Will the real CRC project please stand up?

Will the real CRC project please stand up?

The CRC they don’t want you to see.
(Image source: CRC Urban Design Advisory Group final report)

You’d think that with all the support for the Columbia River Crossing down in Salem, lawmakers and their constituents would have a good idea about what their votes — and their tax dollars — will be going toward. But for some reason, CRC and ODOT staff have hidden the project from public view. Despite spending nearly $170 million on consultants and planning thus far, detailed renderings and/or visualizations of key elements of the project are nowhere to be found.

This is not typical of other large infrastructure projects across the country and it begs the question of whether or not CRC and ODOT staff are purposefully pulling the wool over our eyes.

While detailed renderings of the expanded freeways and massive new interchanges along the five mile project corridor are nowhere to be found, images of the bridge, the biking and walking path, and photos of traffic backups are ubiquitous. Take a look at any recent media story about the project and you’re almost guaranteed to see that same image of the new bridge design as the lead visual.

This is a basic lack of information and public transparency. And it’s all according to plan by CRC backers. From Governor Kitzhaber on down, part of the way this project has been sold to the public and to politicians is by making everyone think it’s just a “bridge replacement project.” From lawmakers urging that “It’s time to build a bridge,” to pro-CRC media outlets calling it a “bridge project” and the recent renaming of the project itself — there has been a coordinated effort to not be transparent about the massive footprint this freeway expansion project will have.

A presentation by Kris Strickler, a former CRC staffer and consultant who’s now the project director for ODOT, given to the project’s legislative committee on February 18th, did not include one image of the freeway expansions or of the the five new interchanges coming with the project. Of the 17 images and graphics that appeared in Strickler’s 20-slide presentation (PDF), nine of them were of the bridge. There were no images at all of the new freeway lanes.

This is how ODOT wants lawmakers to remember this project…

Page from ODOT CRC project director Kris Strickler’s presentation to lawmakers.

While the new bridge is always put in the spotlight, the fact is the bridges are only 30% of the total project cost. 41% of the costs will go toward new/rebuilt interchanges. “We might as well call it the ‘on-ramp replacement project’,” quips a group of project critics working to debunk many of the project’s myths.

Concerned about this lack of good project imagery, I asked friends via Twitter to try something: Visit the CRC website and try to find renderings, flyovers, or any type of detailed images of the freeway lanes or interchanges. They came up empty.

One guy did a Google Image search of the project website and the results were telling: Not one detailed graphic or image of the proposed lane expansions or interchanges.

Detail of Google Image search of project website.

After I dug around on the site and couldn’t find anything good, I contacted CRC project staff. I emailed CRC Communications staffer Mandy Putney the following question:

“I’m curious about what the initial phase project looks like throughout its entire, five-mile length. In other words, the only visuals/renderings I’ve seen are the shot of the bridge span that appears in many news articles. Do you have any up-to-date visualizations, renderings, animations, videos, and so on that would give the public a clear idea of what they are paying for?”

“When you look at it in comparison to what other DOTs put out there, it’s obvious the omissions the CRC is making in its publicity materials. It’s a project that doesn’t want to be seen for what it is.”
— Spencer Boomhower, graphic designer

In response, Putney emailed me a link to a 45-page PDF titled, Design Guidance for the Columbia River Crossing Project (PDF) which was created by the project’s Urban Design Advisory Group. That report was full of non-detailed, cartoonish sketches of various parts of the project. The only real concept drawing (used as the lead photo in this story) was buried in the appendix in a handout created for Hayden Island residents.

When I followed up with Putney to ask whether there was a more easily accessible place on the website where the public could find detailed conceptual renderings of the project, she sent me more PDFs. Two of them were of the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (which 99.9% of the public will never look at) and the other was a non-detailed graphic of the entire project footprint (not what I was asking for).

My exchange with Putney confirmed my hunch: There are no easily accessible images or visual aids available to the public that would give them a good idea of what the CRC has in store.

And it turns out I’m not the only one who’s been concerned about this.

A 2010 article in The Columbian newspaper, New bridge will cast a long shadow over Vancouver, is the only major media story I could find about this issue.

The story details concerns from Vancouver civic leaders about a lack of detailed images about how the project’s footprint will impact downtown Vancouver. Here’s an excerpt:

Elson Strahan, president of the nonprofit Fort Vancouver National Trust… worries that the new bridge will offer the same unappealing view from downtown Vancouver as Portland’s Marquam Bridge has from the parking lot of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

“When you build this structure, what will you be looking at?” he said.

No one is exactly sure.

Dick Pokornowski, a former Vancouver city councilor who served on the crossing’s urban design advisory group, said the group never saw street-level renderings.

“We had requested different computer designs of how the bridge would look,” he said. “And some of that stuff they said they couldn’t do because it would cost too much.”

This would be the largest public works project in the history of Oregon. The excuse that good imagery cannot be made available because project staff — who have already burned about $170 million — can’t afford it seems absurd.

The only thing planners provided Pokornowski were photo simulations “from a bird’s eye view, which tend to diminish the looming effect people would experience from the ground.” The story reported that Kevin Peterson, a Vancouver architect doesn’t think the lack of realistic imagery is a coincidence.

Portlander Spencer Boomhower is a graphic design expert. His animations of the Idaho Stop law and the Common Sense Alternative (a CRC option that critics say was never given a fair shake) have helped tens of thousand of people better understand those complicated topics.

Boomhower at one time considered putting together a similar animation of the CRC; but he couldn’t even get the images he needed to make it happen. He thinks the CRC staff and project backers are purposefully preventing the public from understanding the project. “When you look at it in comparison to what other DOTs put out there, it’s obvious the omissions the CRC is making in its publicity materials. It’s a project that doesn’t want to be seen for what it is.”

Boomhower shared the video below which was created by the Wisconsin DOT to give the public a detailed and realistic view of a major highway project:

Boomhower said creating visuals like the video above for major projects is usually “standard practice.”

Noted project critic and Portland-based economist Joe Cortright has also expressed concern at the lack of realistic visualizations being available by the CRC project. In his official comments on the Final Environmental Impact Statement, Cortright wrote: “Almost nothing in the Final Environmental Impact Statement reveals how this massive structure will affect the views and light of human beings standing on the ground anywhere near the structure.”

Cortright says the project’s lack of visual representations is in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. Here’s more from Cortright’s comment:

“The project’s visual impact technical report contains only a handful of computer simulated images of the bridge. Nearly all of them are taken from distant points floating in the air (where no human being will ever actually perceive the structure)…

The decision to present such a limited and artificial set of perspectives represents a conscious attempt on the part of the sponsoring agencies to conceal the project’s visual impacts. It is a decades-old gambit: Robert Moses used the same scheme to try to sell a proposed Brooklyn-Battery Bridge in the 1930s. He concealed the fact that the bridge would have obliterated views from the ground (and the lower ten stories of buildings) in Lower Manhattan, by showing the bridge as it might be viewed, in the words of Robert Caro “by a high flying and myopic pigeon.” (Caro, Robert. 1976. The Power Broker. Page 464). It was exactly this kind of chicanery that NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] was designed to prevent.”

If this project is as wonderful as its proponents proclaim it to be; why don’t they share more of it and let us all know what we have to look forward to?

Maybe because they know images like the ones below (which can be found in that report by the project’s Urban Design Advisory Group and on the website of a CRC project consultant), would not be nearly as popular or easy to sell as simply “a new bridge.”

r3Ok_d on Make A Gif, Animated Gifs

Animation shows view southeast from Jantzen Beach area. Images show existing and future build-out conditions. The images were sourced from the website of a consultant hired by ODOT/CRC and they also appear in the appendix of the CRC’s Urban Design Advisory Group final report. The GIF was created by BikePortland.

Whether you’re for or against this project, if we are being asked to support this massive investment in scarce transportation funds, don’t you think we deserve to know what we’re paying for? And what’s most troubling is that 45 members of the Oregon House voted yes on a project they’ve never even laid eyes on.


Even with HB 2800 passing the House, anti-CRC forces have not given up. There’s a house party in northeast Portland being planned tonight. Bike Walk Vote and Coalition for a Livable Future are hosting a letter writing campaign and a fundraiser to keep the grassroots opposition going. Full details on Facebook.

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