What City Observatory did this week

Risky bridges.  The Oregon and Washington highway departments are blundering ahead with a $5 billion plan to widen I-5 between Portland and Vancouver, and are making many of the same mistakes they made with the failed Columbia River Crossing a decade ago.  A key difference: last time, there was some adult supervision of the DOTs:  A series of independent, outside experts looked at the project’s engineering and financial details, and found serious errors that needed to be fixed.  The project was delayed because the “open-web” design proposed by state DOTs was found to be unbuildable.  Similarly, outside financial consultants found that toll levels would need to be doubled to pay for a portion of the project.  The revived project hasn’t been subjected to any independent, outside review, yet state and federal authorities are being asked to sign a virtual blank check for this project.  You’d insist on getting an independent, professional inspection before buying a used car or an old house:  Oregon and Washington legislators would be well advised to get similar advice before spending billions.

State DOT misrepresents the Coast Guard Bridge Permit Approval Process.  Two Oregon DOT officials testified to the Legislature that their proposed $5 billion I-5 Bridge Replacement was grandfathered under more old Coast Guard regulations and didn’t have to comply with more stringent rules adopted since the Columbia River Crossing debacle.  The Coast Guard has stated that the new project must meet the new rules, which include addressing the project’s navigation clearance prior to the Environmental Impact Statement.

While state highway officials have claimed that the Coast Guard’s June 2022 preliminary determination that the new bridge would have to have a 178 foot vertical navigation clearance was just an early draft, Coast Guard regulations–that the US DOT has agreed to–make it clear that the determination is meant to exclude non-complying alternatives from inclusion in the EIS, and that the two highway agencies are proceeding “at their own risk” if they submit a design that doesn’t comply.

Must read

Mitigation for freeway widening through cities is lipstick on a pig.  We highlight another tweet-storm from Center for American Progress transportation expert Kevin DeGood.  He looks at how Texas DOT is proposing to offset the damage its multi-billion dollar I-45 freeway project will do to Houston neighborhoods.  The freeway will demolish 1,000 homes, 300 businesses and 2 schools and other facilities.  TxDoT claims it will remedy these harms with some public space (freeway covers, an “event lawn”).  While those are nice amenities, they don’t remedy the damage done to these neighborhoods, DeGood points out:

Neighborhood connectivity and Improving pedestrian and bike facilities is great. It’s also not a meaningful remedy for the harms of the NHHIP (the I-45 highway widening project).

Not only that, but the plan is to have the municipal government rather than the highway department bear the costs of what are advertised as “reparations.”  Again, DeGood:

And how does Central Houston envision paying for these improvements? Tax increment financing (TIF).
Why should locals shoulder the cost burden to remedy harms created by TxDOT? Shouldn’t TxDOT pay for TxDOT-caused harms?

Simply constructing amenities atop a freeway doesn’t undo the harm done by the wholesale demolition of neighborhoods, or the creation of car-dominated toxic environments around freeways.

The highway building lobby aims to capture the “Reconnecting Communities” program.  As we all know, urban highways have devastated city neighborhoods around the country.  A tiny part of last year’s infrastructure bill dedicated a billion dollars to try and repair that damage.  It could be a source of funding to remove roadways and restore neighborhoods.  But around the country, state DOTs are scheming to use the money to widen or expend highways.  As Streetsblog explains:

Perversely, some agencies are even attempting to expand highways using the program’s funds — while using nominal equity improvements as political cover to justify the additional lanes.

It calls out two projects as particularly egregious: The Oregon Department of Transportation’s Rose Quarter I-5 freeway project, which could as much as double freeway traffic.  Another project in Tulsa calls for a study that would “widen underpasses” for Interstate 244, the roadways the ultimately destroyed the cities famous Black Wall Street district.  “Reconnecting communities” shouldn’t turn out to be a “crime victims compensation” fund that gives the money to the criminals, but that is exactly what could be happening.

In the News

City Observatory’s analysis of the convoluted and dangerous new off-ramp design for the I-5 Rose Quarter project was featured in Bike Portland.