Thinking about College in the Pacific Northwest? Consider These Political Differences First

In increasingly obvious ways, a suburban bias for comfort and tradition cripples the growth of sustainable practices in the construction industry. A major example of the cultural conflict between the suburbs and the city can be seen in the Portland Metro area. Portland, a city known for it’s urban growth boundaries, strong lite rail system, and large percentage of bicycle commuters, is bordered to the North by the city of Vancouver, Washington. From the second you drive past a confederate flag flying visible from I-5, Vancouver’s decidedly conservative leanings are obvious.

The city often posits itself as the antithesis of Portland, rejecting not only their liberal politics, but their progressive urban design policies as well. Vancouver’s streets are winding, with new strip malls popping up seemingly every few weeks on the sites of former prairies and forests every. SUVs and Hummers are a common site and recent installations of bike lanes are focused more on promoting safety than efficiency.

Outside of the downtown core, the city is designed for a car-centric culture, and shows few signs of rejecting that design philosophy. Instead of Portland’s flair for long lasting, grandiose construction projects, (which are increasingly attracting many would-be college students) cookie-cutter strip malls and McMansion housing tracts define Vancouver’s approach.

The Columbia River Crossing

This conflict of ideas between Portland and Vancouver manifests economically and politically with the “Columbia River Crossing” project. This project, in the planning stage for years, was meant to fix or replace the I-5 crossing over the Columbia River, where Washington and Oregon meet. The project, functionally dead after the Republican-led Washington State Legislature failed to approve funding, was a hated target of suburban advocates for years.

Though many residents of Vancouver work in Portland, and the vast majority of interstate travel into Washington comes from this junction, suburbanites felt uneasy about paying tolls to drive across the bridge. Another sticking point was the light rail, which many of the more affluent Vancouverites derided as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

A Continuation of Destructive Policies

While there are many legitimate criticisms aimed at the cost of the project, which was projected to exceed 2.5 billion dollars, the death of a lite rail connection to Vancouver is the true story. The city, once known for its beautiful prairies and forests, shunned long-term sustainable construction in favor of the old, less eco-minded ways of living. Additionally, lite rail could have drastically reduced vehicle traffic, helping to ease air pollution that exists on the I-5 corridor. Finally, lite rail into Vancouver could have encouraged more walkable neighborhoods.

Today, Vancouver remains a conservative metropolis, vehemently opposed to changing its ways. Recent studies out of Seattle show the dangers of vehicular air pollution on nearby residents, and a mountain of evidence exists showing the benefits of sustainable, environmentally-minded construction projects. While one day Vancouver may base their civic-project practices less off of political opposition and more on evidence-based practices, today the city stands as a stunted step into the past.

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