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By Ian K. Kullgren September 20, 2013

Are there 400 crashes on the Interstate Bridge each year?

The Columbia River Crossing -- the maybe-dead-maybe-not proposed bridge project to connect Oregon and Washington -- is nothing if not controversial. Even the folks who agree that it’s needed can’t agree on how to pay for it.

In a recent newsletter to his constituents, Oregon Rep. Dennis Richardson argued against Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber’s plan for Oregon to build the bridge on its own without a financial commitment from Washington. Richardson, a Republican, lists a number of reasons, ultimately concluding "I do not approve of the Governor's plan to go forward with the CRC Project."

Even so, he mentions throughout the newsletter that there are several reasons a new bridge would be beneficial, calling it "a much-needed infrastructure project." As support, he notes the traffic accidents on the bridge.

"More than 400 car crashes occur each year on the current, congested Columbia River Bridge," he wrote. "This exorbitant number of collisions results in broken cars, broken lives and broken hearts for hundreds of Oregonians and the families of those injured or killed in Columbia River Bridge traffic every year."

This caught us by surprise. Some quick mental math and you realize that means there would have to be at least one accident a day on the bridge. Now, PolitiFact Oregon knows it’s a busy bridge, but we haven’t seen an accident on our many trips to the Washougal River this summer, so we decided to see if he had his stats right.

Richardson got back to us straight away and explained that he’d gotten his figures from a September 2012 briefing on the Columbia River Crossing. He emailed us a copy of the document and indeed, it noted that "there are approximately 400 vehicle crashes per year in the CRC project area, making it one of the most accident-intensive sections of the corridor."

We were able to verify this figure through Dave Thompson, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. He pointed us to a passage in the Columbia River Crossing’s final environmental impact report, which noted that during the five-year period between Jan. 1, 2002, and Dec. 31, 2006, "2,051 crashes were reported on mainline I-5 and its ramps within the CRC project area."

If you take that figure and divide it by five, you wind up with 409 crashes a year on average during that time period -- or about 1.12 per day.

Here’s the rub, though. That figure isn’t just for the bridge, it’s for the entire project area, a considerably larger area, it turns out.

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Thompson told us, and we did a little Google Map work to back check him, that the project area is close to five miles long while the bridge itself is about 2/3 of a mile.

Naturally, we wondered, then, how many accidents actually occurred on the bridge. That took a little longer, but Thompson was able to get an answer for us. Over the same five-year time period, 248 crashes happened on the Washington side of the bridge and 294 happened on the Oregon side. That’s a total of 542 -- or an average of 108 per year.

There are some caveats for this data, too. These figures don’t include accidents on the ramps and they were collected using DMV and police report data, meaning they won’t include unreported accidents.

Still, the number of crashes on the bridge itself seems to be about a quarter of the number in the project area, which is the number Richardson cited.

When we called Richardson to get his take, he said the numbers were never presented in a very clear way. He pointed to the environmental impact statement and the way it describes crashes as having been "reported on mainline I-5 and its ramps within the CRC project area."

"I try my best to be honest and accurate," he said.

Honestly, we agree, the data weren’t presented in the clearest of terms. And, to be fair, it’s not as though Richardson’s larger point about safety is completely invalid. There are an exceptional number of accidents occurring around the current Columbia bridge. According to the same environmental impact study, the crash rate in Washington’s project area is about 60 percent higher than it is on other similar highways, and in Oregon’s project area it’s about 50 percent higher.

That said, Richardson wrote to constituents that "more than 400 car crashes occur each year on the current, congested Columbia River Bridge."

That’s not even close. The statement is False.

Our Sources

Rep. Dennis Richardson, Columbia River Crossing: Past, Present and Future, Sept. 9, 2013

Interview with Rep. Dennis Richardson, Sept. 18, 2013

Interview with David Thompson, spokesman for Oregon Department of Transportation, Sept. 12, 2013

E-mails from David Thompson, Sept. 12 and 17, 2013

Columbia River Crossing, Final Environmental Impact Statement, September 2011

Columbia River Crossing legislative briefing, September 2012

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