Sunday, October 20th, 2013

Bridges Boondoggle, Portland Edition

A couple weeks ago I outline how the Ohio River Bridges Project in Louisville had gone from tragedy to farce. Basically none of the traffic assumptions from the Environmental Impact Statements that got the project approved are true anymore. According to the investment grade toll study recently performed to set toll rates and sell bonds, total cross river traffic will be 78,000 cars (21.5%) less than projected in the original FEIS. What’s more, tolls badly distort the distribution of traffic that will come such that the I-65 downtown bridge, which is being doubled in capacity, will never carry just what the existing bridge carries right now anytime during the study period, and won’t exceed the design capacity even slightly until 2050. Meanwhile, the I-64 bridge that will remain free will grow in traffic by 55% by 2030, when it will be 34% over capacity.

A nearly identical scenario is playing out in Portland with the $2.75 billion I-5 Columbia River Crossing. Joe Cortright of Impresa consulting unearthed the information through freedom of information requests looking into the investment grade toll study on that is being conducted for that bridge. You can see his report here (there’s also a summary available).

I’ll highlight some of his truly eye-popping findings. Traffic forecasts are inflated, of course. The toll study is suggesting traffic increases of 1.1% to 1.2% per year when over the last decade traffic has actually declined by 0.2% per year on average even though there are no tolls. But it’s the addition of tolls that badly distort cross-river traffic and make a mockery out of the EIS. Here’s the money chart for the I-5 bridge itself:

How is it possible that after building a gigantic multi-billion dollar bridge traffic declines? For the same reason as Louisville: tolling will cause huge amounts of traffic to divert to the I-205 free bridge. By 2016 traffic on I-205 would rise from 140,000 per day to 188,000 – and up to 210,000 by 2022 (full capacity).

This is so eerily similar to the Louisville situation, that someone suggested, only half in jest I suspect, that they must be having “how to” training sessions on this stuff over at AASHTO HQ.

Unlike Louisville, where a docile press is basically in cahoots with the state DOTs pushing the project, Portland’s media started asking questions. And one local paper even caught a civil engineering professor from Georgia serving on the independent review board for the project labeling the tolling scheme “stupid.” (Louisvillians take note).

Oregon DOT director Matt Garrett released a letter in response in which he says, “This work is fundamentally different than the traffic analysis completed for the Final Environmental Impact Statement, and with very different goals in mind.” I agree. The FEIS was performed with the goal of getting this bridge the DOT wanted built approved. The toll study was designed to withstand financial scrutiny on Wall Street and be relied on in selling securities. I’ll let you be the judge of which is more likely to be closer to the truth. What’s more, Cortright addresses this very issue by saying in his report, “Neither federal highway regulations nor federal environmental regulations authorize or direct using multiple, conflicting forecasts for a single project, or using one set of traffic numbers for one purpose, and a different set for another.” I might also add that the DOTs in Louisville have not to the best of my knowledge made similar claims to explain away an identical discrepancy there. Nevertheless, the rest of Garrett’s letter acknowledges that I-5 will see a big traffic drop and there will be diversion from tolling. So he appears to just be doing the bureaucratic equivalent of “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

Again, want to know how it is that we spend so much money on transport infrastructure and get so little value? It’s because far too many of our highway dollars go into boondoggle mega-projects ginned up through political pressure (watch this space as I have another example coming soon) instead of into projects that make transportation sense. It may well be that there are legitimate problems with the existing I-5 river crossing, but these numbers give no confidence that the Oregon DOT has come up with a good or cost-effective plan for dealing with them. Unlike some, I do think we need to build more roads in America. Unfortunately our system is set up to ensure the survival of the unfittest instead of projects that make actual transportation and economic sense.

Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: Portland

12 Responses to “Bridges Boondoggle, Portland Edition”

  1. Jon Davis says:

    Given these bridges as examples, I can’t wait for the investment-grade reports on the Illiana…

  2. Tim says:

    I live here in Portland and have a little insight to give. First I-205 is a terrible alternative. for those people who take the I-5 bridge now, transitioning to the I-205 bridge is not worth the money savings. I think his forecast is baseless. Second, and for me the most important thing, Oregon is demanding the bridge have light rail capacity which will change the current situation dramatically and for the better.

  3. Roland Solinski says:

    Yeah, I assume that last bit was a reference to the Illiana. I’m really hoping to hear your take on it, given your knowledge of P3 deals.

    To be honest, though, isn’t a drop in traffic on the I-5 bridge desirable? Why widen the bridge at all when you can impose a modest toll and redistribute traffic to better utilize ALL the capacity across the river?

    People in many parts of the country see permanent tolls as unamerican (Illinoisans caved long ago) but they are an essential tool to avoid tragedy-of-the-commons problems like the congestion on I-5 (or I-65).

  4. Roland, I actually don’t have too much to say on the Illiana at this time. I can only imagine what the toll studies will say, however.

    I have no problem with tolling the existing Columbia River bridges to fairly price travel and reduce congestion. This isn’t very easy to do under federal law, however.

  5. This is a great analysis.

  6. Joe nailed it. Be careful, because I’m expecting something similar with the Brent Spence Bridge project.

  7. jon says:

    Tim, you make sense, but remember the people who drive out of their way to save the toll are the same ones who will drive for 50 miles to a gas station offering gas for 7 cents a gallon cheaper.

  8. Chris Clair says:

    I enjoyed the analysis. A couple of quick points: First, there is an additional issue to be considered with respect to the current I-5 bridge. It is a lift bridge, meaning when ship traffic passes on the Columbia River, all north- and south-bound traffic comes to a stop. That fact, combined with growth in areas along the I-5 corridor north and south of the crossing, could be leading truckers to opt for the 205 bypass. I-5 can be a true headache through Portland. I-84, which connects I-205 and I-5, is no picnic, either. Second, if toll bridge vs. non-toll bridge is an issue in terms of congestion, why not just toll the 205 bridge? A quick search turned up a Value Pricing Pilot Program through the FHWA that could be an option for tolling the Glenn Jackson ( All things being equal, traffic would find the most efficient route. If you’re going from Vancouver to Portland, and there are tolls on both Columbia River crossings, I would bet that the 205 would not be the most efficient route. I still don’t really understand why, once the 205 reaches saturation, Portland-bound drivers from Washington wouldn’t opt for the quicker route, even if it cost them a few bucks. They could still come out ahead on fuel savings alone. Of course if light rail is included in the bridge deal, that could take cars off the road, which one could argue negates the need for a new bridge based on capacity. There is still the issue of the lift bridge stopping traffic, however, and the Interstate Bridge’s age. Thanks for the good information, and the forum.

  9. Someone should do a similar analysis for the Opportunity Corridor project in Cleveland. $331 million for a three-mile road that has, by admission of the state DOT, basically no transportation benefits. Displacing 65 low-income African American families to boot. A pet project of the chamber of commerce, which actually hired the publisher of the Plain Dealer to head the “steering committee.”

  10. Bill Lindeke says:

    Same story in Stillwater, MN.

  11. Gene says:

    If there’s one thing both parties agree on, it’s big public works projects. Here in Indy we have a new NFL stadium built with $650 million of the public’s money, which will be used less than one percent of the time. That’s no different from China’s “ghost cities”.

  12. Nathanael says:

    Gene: I’d only dispute one thing: these aren’t public works projects. Central Park was a public works project; the IRT was a public works project; the Croton Aqueduct was a public works project. What did these have in common? They were useful for the public.

    These are scams to steal public money for private benefit.

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