Eugene Weekly : News : 1.22.08

Bridge Impact
Wider I-5 span to boost global warming, hurt park
By Alan Pittman

Widening I-5 over the Willamette River will have big impacts on global warming and park land, but the state largely dodges the issues in its environmental review of the project.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) could have repaired the 45-year-old I-5 bridge for a fraction of the $180 million cost of replacing it, according to the revised environmental assessment (EA) recently issued by the agency. “ODOT estimates that it would cost about $50 million to repair the decommissioned bridge to keep it in service for 20 more years,” the report says.

But ODOT’s EA states that this option was not considered because ODOT and the federal government had already decided, before seeking public input or considering the environmental impacts or other options, that the bridge should be widened from four to six lanes. “This was a primary criterion in project development,” the agency states.

ODOT argues that a wider bridge is needed to accommodate an almost 50 percent increase in traffic in the next 25 years: “The existing bridges will not meet future traffic demands.”

 The EA does not reconcile that projected big jump in traffic with recent federal data showing a decline in driving that follows volatile gas prices and concern about global warming.

 Elected leaders from President Barack Obama to Gov. Ted Kulongoski to Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy have called for dramatic decreases in global warming pollution and oil dependence, which are largely caused by car and truck traffic. But ODOT does not analyze the impact of the projected increase in I-5 bridge traffic on the environment, urban sprawl or global warming. ODOT can legally get away with this because, the agency claims, it’s an issue of paint.

 “Replacement bridges would be wide enough for three lanes in each direction but would be striped for two lanes in each direction,” ODOT’s report states. 

The paint excuse allows the agency to claim that it is building a wider bridge to increase traffic while not really building a wider bridge to increase traffic when considering environmental impacts. The project “does not, of itself, change capacity of I-5 in a way that would lead to increased emission of greenhouse gases from highway traffic. No specific mitigation measures related to greenhouse gas emissions are proposed.”

 Eugene parks staff called for a global warming analysis in comments, but they were largely ignored. A state land-use planner described the EA’s analysis of the wider bridge’s impact on urban sprawl as “pretty thin.”

ODOT also dodged an earlier environmental review of bridge replacement options by not using state taxpayer dollars rather than federal money for a temporary bridge built in 2004.

 The temporary bridge had to be built quickly because of cracks in the old bridge, ODOT claims. But it’s now unclear if the threat of those cracks was exaggerated.

 In December 2004 The Oregonian reported that ODOT was admitting that earlier studies were flawed and that half of the cracked bridges the agency previously claimed needed immediate replacement could be fixed rather than replaced.

 Even if the bridge was severely cracked, another option would have been limiting the 300 super-heavy trucks that thundered across the span each day. Congressman Peter DeFazio criticized ODOT for handing out permits for such damaging trucks “like jellybeans” while other states severely limit them to protect their infrastructure, The Register-Guard reported in 2003.

 But ODOT didn’t consider the option of restricting trucks rather than hitting taxpayers and the environment with the cost of a big new freeway bridge. The year before, an Oregonian investigation documented the cozy relationship among ODOT, politicians and the truck lobby. Although trucks cause the most bridge damage, the agency directed its PR people to not “point to the responsibility that heavy trucks have for the bridge situation,” the paper reported.

 Gov. Kulongoski has called for new bridge construction as a jobs program. But the program also represents big profits for the powerful construction lobby in the state. Former governor turned construction lobbyist Neil Goldschmidt was a key political backer of Kulongoski before 2004, when Goldschmidt admitted that he had sexually abused a young girl.

ODOT also argues in its EA that it is not required to consider alternatives to the wider bridge because the bridge will have a minimal impact on Alton Baker Park. ODOT says it will remove invasive plants and plant trees to compensate.

But it appears the project’s impact on the park will be substantial, according to the EA. During four years of construction, the riverside bike/pedestrian trail (a key bike commuter route) will be closed for “long periods;” another park path through the park will be converted to exclusive use for loud trucks; an unknown number of trees will be logged; and two acres of the park will be given up as an unsightly storage area for construction material and debris. Noise at up to chain-saw decibel levels from the construction, pile driving and widened freeway roaring through the park without sound walls will disturb park visitors, people who fish, bald eagles and nearby heron nests, according to the EA. 

In an earlier draft of the study, ODOT claimed it wasn’t legally required to compensate for temporary use of the park land. ODOT now admits that it must buy replacement property, but doesn’t say where, how much or when.

ODOT plans to begin construction on the wider bridge this summer. Email to send ODOT a comment on the project.