Jun 062011

I drove to Portland from Seattle starting at mid-day Friday and so saw first hand the mess that is northbound I-5 in the Rose City at afternoon rush. Bumper-to-bumper traffic crawled between Portland’s Rose Quarter, across the Willamette River from downtown, and the Columbia River bridge (aka the Interstate Bridge) that connects Oregon to Washington, Portland to Vancouver. The costs imposed on commuters in wasted time and wasted fuel are enormous; they penalize all.

I don’t know whether the bridge will fall down in a major earthquake as is true of Seattle’s waterfront double-deck viaduct. But you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that the bridge, first opened to traffic in 1917, is long past its prime. Yet a proposed $3.6 billion replacement that would accommodate transit as well as cars, the long-planned Columbia River Crossing, is under attack, at least in part because it will do nothing to solve I-5 congestion in the Rose Quarter. The project would create a lot of construction jobs, helping the sector hit hardest by the Great Recession and its aftermath, a combination some call the Lesser Depression. Opponents of the new bridge apparently figure you can’t solve one major transportation problem in the Portland metro area unless you solve all of them simultaneously.

And I’m not picking on Portland. In Seattle, the bicycle-centric mayor and his minions continue to do everything in their power to derail a deep-bore waterfront tunnel that would replace the creaky Alaskan Way Viaduct, which carries roughly a third of hour-glass-shaped Seattle’s north-south auto and truck traffic. It is another project that would create hundreds if not thousands of high-paid construction jobs.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn — Mayor McSchwin to critics, including me — wants everyone to give up cars. If you want to go somewhere, says the mayor, figuratively if not literally, ride a bike, take the bus or walk. Period. If the viaduct comes down by 2014, as the governor has promised, people who live north of downtown Seattle should count on going to the airport a day early for morning flights.  Mobility is an important economic variable. Seattle will have a much diminished mobility if it dumps viaduct traffic on to surface streets, as the mayor prefers.

Even when we come up with a green solution to a problem, someone can be found to object. As reported in the Wall Street Journal and Seattle Times, an aged paper mill on the Port Angeles waterfront has come up with a plan to invest $71 million to harvest and burn logging slash and other forest debris to produce power. The investment would help keep the mill operating and preserve 200 unionized family wage jobs. The biomass power would replace electricity formerly sourced from two local dams coming out to help restore salmon runs. City and state governments have blessed the investment.

But not the local chapter of the Sierra Club, nor other environmental organizations. The green coalition is worried about air pollution from burning wood waste, as well as increased truck traffic to the mill site and water use. Those family-wage jobs? I don’t think the Sierra Club has been heard from on the subject. The realistic alternatives for most workers will be unemployment checks and, in time, food stamps.

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