actually build new housing, and multi-family housing takes longer than single family housing.  As a result, there’s a multi-year pipeline.  When there are housing shortages, as there were in the early days of the recovery from the Great Recession, supply can’t expand as rapidly as demand, and rents get bid up.  The reverse is also true; a glut of building in good times produces new apartment supply that holds down rents, at least for a while.  That effect has concealed the negative consequences of Portland’s inclusionary zoning policy.

As we observed in May of 2019, the initial implementation of inclusionary zoning resulted in a kind of counter-intuitive acceleration of apartment construction.

. . .  the first two years of inclusionary zoning in Portland have been a game-theory win-win for housing affordability. The threat of tougher future requirements prompted a whole lot of investment to happen much earlier than it otherwise would have, and new developments, added to those already under construction, have helped deliver a lot more new apartments in Portland.

Wile E. Coyote hits bottom in Portland

Back in 2019, we said that Portland’s apartment market was in the midst of the “don’t look down” portion of its Wile E. Coyote experience. The momentum from pre-IZ housing applications filled the construction pipeline, and led to a steady increase in the number of new apartment completions.  But that initial surge of construction in response to the IZ grandfathering has petered out.

According to multifamily building permit data reported by Oregon State economist Josh Lehner, multifamily building permits in Multnomah County (mostly, but not entirely Portland), have fallen from more than 5,000 a year in 2018, to about 2,000 a year today.

And that’s not because of a weak regional market for apartments.  Pretty much the opposite trend has been playing out in the Portland area suburbs.  Back in 2018, there were only about 2,000 units per year being permitted in the suburban counties surrounding Portland; today there are more than 5,000 apartments. In the same broad metropolitan market, apartment permitting has fallen 60 percent in Portland and the same time it has increased two-and-a-half fold in the surrounding suburbs.  

There’s other evidence as well. As we reported earlier, there’s been a collapse in demand for 20 to 30 unit apartment projects in Portland (these projects are just above the threshold for having to comply with the inclusionary housing requirement.  There’s evidence that developers are under-building on available sites (something we’re stuck with for the life of the buildings, which is likely to be many decades).

By all measures, Wile E. Coyote has hit the desert floor.

A glass half full (actually 40 percent full in this case) optimist might point to the fact that apartment construction in Portland hasn’t fallen further.  But ultimately, inclusionary zoning won’t wipe out all apartment construction.  What it does mean though is that rents on market rate apartments have to rise high enough to compensate developers for paying the costs of constructing the below market rate units required by inclusionary zoning.  And rents in Portland are high enough to make about 2,000 apartments a year pencil out for developers.  That’s far fewer than we need.  And it’s a symptom of the inherent contradiction built into the inclusionary requirement—it only works because it keeps rents high, which actually makes the overall affordability problem worse.  And make no mistake, housing affordability is a problem of scale:  a few hundred or even a few thousand discounted apartments to essentially nothing to ameliorate the affordability problem, and meanwhile, everyone who’s rent is set by the market pays a higher rent to produce a few trophy units.  It’s as crazy and counterproductive as any of the ACME corporations sure-fire roadrunner catching gizmos.


Put a bird on it: Highway Greenwashing

There’s no shortage of cynical greenwashing to sell climate-killing highway widening projects

GeorgiaDOT and AASHTO have a new PR gimmick to promote the same old product

In a famous season one sketch of Portlandia, Fred Armisten and Carrie Brownstein popularized the catch-phrase, “Put a bird on it” about a hipster couple who transformed all manner of worthless crap into trendy objet d’art with bird appliqués.

Put a bird on it!

Not to be outdone, highway advocates have adopted the same “put a bird on it” philosophy to greenwash road expansions.  Here’s their logo for something they grandly call “Planning and Environmental Linkages”


There’s a turquoise blue sky, white mountains, a green forest and a blue highway.  There’s a single, soaring bird, but nary a car to be seen anywhere.

But if you look past the bird and the other greenwash, you find a program that’s simply a cynical and vapid rebranding of what highway departments have always done:  building more and wider roads with no concern for the consequences.  The highway builder’s fraternity, AASHTO—the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials—is the sponsor and promoter “Planning and Environmental Linkages.”  A typical PEL project comes from the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).

Planning and Environmental Linkages or PEL represents a collaborative and integrated approach to transportation decision-making that 1) considers environmental, community, and economic goals early in the transportation planning process, and 2) uses the information, analysis, and products developed during planning to inform the environmental review process.

The benefits include: Improved relationships with stakeholders; improved project delivery timelines; and better transportation programs and projects.

The description is replete with the appropriate buzzwords—collaborative, stakeholders, improved—but its clear from the description that this greenwash pure and simple.  Note that PEL only gives procedural weight to environmental and community factors—it will “consider” them—but offers no substantive metrics, like reducing vehicle miles traveled, or lower greenhouse gas emissions.  It says it will “use” this information in the planning process, but doesn’t say how. (In our experience, it’s usually for denial and obfuscation). Ultimately, there’s no question of the objective here:  delivering transportation projects:  The only tool we have is a hammer, and by God, all our problems are nails.

But the reality of what the GDOT is planning shows a profound disdain for the environment. This becomes clear when one digs deeper into the example of “Planning and Environmental Linkages” offered by AASHTO. Its a huge project to widen I-85 in the Atlanta metro area.  The plan is plainly to add vastly more car-carrying capacity on I-85, through a combination of additional travel lanes, shoulder driving, “auxiliary lanes,” the construction of “collector/distributor” side-roads along the freeway, and mammoth new car-oriented intersections, like this diverging diamond interchange.

To get a more detailed idea of how they’d integrate environmental concerns into project planning, we took a quickly look at the “I-85 PLANNING AND ENVIRONMENTAL LINKAGES (PEL) STUDY Corridor Strategies Memo.  Strangely for a report that promises to address “environmental linkages” there’s virtually no mention of the environment, or the highway’s negative impact on the climate and adjacent communities.  The words “climate,” “pollution,” “greenhouse gas,” and “emissions” do not appear anywhere 30-page report. There are two mentions of “bicycles”, one of them in the context of diverging diamond interchanges, which are notoriously hostile to non-auto travelers.  The message of the document is clear:  the word “environment” might be on the cover, but the needs of the environment and non-auto users are simply irrelevant to the final outcome.

If you really cared about environment, you might pay attention to the fact that greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have been increasing steadily and sharply in Georgia.  Since 2012, metro Atlanta’s average emissions per capita are up more than 1,000 pounds per person.

In short, this is all about generating the perception that GDOT cares about the environment.  It doesn’t.  It includes environmental concerns in only the vaguest and most procedural senses, not specifying any substantive or measurable goals.  It focuses on options that are all about making driving easier and expanding capacity, with lip service given to alternative modes.  And it doesn’t even bother to acknowledge pressing environmental problems.  Just put a bird on it.

The Week Observed, April 7, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

IBR’s plan to sabotage the “moveable span” alternative.  The proposed $7.5 billion Portland area freeway widening project is supposedly looking at a moveable span option to avoid illegally impeding water navigation.  But state DOT officials are planning to sabotage the analysis of a moveable span options as part of the Interstate Bridge Project. The Coast Guard has said a replacement for the existing I-5 bridges would need a 178 foot navigation clearance.  The highway departments want a 116′ clearance fixed span. The Oregon and Washington DOTs say they are going to study a “moveable span” as a “design option” but are plainly aiming to produce a costly design that just grafts a lift-span on to their current bridge design.

A moveable span would enable a lower crossing, eliminate the need for lengthy viaducts, and reduce construction costs—but ODOT is refusing to design an option that takes advantage of these features. And the DOTs have completely ignored an immersed tube tunnel option, implying that the Coast Guard directed them to study the moveable span (which it didn’t). IBR staff have signaled they have no intention of seriously considering the fixed fixed span, and are engaged in malicious compliance.

Wile E. Coyote crashes to earth: Inclusionary Zoning in Portland.  Portland’s inclusionary zoning requirement is a slow-motion train-wreck; apartment permits are down by sixty percent in the City of Portland, while apartment permitting has more than doubled in the rest of the region.

Inclusionary zoning in Portland has exhibited a Wile E. Coyote pattern:  apartment starts stayed high initially, until a backlog of grandfathered units got built.  Since then Portland apartment permits have plummeted.

Must Read

Traffic studies are junk science. There’s a whole web of pseudo-science underpinning the professions of transportation and land use planning in the United States.  Donald Shoup has famously debunked the statistical fraud in studies that purport to estimate parking requirements.  A new study summarized by Streetsblog makes a powerful case that a parallel requirement–transportation impact studies–are equally flawed.

It’s common in many development or permitting processes to require a traffic impact study–a statistical estimate of how many more trips (almost invariably automobile trips) will be “caused” by building a new shopping center or apartment complex or housing subdivision.  Cities use these impact studies to require developers to offset the impacts attributed to their development:  for example, by widening roads or paying for new traffic signals or other transportation improvements.  There’s a problem and a paradox.

The problem is that the statistical work used to estimate traffic generation is based on observations of environments that are not necessarily good predictors of every other development.  The amount of trip generation from a new greenfield mall in a Florida or Arizona suburb may be a poor guide to the added traffic associated with infill development in a dense urban setting.

The paradox is that the so called remedy–expanding traffic capacity–creates a kind of perverse, self-fulfilling prophecy.  Cities end up taxing development to subsidize more infrastructure that encourages more travel.  As study co-author Kenneth Stahl says:

“They’re being used to require traffic mitigations that only induce more driving. … You’re getting terrible policy outcomes, and they’re based on analyses that aren’t reliable at all.”

Finally, it’s worth noting that traffic impact studies seldom, if ever, consider the counterfactual:  what would happen to travel, particularly in a regional context, if more development isn’t added in a particular location. Particularly in urban settings, adding more apartments or more shopping opportunities might tend to put more people closer to common destinations, shortening auto trips, facilitating more biking and walking, and actually leading to reduced driving.

Housing’s  “Missing Bottom.”  Over the past few years, the “missing middle” has been a popular slogan in housing debates, pointing to the paucity of smaller multi-family buildings that use to be common in America’s residential neighborhoods until the widespread adoption of exclusionary single family zoning.  Writing at the blog “Building the Skyline”, Jason Barr, makes the case that we need to be thinking about a the “missing bottom”–in this case the bottom along a different dimension, housing price and age.

Barr points out that the way we get most affordable housing in the US is that people move into housing that has depreciated because it has gotten older.  Careful economic studies have traced out the steady downward progression of the housing stock, which is generally most expensive (and most occupied by higher income households when it is new) and which over time, declines in price, and is occupied by successively less well-to-do households.

Research and history suggest that we need to think about housing and cities not as static entities but as dynamic systems. Newly constructed middle-income housing not only benefits those in the middle class but is also the primary means by which low-income housing gets produced.

Because the way we get housing at the “bottom” of the market depends on this process of downward filtering, when we don’t build enough new housing at the top, the old housing doesn’t filter downward in price.  Barr presents a nice summary of some of the recent research on the subject (showing, for example, how as higher income people moving into new housing, a chain of moves is triggered that creates vacancies for low income households).  He also has some key policy recommendations, centered on increasing housing supply.

If we want to walk more, we need to do things differently.  Walking and urban advocate Jeff Speck has a seemingly innocuous-sounding column at Next City, observing the annual “Walk to Work” day.  Speck argues that rather than the kind of occasional and odd effort to walk to work, which for some is a once yearly exceptional activity, we need to think about how we changes things so that walking is common the other 364 days of the year. He observes:

More than three quarters of us get to work by car. Most of us do this not because we want to, but because we have no good alternative. Seventy-five years of sprawl, highway building, and transit disinvestment have created a national landscape that makes car ownership an obligation for almost everyone. The automobile is no longer an instrument of freedom, but rather a bulky, expensive, and dangerous prosthetic device, a prerequisite to viable citizenship.

Speck has a succinct agenda:  Build housing near transit, reform parking and fight highways.  If there were more places to live near frequent transit, transit would work better, and fewer people would need to drive.  We have too much parking, thanks to a hidden and byzantine system of regulations and subsidies that generates more driving and car dependence.  And our ever expanding highway system simply generates more travel and more sprawl.  Walking is great, but once a year performative measures just underscore how much we need serious change.


The Week Observed, April 14, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

The case against the Interstate Bridge Project.  We offer 16 reasons why Oregon and Washington lawmakers should question the current plans for the proposed $7.5 billion I-5 freeway expansion project between Portland and Vancouver.  Here’s reason #10 (but click through to read all 16!)

10.  IBR traffic projections have been proven dramatically wrong:  They grossly over-estimate future traffic levels on the existing bridge, which is capacity constrained.  The CRC FEIS predicted I-5 traffic growth of 1.3 percent per year; actual growth was 0.3 percent per year through 2019. They also fail to accurately predict future traffic levels.  The independent Investment Grade Analysis in 2013 showed that the IBR forecasts overstated future I-5 traffic levels by about 80,000 vehicles per day, leading to the design of a grossly over-sized project.


Put a bird on it:  Greenwashing highway expansions.  State highway agencies have their own carefully crafted logo for a program called “Planning and Environmental Linkages” which promises more environmentally friendly highway projects.  But when you look closely at what PEL actually entails, it’s clearly all performative process, with no substantive requirements.

As long as a highway intones gravely about the environment, it can do pretty much whatever it wants.  Case in point, a recent “Planning and Environmental Linkage” report for a major highway in Georgia contains none of the following words:  “climate,” “pollution,” “greenhouse gas,” and “emissions.”  What you will find in the report is a prominent logo, with nary a car or truck to be seen.  Put a bird on it!

Must Read

Just another deadly stroad: How Complete Streets got co-opted.  The indispensable Chuck Marohn is in fine form with a new essay on how highway engineers and road departments have coopted, and largely eviscerated the “Complete Streets” movement.  The concept behind complete streets–that we design our streets to provide safe and equal access to all people, regardless of the mode by which they travel, is sound.  In practice, however, roads that explicitly prioritize faster car movement and endanger cyclists and pedestrians can qualify as “award-winning” complete streets, given a watered down, mindless checklist approach that’s been adopted.

Marohn illustrates this with an example of Ager Road outside Washington DC.  Its literally won awards from professional road building, and engineering groups.  But the “improved” road replete with dangerous design features like slip lanes and too narrow bike lanes that endanger non-auto users. It’s painfully difficult to tell apart the “before” and “after” pictures of the project, because both are so auto-focused.  And the traffic data show that, post “Complete Streets” treatment, still nearly 70 percent of drivers exceed the posted speed limit.  Unsurprisingly, this “complete street” claimed yet another life.

The problem is that the advocates of complete streets essentially sold their souls for to get their branded idea adopted.  Highway agencies and engineers were more than happy to adopted the mantle, and provide congratulatory awards, while gutting the underlying concept, and using it to pretend that they were actually doing something to improve the safety and fairness of the transportation system.  Marohn writes:

Yet, a top-down strategy meant working within entrenched systems. It meant finding common cause with the very people who most fervently resisted their ideals. There was certainly more funding with this approach, along with greater access to power, but the ultimate cost of that success was having the core ideals of Complete Streets cast aside and tokenized.  We need you to wake up, Complete Streets advocates, and recognize that your work is being widely used for evil ends.

Highway engineers have debased and perverted many potentially meaningful terms like “multi-modal” and “pedestrian infrastructure.”  Co-opting complete streets is safety-washing, just as highway departments have engaged in woke-washing with phony equity claims, and green-washing with performative and meaningless “planning and environmental linkages.”

Freeways without futures.  The latest annual installment of the Center for New Urbanism report, Freeways without Futures is now available.  The recent passage of the $1 billion Reconnecting Communities program as part of national infrastructure legislation has given added impetus to community efforts to repair the damage done by urban freeways by a combination of capping, removal, and boulevard conversions.  Here’s a list of this year’s candidates, and we hope this helps hasten their demise, and rebirth as contributors to the urban fabric, instead of destroyers of it.

  • Interstate 787, Albany, New York
  • Interstate 35, Austin, Texas
  • US 40 Expressway, Baltimore, Maryland
  • Interstate 794, Milwaukee, WI
  • State Highway 55/Olson Memorial Highway, Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Interstate 94, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota
  • Interstate 980, Oakland, California
  • State Route 99, Seattle, Washington
  • Interstate 244, Tulsa, Oklahoma
  • US Route 422, Youngstown, Ohio

New Knowledge

Traffic congestion reduces vehicle miles traveled.  We tend to view traffic congestion as an unmitigated bad.  But in the presence of traffic congestion, we change our behavior.  A new study looking closely at travel survey data from the Seattle area shows that people who live in more congested parts of a metro area tend to own fewer vehicles and drive fewer miles.

The study looks at how a broad range of factors (including commonly understood variables like density, design, diversity and destinations (some of the so-called multiple “D” factors influencing travel behavior.  Its core finding is that after controlling for all of these other factors, people who live in more congested areas–as measured by a kind of travel time index computed from Google Maps travel time estimates–tend to drive less than their counterparts in less congested locations.  Specifically, each unit increase in the delay score reduces, the number of household trips  by  16 percent and its total vehicle miles of travel by about 12 percent.

The authors conclude:

. . . travel delay, a measure of congestion, is associated with fewer household vehicles, fewer vehicle trips, and lower VMT. These are beneficial to environment and energy conservation. Congestion might also be seen as an adversary of density because congestion is more likely, though not always, to exist in areas with high density, a key paradox at the center of the land use policy debate. However, congestion can coexist with density as demonstrated by Mondschein and Taylor (2017). While “delay” is treated as a built environment variable in this study, it is a measure of the “mobile” feature of the built environment. This measure differs from other land use density and diversity variables that quantify the “fixed,” long-term features of the built environment. The findings about the effects of travel delay reinforce the notion that travel delay is an important constraint of travel behavior and should be considered along with other “D” factors

In a sense, this is the flip side of our understanding of induced travel.  We know that when we make travel more convenient and faster, vehicle miles traveled increase.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that when an area is more congested, that people respond by driving less. On the surface, that seems to imply that this lessened driving is entirely a sacrifice.  Not necessarily.  Congested places also tend to have more population density and a richer and more varied set of destinations and services.  So even if you drive less, it doesn’t mean that you’re giving up other than the amount of driving you do.  And, just as with induced travel, the implication is that measures that reduce traffic congestion are likely to increase the number of trips people take, and the distance they drive.

This ia particularly important finding for transportation planning. Most existing traffic models assume that traffic congestion influences mode choice or route choice, but has essentially no effect on the number of trips or the number of miles a household drives.  That’s why state DOT travel forecasts routinely predict absurd and impossible levels of traffic growth and congestion.  But as congestion increases, people adapt their behavior, and travel less, taking fewer and shorter trips–something the traditional four step model fails to forecast.

Reza Sardari, Jianling Li and Raha Pouladi, “Delay: The Next “D” Factor in Travel Behavior?” Journal of Planning Education and Research, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1177/0739456X231154001

Hat tip to Michael Brennis at SSTI for flagging this article:  Read his take here.

In the News

Clark County Today republished our commentary, “The Case Against the Interstate Bridge Replacement.”

The Week Observed, April 21, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Why should Oregonians subsidize suburban commuters from another state? Oregon is being asked to pay for half of the cost of widening the I-5 Interstate Bridge. Eighty percent of daily commuters, and two-thirds of all traffic on the bridge are Washington residents. On average, these commuters earn more than Portland residents.

The 80/20 rule: When it comes to the I-5 bridge replacement, users will pay for only 20 percent of the cost of the project through tolls. Meanwhile, for the I-205 project in Clackamas County, users—overwhelmingly Oregonians—will pay 80 percent (or more of the cost in tolls).  Meanwhile, state legislators are looking—for the first time—to raid the state’s General Fund (which is used to pay for schools, health care, and housing) to pay for roads by subsidizing the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project to the tune of $1 billion. The proposal for Oregon to fund half of the cost of the Interstate Bridge Replacement is a huge subsidy to Washington State commuters and suburban sprawl.

A blank check for the highway lobby.  The HB 2098 “-2” amendments are perhaps the most fiscally irresponsible legislation ever to be considered by the Oregon Legislature. They constitute an open-ended promise by the Oregon Legislature to pay however much money it costs to build the $7.5 billion Interstate Bridge Replacement and $1.45 billion Rose Quarter freeway widenings—projects that have experienced multi-billion dollar cost overruns in the past few years, before even a single shovel of dirt has been turned.  HB 2098-2 amendments would:

  • Raid the Oregon General Fund of $1 billion for road projects
  • Give ODOT a blank check for billions of dollars of road spending
  • Allow unfettered ODOT borrowing to preclude future Legislatures from changing these projects and forcing their funding
  • Eliminate protective sideboards enacted by the Legislature a decade ago
  • Enact a meaningless and unenforceable cap on project expenses.

Must Read

Tokyo as an anti-car paradise.  In a shortened chapter lifted from his forthcoming book Carmageddon, Economist writer Daniel Knowles digs deep into the reasons why Tokyo excels as a metropolis with high density, affordable rents, great public transit, walkable neighborhoods and relatively few cars.  It’s more or less the inverse of the United States:  driving and parking are expensive, while density is lightly regulated.  Before you can legally register a car in Japan, you have to show that you have an off-street parking space in which to store it, and–shock!–overnight on-street parking is largely illegal.  Meanwhile, single family zoning is virtually unknown, and land owners are free to build to pretty much whatever density they’d like in residential areas, which is exactly what the nation’s mostly privately owned railroads have done, building dense housing around new or expanded transit stations.  And when it came to building expressways, Japan relied heavily on the free market, letting private companies build and operate tollways, and the tolls, like the limits on parking, make driving an unattractive and expensive alternative.  And as Knowles stresses, all this reinforces the rich, and fine grained walkable urbanism of Tokyo neighborhoods.  By insisting that cars pay their way, rather than pampering them, people take precedence.

Another freeway widening fail:  Just south of San Francisco, authorities have spent half a billion dollars adding more capacity to Highway 101, with predictably disappointing results.  Roger Rudick, writing for Streetsblog San Francisco relates the all too common tale of a freeway widening project that hasn’t done anything to reduce congestion.  After spending $600 million to widen 14 miles of freeway, one of the project’s private engineering consultants conceded:

“California in general has that problem: that as soon as we start to build something we’re immediately over capacity by the time we finish building it, so it’s almost impossible for us to keep up with the amount of demand,” admitted Monique Fuhrman, Deputy Policy Program Manager with HNTB, which worked on the project, when questioned by Swire at the CAC meeting. She added that traffic levels are already “getting back to the way we were before.”

Local transportation advocate Mike Swire pushed back against the consultants self-congratulatory talking points, challenging Fuhrman to explain why freeway expansion wasn’t simply a never-ending cycle of expansion, induced demand and recurreing congestion.  Swire asked:

“At what point do we stop doing something we know isn’t working?”

To which Fuhrman replied:

“That’s like an existential question. I do not know.”

Which is where, for the moment, we leave the absurd situation, though we can be sure there will be another engineer, another widening project, and another sense of existential bafflement (and indifference) when it too, doesn’t relieve congestion.

New apartment construction in Seattle is flat-lining:  Is mandatory affordable housing to blame?  Seattle has been one of the epicenters of rapid urban growth over the past few decades, and growing demand for city living has pushed up housing prices–and apartment rents.  A couple of years ago, the city implemented its “Mandatory Housing Affordability” (MHA) program, requiring apartment developers to either set-aside units for low or moderate income households, or make payments into a city housing affordability fund.  In effect, these requirements act like a tax on new multi-family housing, and not surprisingly, may discourage development.  New statistics published by the Urbanist show a worrying collapse of apartment permits in Seattle:

Since March 2021, shortly after the MHA program was mostly phased in, permit applications dropped sharply from an average of more than 1,500 per month to fewer than 500 per month.  We think the city should be watching this closely.  If fewer apartments are built now, that’s likely to leader to a tighter housing market in the years ahead, with likely further rent increases.

The State of Play:  How highway agencies co-opt and debase progressive policies

In last week’s Week Observed, we highlighted a provocative article from Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns, illustrating how a highway project in Maryland had effectively co-opted the “Complete Streets” moniker for a project that remained a dangerous (even deadly) car-dominated “stroad.”  Chuck made the very good point that engineers and highway departments will deftly borrow and trade on progressive sounding terminology.  That part of Marohn’s critique is valid.  But Marohn—and by dint of repetition—City Observatory may have conveyed the impression that the originators of the complete streets concept are somehow to blame.  As our friends, Stephen Davis and Beth Osbourne of Smart Growth America have offered a spirited defense of the efforts of the National Complete Streets Coalition.  They point out that the Coalition doesn’t merely promote the concept, but also evaluates the effectiveness of adopted policies, develops champions, highlights best practices and generates constant national attention through reports like Dangerous by Design.  Ultimately, Davis and Osborne agree with Marohn that there’s an entrenched status quo that’s adept at appropriating and diluting progressive concepts.  They argue that means the diverse advocates for change need to make common cause against this co-opting,

Going forward, we all need to keep our attention squarely focused on the transportation agencies and engineers who prioritize speed above all else and call it safety, who do the same old thing and call it something new, who build dangerous streets and call them complete.

That’s going to be a never-ending task:  There’s no shortage of consultants, public relations, marketing and branding types that will–for a generous fee–help legacy highway agencies re-brand their work as green, equitable, safety-conscious and net zero carbon.  Its vastly easier to feign those values in awards and press releases than it is to accomplish meaningful change in the real world.  Ultimately, we have to insist on measurable results—fewer people killed and injured, less greenhouse gases emitted, more people living in walkable, bikeable communities, with a full range of transportation choices.