The Metro Council voted Feb. 5 to approve a resolution that required traffic reducing devices – such as tolls — be applied to any final bridge design, which has yet to be decided.
Councilors – as well as many supporters and critics – have said they don't want the bridge to attract additional congestion, which would make the $4 billion investment nearly moot.
An environmental impact study released in 2008 said not building a new bridge would result in more air pollutants than any of the alternatives.
However some traffic experts remain skeptical about what benefits a larger bridge will bring.
The multi-agency Columbia River bridge project has presided over a sharply divided community over the years. While multiple agencies have approved a plan to replace the two aging spans currently providing access to Oregon and Washington, there are many details yet to be resolved – the number of lanes, final design, toll configuration, and financing, among others.
During the meeting, longtime Environmental Justice advocate Sylvia Evans raised the issue of public health compensation. She and other opponents stood in contrast to the legion of supporters for the 12-lane option that testified at the beginning of the meeting.
Marcia Ward, of the Community and Environmental Justice Group, said the members of that workgroup had voted unanimously to support a 12-lane option.
"The 12-lane option will result in the least amount of pollution," Ward said. "Keeping traffic off local North Portland streets for the longest amount of time … The 12-lane option will allow for future flexibility."
She said the 12 lanes would only last for a short distance and provide a safer environment to get on and off the freeway. Many 12-lane proponents say the name is a misnomer because most of the extra lanes are access routes.
Evans had a different point of view on the environmental impact of more lanes.
"You can have as many lanes as you want," Evans said. "What we've been asking for all along is 7 percent of toll revenue … to go towards health care for our neighbors who live, work and play by the freeway. … Regardless of how many lanes … how much the toll is, it means more traffic, not less."
Although the Draft Environmental Impact Statement says there will be less air pollution with more lanes, studies across the country indicate that adding more lanes to an existing freeway do nothing to alleviate congestion – and thus, would not reduce pollution. Metro Councilor Rex Burkhart, a supporter of the project, said this expansion was different. It was not a freeway connecting undeveloped plots of land, and tolls and public transportation options would discourage the use of automobiles.
Jeri Williams, a longtime Environmental Justice activist who says she is one of the foremost experts in the state on the subject, said she wasn't going to tell the Metro Council how many lanes they should consider. She wanted them to consider one of the most basic tenants of Environmental Justice – accessibility.
"Look around you and see how many people of color are here today," she said.
Holding meetings in the middle of the day is a near guarantee to restrict the ability of working people – people of color – from attending a meeting. Ward says that her group does hold meetings in the evening and members of the public are welcome to attend and give their input. Meetings are held the third Thursday of the month at 6 p.m. at the Kenton Firehouse.
But the discussion of pollution, the uncertainty of future demand and its impact on the health of the freeway community is far from over – despite cheery environmental projections.
Ward says the Community Environmental Justice Group has not yet discussed any health compensation for which some Environmental Justice activists have long advocated. Similar programs were financed during previous I-5 expansion through the Community Enhancement Fund which included tree plantings, and bike and pedestrian improvements for side streets. That fund did not include any funding for the adverse health impacts brought by increased freeway activity.
Ward says she wants her group to discuss a community health fund before a final design is approved. She says there are questions that remain to be discussed about the project's impact on air and water quality. Even the issue of tolling – which Metro Councilor Burkholder, among others, used to dispel worries about future congestion – is unclear.
"No one has enough information to have a discussion (on tolling)," Ward said. A current tolling plan would include electronic tolls, but little has been said about how infrequent highway drivers would be easily accommodated.
Researcher Clark Williams-Derry said congestion pricing is a controversial idea that generally creates a regressive tax on the poor. Williams-Derry is the programs director for the Sightline Institute, a think tank dedicated to sustainable practices in the Pacific Northwest.
Plus, he said, implementing a toll in an already congested, dense urban area would have to be incredibly pricey to work. Could the project keep enough commuters off the road to make traffic flow smoothly?
"That seems unlikely unless tolls are going to be extremely high," he said. "Let's say they didn't manage for congestion well. You now have 10 lanes of vehicles (stuck in traffic). Once that happens, it's very hard to reverse directions. It can create long run pressures for the region to solve."
To see a graphic represenation of the 12-lane option for the Columbia River Crossing project, visit www.theskanner.com.