This article originally appeared in the April 22, 2009 edition of the Portland Observer.
Scientist blasts 12-lane bridge.
I-5 runs smooth during the early evening commute in north Portland. But will it clog up when the freeway is fed by 12 lanes as proposed in a new I-5 bridge at Jantzen Beach. Opponents fear a future of gridlock with pollution emitting tailpipes. Photo by Mark Washington.
The Portland Observer
The Columbia River Crossing, a proposed new bridge linking Vancouver to Portland, is slated to be the largest public works project ever undertaken in the Pacific Northwest, with a price tag of $4.2 billion.
The Portland City Council gave approval last month to the most car-friendly option for the bridge with 12 lanes for automobiles.
The decision has generated scores of critics, many of which congregated in Portland’s Waterfront Park earlier this month to rally against the project.
The opponents are concerned about the potential to significantly add more tailpipe emissions to an area that’s already one of the most toxic regions of the city in terms of air pollution and cancer-causing chemicals.
In order to get a better handle on what the crossing will do to air quality; the Portland Observer sat down with Linda George, an atmospheric chemist at Portland State University who has extensively studied the air pollution of the area.
“It’s going to make a bad situation worse,” said George, who explained that putting more tailpipes on the freeway could easily exacerbate north and northeast Portland’s already poor air quality.
George said that there is no way to expand lanes and decrease pollution in the long term, and can’t think of any city to have pulled off a similar project without contributing to more pollution.
Cars are just dirty vehicles, explained George. She points out that research shows that even cars that use clean energy still emit chemicals harmful to human health. Tires alone kick up toxic zinc dust, she said, and it’s just a bad idea to have densely populated areas next to freeways.
According to an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality analysis, north and northeast Portland already has an unhealthy concentration of toxic chemicals emitted from the freeway.
George explains that evidence from epidemiological studies is absolutely clear that there is a link between peoples’ proximity to highways and them developing health problems.
She is particularly concerned about small particulate matter, which is complex mixture of small particles and droplets made up of acids, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, particulate matter can cause serious problems with peoples’ lungs and hearts.
George also said that diesel emissions are also extremely toxic and are typically emitted from highways. Cars emit chemicals such as nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and benzene. People exposed to a combination of these chemicals could be at particular danger, she said.
“We just know that people don’t do very well near the freeway,” she said.
Mayor Sam Adams is also concerned about environmental impacts, but holds faith that having more lanes will help keep traffic moving and reduce the emissions from autos stuck in traffic.
If congestion is relieved, cars won’t billow chemicals into surrounding neighborhoods while they idle in traffic on the highway and air quality will improve, Adams told the Portland Observer.
George warns that improving traffic flow could end up giving an incentive for people to drive more, putting more tailpipes on the freeway along with more pollution into north and northeast Portland.
“The argument doesn’t really hold water unless you’re talking about real numbers,” she said, responding to Adams’ reasoning.
The problem, said George, is getting reliable numbers. All we have at this point are models that attempt to predict what will happen and models rely on assumptions that could be false, she said.
Add in the uncertainty surrounding the future of transportation. What would happened if gas soared to $5 a gallon, for example, and stayed there for years, goading people into taking mass transit? Newer energy technology could also make the automobile more affordable and cleaner.
Adams said pollution concerns don’t go away even if the Columbia Crossing isn’t built because without a higher-density new bridge, traffic will surely back up into downtown Portland.
George responds that, “The problem takes care of itself if you let congestion stay.”
She argues that if Vancouverites routinely have a two hour commute to work because of traffic, for example, they’ll be more likely to take mass transit.
City Commissioner Amanda Fritz attempted to add amendments that would place environmental justice and health advocates on the project’s overseeing committee. Both died for a lack of a second.
George expects that the project’s car-friendly trajectory will be hard to reverse.
While very disappointed in the city for approving this project, she still projects some hope.
“We’re Portland. We can be creative,” she said.