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Update: Having a Phased Alternative is Critical for IBR Success

    Update June 14: The Alliance has released a letter to partner governments who will vote for recommending an alternative to enter environmental review, calling for multiple alternatives, including at least one that can be phased.

    The Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) project is recommending a single “Modified Locally Preferred Alternative” to move into environmental review.

    We think that’s a bad idea, and could lead to another project failure.

    The predecessor project (Columbia River Crossing or CRC) selected a “replacement bridge” Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) in 2008, which was further refined in the Final Environmental Impact Statement in 2013. That LPA is what we refer to as a “high bridge”, i.e., it goes over the shipping channel without a need for a lift mechanism such as the current bridges have.

    The current IBR project has chosen to start with the 2008/2013 choice and modify it for changed circumstances (for example, that the Port of Portland no longer plans a marine terminal facility on West Hayden Island), rather than go back and re-examine additional alternatives.

    The problem with this is that the high bridge approach is monolithic, it is basically one unbroken structure. It will start rising at Marine Drive or Hayden Island and won’t come back down to grade until well into downtown Vancouver. That means construction can’t be split into phases.

    Why is phasing important? It’s the way you make projects happen that you can’t afford to pay for all at once. Examples in Portland would include the MAX Blue Line. Initially built from Gresham to Portland, it was then extended in a second phase to Hillsboro. Another example is Portland Streetcar: the loop around the Central City was built in at least six distinct pieces.

    The Federal Highway Administration has a nice set of examples for phasing. They refer to it as “dealing with fiscal constraints”. The IBR team doesn’t seem to acknowledge that fiscal constraints are part of reality!

    Without a phasing option, and with an unknown price tag, we’ll get to the end of environmental review with only two choices for the IBR, pay a large price tag, or abandon the project. There is no in-between.

    Our concern is that the price tag may be unaffordable, or to afford it we need to postpone or cancel many other transportation and seismic priorities in the two states.

    We think it would be much more prudent to include a phased alternative (which would necessarily be either a low bridge with a lift or a tunnel) in the environmental analysis alongside the high bridge alternative so that the end of environmental review our policymakers will have a menu of choices, not an ultimatum.