Tunnel Vision for I-5

The Columbia River Crossing bridge (R.I.P. 2005 to 2013) was estimated to cost $2.8 billion, down from earlier estimates of $3.5 billion. Lack of consensus, money and vision killed the old interstate bridge plan. But the planned bridge and its 22-lane expressway would have done little to solve the main problem; too many cars.


Congestion is a real problem. The Regional Transportation Summit met in August 2018, to discuss a new I-5 bridge. Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek wants to sit down with Washington lawmakers before the end of 2018 to discuss replacing the Interstate Bridge. But there’s no consensus on what’s needed or how to pay for it.




Above is a powerpoint slide-show (and pdf) that illustrates the highlights of this page.


Tunnels may be a better solution. We already have one. The North Portland Peninsula Railroad Tunnel has been operating daily for nearly 100 years. It’s practically under our nose.


The train tunnel goes from Kenton (just off Columbia Blvd) to Swan Island, about 1 mile long and 60 feet underground.


Consider this:
– One tunnel under the Columbia would connect Vancouver to the Expo Center in North Portland.
– A second tunnel, near the Expo Center, carries vehicular traffic to the current 405 bridge.


Bombardier has a new battery-powered Light Rail train which doesn’t require overhead wires. Rubber tired autonomous shuttles will arrive far ahead of ANY new bridge. Plan on it.


The North Portland Peninsula Railroad Tunnel connects North Portland to Mock’s Bottom (below Willamette Blvd and near Swan Island).


The Peninsular Tunnel is used constantly, EVERY DAY. The North entrance is just south of Columbia Blvd, about 1 mile west of Kenton. The South entrance is on the lower part of the cliff overlooking Swan Island.


– The tunnel is owned and maintained by the Union Pacific Railroad. The one-mile long (5,425 feet) Peninsula Railroad Tunnel was built from 1909 to 1911. The concrete-lined tunnel, about 60 feet below the north Portland highlands, shortens freight movement to Washington State. A similar North Portland Tunnel for vehicles would run roughly parallel to the current RR tunnel.


– The North/South portal (2.5 miles) could be located just West of the Expo Center, offloading traffic from Marine Drive and Columbia Blvd. The North Portland tunnel roughly parallels the current RR tunnel and connects vehicles to the Fremont (405) bridge near the Albina train yard.


– The second (2.5 mile) Columbia Tunnel offloads traffic from I-5 and SR-14. It goes from Vancouver’s industrial area, east of Pearson Air Park, to industrial are west of Expo Center.


– Congestion caused by Marine Drive, Columbia Blvd, SR-14 and I-5 could be relieved while transportation from the current century, such as electric shuttles, could be phased in.


Tunnel Time Line


1909 Work on tunnel begins
1910 Austrian workman dies after being electrocuted by 2000 volts in the tunnel
1911 Jan 15, the tunnel opens
1916 Tunnel re-lined with concrete
1936 Union Pacific absorbs OWRR&N
1979 Accident in tunnel involves 4 freight cars tipped over
2010 9 year-old boy has foot run over by train in tunnel


Tunnels are not new.


The 2.9 mile Light Rail tunnel, west of Portand and underneath The Zoo, cost $184 million.
Seattle’s 2 mile Alaskan Way Viaduct bypass opens in October, 2018. Seattle’s SR 99 Tunnel cost between $1.5-$2 billion.
The 3.6 mile Transbay Tube carries Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains. The tube was constructed on land, transported to the site, then submerged and lowered to the bottom.
The Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail cost $1.5 billion for 7.3 miles, or $205 million per mile.
Chicago selected Elon Musk’s Boring Company to design and build a high-speed underground transit system linking O’Hare to downtown. The 8 mile line would cost $1 billion or $55.5 million per mile – a far lower cost projection than most recent tunneling projects.


Can Musk’s Boring Company reduce the cost of tunnel boring so dramatically? Many are skeptical. Still, smaller tunnels will lower costs and investors in the Chicago/O’Hare tunnel are confident enough to put up 100% of the financing- without ANY government funding.


Chicago’s contract with Musk for their 8 mile tunnel to O’Hare airport would cost about $1 billion resulted in almost no financial risk from the city, state or federal governments. The validity of their tunneling proposal should be clear…one way or the other…in a year or two.


Acquiring property and building bridges is expensive. Tunnels may be cheaper. They can add traffic lanes without expensive property acquisition and don’t require bridges.


Musk’s Chicago tunnel system is expected to be able to handle nearly 4,000 passengers an hour. Over 12 hours that would be about 48,000, about one third the interstate bridge traffic.


The 3.6 mile Transbay Tube carries Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains. The tube was constructed on land, transported to the site, then submerged and lowered to the bottom.

The underwater BART tube is made of 57 individual sections that were built on land at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard and towed out into the bay by a large catamaran barge. After the steel shell was completed, water-tight bulkheads were fitted and concrete was poured to form the 2.3-foot (0.70 m)-thick interior walls and track bed.


They were then floated into place (positioned above where they were to sit), the section was ballasted with 500 short tons (450 t) of gravel before being lowered into a trench packed with soft soil, mud, and gravel for leveling along the Bay’s bottom.


A century ago, the Willamette Shore rail corridor was equipped with overhead electrical wires that supplied power to the fleet of Red Electric commuter trains that ran between Portland and Lake Oswego. Service was discontinued at the end of the 1920s, and the overhead cables were subsequently removed.


In 2014, TriMet discontinued its vintage trolley service in downtown Portland and leased two of its historic trolley cars to the Oregon Electric Railway Society to run on the Willamette Shore Line. Now that trolley may be equipped with a battery pack mounted under the floor, which could be recharged inside the trolley barn in Lake Oswego.


Railroad Maps


Current RR Tunnel Distance


North Portal Map


Railroad Map of Region


The Bay Area’s 2040 transportation and land use plan presumes that more people will live or work near regional transit. For example, Plan Bay Area projects 250,000 new jobs, or a 40 percent increase, in areas adjacent to BART stations.


Personally, I’m no fan of rail. Too expensive. Too heavy. Instead, rubber tired, battery operated autonomous Pods are light and small. More flexible. Cheaper. No tracks, no overhead power, no new infrastructure, no driver. Transportation for the 21st century.


What’s not to like?


But trains are big, expensive and noisy. They require rails, overhead power lines and huge investments. They’re inflexible. Require drivers. Can’t run on regular streets.


Autonomous shuttles, on the other hand, could connect Vancouver to Portland. They’re cheaper, faster, more flexible. No new infrastructure. Just tunnel.


Self driving vehicles will arrive before a new bridge. Plan on it.


The Matagarup Bridge in Australian is a pedestrian bridge that crosses the Swan River in Perth. The 400 ft long bridge contains an S-curved deck that leaves plenty of room for barges to pass underneath. The S curves of the bridge deck is counterbalanced by outward-leaning arches. A bridge with a roll-up deck could be possible over the Columbia.


Autonomous swarms are coming. Ready or not. A bridge and highway system – built for the Model T – is the last thing we need.

Here are some train, tram and autonomous Pod trips.