Climate change and replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge

This week, the Oregon Transportation Commission hit the “pause” button on pressing ahead with a $500 million plan to improve traffic flow on Interstate 5 near the Rose Quarter, which is listed as the nation’s 28th biggest truck bottleneck.

The commission agreed to table the matter for a few months at the request of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. Before its decision, the commission heard public testimony, including from representatives of the Oregon Environmental Council, No More Freeways PDX and Sunrise Movement PDX.

Each speaker from the three groups mentioned mounting concerns about climate change and the effect increasing freeway capacity could have on greenhouse gas emissions.

Could this be a harbinger of the debate to come for replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge?

Aaron Brown, an organizer with No More Freeways PDX who testified at Tuesday’s commission meeting in Lebanon, Ore., said his all-volunteer group is closely following the I-5 Bridge issue.

Brown noted that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown have pledged themselves to countering climate change.

“Forty percent of our carbon emissions come from transportation,” Brown said. “And true climate leaders don’t widen freeways during a climate emergency.”

Clark County should understand how a major infrastructure project can reshape a community. In the 25 years since the Interstate 205 Bridge opened in December 1982, the county’s population increased by 107 percent.

No one expects replacing the I-5 Bridge to trigger that type of explosive growth. The project the two governors backed last month in Vancouver would have high-capacity transit (re: light rail or bus rapid transit) and tolling. The latter almost certainly would include congestion pricing, with higher tolls during peak periods to discourage discretionary travel and encourage transit use.

But no one should underestimate the effect this project would have on spurring more housing in Clark County, which continues to have a jobs-to-households imbalance compared with the rest of the Portland-Vancouver area.

This year, county councilors approved a $66.5 million road package to open more than 2,000 acres near the 179th Street interchange on I-5, where developers want to build more than 1,500 single-family houses, townhomes and apartments.

In her Dec. 16 letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission, Brown pointed out that building more freeway capacity could induce demand, or encourage more people to drive.

“We cannot build our way out of congestion by inducing greater demand on the system,” the governor wrote. “We must manage demand to reduce congestion while also reducing emissions consistent with our state’s greenhouse gas emissions goal.”

Stay tuned to see how planners and engineers try to thread that needle during the upcoming bridge debate.

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