Just build a tunnel.
Portland has struggled for years to solve this damn Columbia River problem and traffic, I say we undermine it.
Note for readers, I wrote the below piece 3 years ago and haven’t done any revisions to the numbers or options. I’m sure the Chicago project it was based on has entirely fallen through. Doesn’t mean the underlying idea doesn’t have merit. I’m reposting this because Frog Ferry - the plan to cross the river by boat - is now dead.
Last month Elon Musk landed in the headlines again when his tunnel-boring company won a contract to build an express service between Chicago O’Hare International Airport and downtown Chicago. While terms have not been finalized, it’s widely reported that this 18-mile project will cost “less than” or “around” a billion dollars.
Meanwhile, for almost a decade Portland has dealt with increased traffic coming from Vancouver, WA and there is no signs that this will decrease any time soon. In an effort to solve this, Oregon, Portland, Washington, and Vancouver all proposed various designs of a new “Columbia River Crossing” some type of bridge that would replace the old I-5 Bridge. In almost all proposals the price tag ranged from $2.5 billion to up to $10 billion dollars. The cities and states couldn’t agree on a number of key features, especially tolls and mixed use.
Today the conversation about tolls has restarted, but our region still needs to address building alternative infrastructure for moving people across the Columbia river.
What would a tunnel system look like instead of a bridge?
Looking at a map there’s 4 obvious locations that would need to be included:
Downtown Vancouver, specifically I’m looking at Esther Short Park as it’s right off of the highway and that are is prone to high density development.
Pioneer Courthouse Square, the heart of Portland’s TriMet transit system. This is the most centrally located transit spot in Portland. From here you can access any part of the city accessible through TriMet.
Portland International Airport, while the airport is currently served by MAX, it would make complete sense to have an “express” trip from Downtown to the airport, especially if that trip only took a matter of minutes.
Mill Plain & 205, this is a centrally located vehicle transportation hub for almost all of East Vancouver and the area has commercial land that could be easily redeveloped.
These 4 locations create an almost perfect 22-mile Triangle.
Keep in mind that this whole system doesn’t need to be underground, it is cheaper to build above ground, except in dense areas. For the purposes of exploring this project, let’s presume it would be underground – but a real solution probably would include a mix.
But we still need a bridge.
A bridge moves a lot more things than just commuters, for example, freight. Can we move freight on this system? It’s unknown, and designing a system optimized for freight is outside the scope of the Chicago project, so it’s therefore extremely difficult to make comparisons. A bridge also moves people who are going to areas outside of Metro’s core area, for example, commuting from Wilsonville or Clackamas to Vancouver. Driving will continue to be a better option for many of these people.
Eventually we would still need a new bridge. There’s approximately 300,000 vehicles that cross the Interstate bridge each day, and 87,500 workers who leave Clark County each day. This is NOT a solution for all 87,500 people or 300,000 vehicles.
How many people could this tunnel and Loop move?
Musk claims of his Chicago solution: “Each [vehicle] can accommodate between 8 and 16 passengers, with one leaving each station as often as every 30 seconds.” Comparatively, a highway moves about 1,900 vehicles per lane hour. When commuting, only 10% of vehicles are carpooling according to Metro, so a highway moves 2,090 people per lane hour at maximum capacity.
There’s some variables and unknowns in how Musk’s solution will actually work, for example, if it’s a 2-lane track, it might make more sense to go an indirect route to your destination rather than waiting in line. (In Chicago, the 18-mile journey is expected to take 12 minutes, so a 7 mile journey from downtown Vancouver to downtown Portland might take 5~6 minutes if you go direct, or might take 12-13 minutes if you go the indirect route.) In theory, a single system that has 2 opposite direction tracks could potentially move 32 to 64 people per minute, if there’s two directions you can go. In Chicago there are twin tunnels. We also don’t know how fast a multi-stop Loop system could launch new vehicles.
The quick math on this says a highway moves 38 people in a lane per minute, Elon Musk’s solution will move 16 to 32 people in a track direction per minute. This is at peak capacity for both systems.
Here's how they stack during 2-hour rush hour peaks either, 7am-9am, 4pm-6pm… presuming there’s no traffic jam:
3 lane highway: 12,540 people
Tunnel with single-direction track Loop: 3,840 – 7,680 people.
How does this stack up to other transit options? Well, the WES hosts about 475,000 “trips” (which is 1 way) each year, by comparison a Tunnel with Loop could easily have 2 million “trips” just with commuters and easily up to 4 million if the upper-end projections hold true. C-Tran had 5.8 million riders in 2015, TriMet Buses had 62.3 million trips, Max had 37.7 million trips in 2015.
Is this more Hyperloop bullshit? That technology is totally fake, I saw a youtube video explaining why it would never work, and it’s dumb.
No, this isn’t hyperloop. The Chicago system is kind of a hybrid: it won’t have air pressure differentials and only intends to reach a maximum speed of 150 miles per hour (not the promise of 400 miles per hour Hyperloop folks think is possible). In fact, the Chicago plan is to use a Tesla-style chassis with a very unusual 8-wheel vehicle. However, for the purposes of comparison, yeah, sure: think of it like a hyperloop-lite - or like a mono-rail, but 1-less rail! Or like a light-rail, but with lighter and smaller vehicles! Like a subway? Kinda, yeah. It’s basically very different in design from a Hyperloop, while borrowing some concepts. The Chicago solution Musk is just calling “Loop” instead of “Hyperloop.”
Though, on the topic of Hyperloop, maybe that technology will be realistic and proven. There’s a very realistic project in Texas right now, and the Rocky Mountain Hyperloop is now in a second phase, and Columbus, Ohio is fast tracking their project. Due to the shorter overall track, I don’t think Portland-Vancouver area would need a hyperloop for something like this. We could use a Hyperloop to connect Hillsboro to Vancouver to Wilsonville to Gresham.
But why do this? We have the Max, and I love it.
These systems serve totally different goals. By design, light rail systems like Max provide more frequency of stops than a Loop system. Buses provide more stopping frequency than light rail. In transportation, maximum speed is really determined by the frequency of stops, and this system would have only a limited number of stops, the less the better. This system would also be separated from street traffic and able to travel at higher speeds than Max ever could.
This system wouldn’t replace light rail or buses, it would be a totally new layer of transit that exists for a wholly different purpose.
A solution like this operating at peak capacity reinvents how transit patterns can work. For example, if you live in East Portland and you want to get downtown, it might be a lot easier to commute to the Airport, then take the Loop downtown. If you’re at the Oregon Convention Center and you want to get to the Airport, it still might make sense to ride the Red Line.
Indeed, we do need a solution like this. We need a bridge too. We need light rail in Vancouver. We need to expand CTRAN’s bus system.
The Chicago solution is going to charge $20 to $25 per trip. No one is going to pay that.
That is pretty darn expensive. Consider that currently people in Vancouver pay $10~$20 to park in downtown Portland each day already, and they’re waiting in traffic for 30 minutes, and right now we don’t know how Tolls will impact people. While $25 seems absurd, there’s probably ways to reduce this overall cost here in Portland. This Chicago system has a rather unique funding model where Musk’s company is fronting the money for the whole thing, and keeping money from the systems transit fees, advertisements, and in-vehicle sales. Elon Musk’s company hasn’t disclosed why they expect $20 to $25 fees, nor if they think those fees are enough to pay for maintenance and capital costs, or how soon they want to pay off the capital costs.
All transit receives some types of subsidies, and the fares you pay to enter TriMet don’t truly cover anywhere close to TriMet’s operating budget. For example, the 2019 budget is $710 million in operating expenses (that doesn’t include debts or capital), and only about $100 million comes from the $2.50 fares, and $300 million comes from business taxes, Oregon and the Feds kick in the rest. TriMet also operates expensive boondoggles like WES, which cost a TriMet $15 per rider and which we charge only $2.50.
A Portland project could have very different funding systems, and therefore different operating and capital expenses. Realistically, if we could get a round-trip cost $15, and charge people $5 for parking in Vancouver, I believe a lot of commuters would stomach that cost. If the Federal government pays for a portion of this project, if Washington and Oregon kicks in money… Maybe, just maybe, we can bring the cost down to a level commuters will pay for.
This is all bullshit. These costs make no sense and you’re just making up these numbers!
Right. I’m just looking at a project in Chicago that has very loose numbers, lots of private speculation, and hasn’t even broken ground yet. This Chicago project might become a financial disaster, it might get wrapped up in red tape like the California Highspeed Rail and never become a reality. No denying these numbers could be all off.
If you want a string of criticisms about the Chicago project, check out this City Lab article which is just seething with the anti-Musk rhetoric you’re looking for. They claim basically none of this is possible, unproven, it’s not a commuter service (so, why bother?) and yada yada yada.
Regardless of what we do or do not do, other global cities will move forward with this technology. We’ll see how it develops. I’m optimistic that Musk will yet again pull off some crazy idea and I started to think how this technology could be brought to Portland, and in theory what it could look like. I was surprised to see that a simplistic overall track with 4 stops isn’t substantially larger or longer than this Chicago system.
All of us need to think radically outside the box, as bike lanes and buses are not solving our problems in the future.
But isn’t this system incredibly dangerous? Have you heard about the earthquake? We can’t do tunnels.
Regardless of what the paranoid paramilitary lunatics over at /r/CascadianPreppers might claim about earthquakes, there’s actually few safety concerns. Hyperloop engineers were pelted with questions during a reddit AMA and none of them expressed concerns with quakes – in fact one official respondent wrote, “Tunnels have the advantage of allowing us to select more direct routes and they usually perform better in earthquakes than above-ground structures.” All the same, there’s safety considerations for a tunnel and I’m sure the Chicago project will demonstrate how they work as this project moves closer to reality. Certainly a project in the pacific northwest would be conscious of earthquake resiliency – perhaps that’s a reason why we should build this.
Did Musk pay you to write this?
No, I shill for George Soros, Sinclair Broadcast Group, and Big Money Salvia - this post is not paid content.