In the last several months since Oregon governor John Kitzhaber declared that “now is the time” to build the 12 lane, 5 mile long Columbia River Crossing freeway mega-expansion, most of the myths proponents have been pushing have been debunked by the press. Even more, accusations of ethics violations and the corrupt politics that have fast-tracked the CRC are coming to light every other day. Despite the Oregon state house and senate both voting to approve bonds for the freeway expansion, no actual funding source has been located, despite 14 years of planning the project.
Much has been made of this fact, along with several others: The CRC will increase toxic pollutants and carbon emissions in the air by 35%. It will not ease congestion, it will increase it, as more lanes incentivize more traffic that will then bottleneck at the Rose Quarter. It will greatly limit commercial ship traffic on the Columbia river, as the bridge portion of the expansion is 70 feet shorter than the current lift span. The 17 lane, 400 foot wide interchange on Hayden Island will demolish over 900 permanent jobs. It’s bloated $4 billion price tag has been predicted to overrun to an alarming $10 billion as the CRC robs desperately needed funds from other job-providing projects for decades to come.
While all these facts were present during the public testimony against the CRC in Salem in February, very little mention was made of the impact the freeway expansion itself will impose upon the surrounding physical environment.
Quite telling are the scant few graphic renderings that have been released by planners that normally accompany a massive public works project of this kind. Totally absent are 3-D animations from the deck of the proposed widened freeway or bridge portion, as well as any animated aerial renderings. From what I’m told by somebody familiar with projects of this scope and their accompanying animations, the fact that they haven’t been released to the public reveals a deliberate attempt to conceal what the Columbia River Crossing will actually look like until it’s too late.
CRC proponents have no lack of energy for reciting cliche arguments about all the prosperity and growth and good jobs the project will allegedly provide. Shipping goods to and fro is important, they say. Free trade with Mexico and Canada (think NAFTA) is essential to growing our economy, they say. This is where they want the argument to remain. Proponents absolutely do not want people to think about what the lived environment around the CRC will look like, or what sort of experience people would encounter beneath the bridge where pedestrian and bicycle facilities would be located.
Comical feel-good memes being astroturfed online by a Vancouver, WA company called [B]cause Media hilariously show people walking and cycling on top of the massive freeway in total contradiction of fact. [B]cause carries the brand slogan ‘Amplify the Good’. Apparently, ‘amplify the good’ is a motto about as cringingly antithetical as Google’s ‘Don’t be evil‘.
So why is it so important for CRC supporters to hide what the project will look like? What are they afraid would happen if the public saw the realistic renderings of the massive freeway expansion they’re being told to pay for? To answer that question, we only need to take a look a the current condition of the I-5 corridor.
I thought it best to ride down to the freeway on a sunny day, lest I be accused of using bad weather to exaggerate the images I photographed one recent March afternoon. It wasn’t hard to see why CRC planners are hiding their designs. Surrounding the current 6 lane freeway was trash, broken glass, barbed wire, wrecked cars, and futilely covered graffiti. The smell of benzene was horrid. The sound of traffic above was deafening. The earth below was lifeless, as little rain nor sunlight can reach beneath the elevated concrete structures.
While taking these photos, a young transient woman saw my camera, and asked me if I was taking pictures for a school project.
“Not exactly,” I said. “But something like it.”
“We call this place down here the Black Hole,” she confided. “It’s miserable, but usually cops leave us alone”.
She wasn’t kidding. Just blocks away, in February of 2012, Carter Hickman and Albert Dean were shot while sleeping under the Morrison bridge’s sprawling I-5 interchange. While the attempted double homicide got a fair amount of media attention at the time, few will likely remember their names. For most, Portland’s homeless population remains invisible.
I continued riding, taking more photos. This area wasn’t unfamiliar to me, I’ve lived with the sight of the I-5 blighting Portland’s waterfront for almost eight years. Now though, I was taking the time to examine and observe the details. Block after block, everything the freeway touched was degraded, falling apart, mutated, and struggling. The few other people I saw were young urbanite photographers like myself. Nobody was coming down here for enjoyment. No one would consider these places worth caring about.
After about an hour, I came upon a place that I’d been to on several occasions. The CRC-supporting Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is relentless in its intolerance of graffiti and unsanctioned public art installation. ODOT had previously removed a memorial on this location despite outcry from the family and loved ones of the deceased. It was at the underpass pictured below that Brett Jarolimek was killed by a motorist in 2007 while riding his bicycle. ODOT promised that Brett’s repeatedly desecrated ghost bike would be replaced by a state-approved memorial. Here we are six years later, and no such memorial exists.
For a while longer I continued riding, saddened that we’ve allowed such a landscape of despair to become normal and commonplace. It was sickening knowing that people are profiting from magnifying this misery – by doubling the size of the I-5 corridor through North Portland. Just before I was about to turn around and head home, I spotted a ghost of another kind. Pictured at center below, I’d stumbled upon one of Portland’s mysterious ‘ghost ramps’.
For those unfamiliar, ‘ghost ramps’ are unfinished freeway decks that were meant to connect to a much larger network of elevated roads designed by freeway fetishist Robert Moses. These dead end ramps serve as a reminder of how much worse things could have been had the people of Portland not stood up to stop these mistakes. The Mt. Hood Freeway was part of this planned network. Houses along peaceful Division street were already being destroyed to make room for the 8 lane freeway when the project was halted.
Even though the Oregon legislature has voted in favor of the Columbia River Crossing, there are still many opportunities to stop this nightmare from becoming our reality. The Coast Guard isn’t likely to permit a bridge so short. The Washington legislature has projects far higher on its transportation agenda. The federal government’s current sequestor/debt ceiling/fiscal cliff or whatever they’re calling it this week isn’t likely to dish out money any time soon for a project of such controversy.
How exactly the CRC will be killed, only time will tell. But one thing is clear, if 6 lanes of freeway can manifest this much desolation, 12 lanes will be an absolute catastrophe that we cannot afford.
The Columbia River Crossing freeway expansion must be stopped.
All images copyright Hart Noecker, and are free to use with credit.