Bi-State Bridge Story Needs Second Act

Freight, Commuter Corridor Can't Be Left As Is

Bi-State Bridge Story Needs Second Act
The northbound span of the through-truss Interstate Bridge between Clark County, Washington and Portland, Oregon on I-5 was built in 1917; the twin span pointed southbound, in 1958. Credit: WSDOT.

There were hints recently of the rising from its musty crypt of the Deeply Dysfunctional Infrastructure Project Formerly Known As Columbia River Crossing. The idea is to replace the dangerous and slow bridge corridor connecting Washington and Oregon on I-5. In the Washington state legislature, HB2414 surfaced in this year’s short session, for a bi-state group to get the process moving again. The bill looks to have stalled – though last-minute miracles are always possible in Olympia. It seems there’s too much water under the, er, bridge.

If you’re a newbie, here’s the backstory. You’re not truly a Washingtonian until you’ve blown 104 minutes of a Wednesday afternoon in summer on I-5 inching across the Oregon border on that miserably pinched, horribly engineered excuse for a major regional bridge corridor while you’re on the way to Waldport or Yachats or Bandon with a carful of squalling kids and a disbelieving spouse turning before your eyes from a moderate political Independent into a “privatize-it-all – how did they ever let this happen?” – fire-breathing Libertarian.

Apprehending somehow from the ether, or their inboxes, such cries de couer multiplied many thousand-fold, politicians launched an intervention with predecessor studies before Portlandia was even a glimmer in the eye of Carrie Brownstein. In, yes, 1999. During the last act to date, the tragi-comic farce known as the Columbia River Crossing study, these key performance indicators were fully realized:

  • Boatloads of important meetings attended by serious, smart, well-connected and well-dressed people;
  • The creation of a document stream that actually caused the disappearance of a forest in outer Clatsop County;
  • The spending of $175 million on consultants;
  • and finally the CRC project tanking in 2014, after Clark County residents and many of their elected representatives made it clear that baked-in electronic tolling and light rail were deal-killers.

Yet lately we do seem to recall bits and pieces of why this all arose in the first place. Such as a few key takeaways from this 2011 report to our state’s Joint Transportation Committee.

  • Corridor crash rates 2.5 times that of comparable facilities;
  • The seismic vulnerability of a very old I-5 bridge across the Columbia River;
  • Growth in overall bridge corridor traffic demand of 40 percent over two decades, and the rise under the do-nothing scenario of stop-and-go traffic from two to five hours a day to 10 or 12;
  • “Freight volumes moved by truck to and from the area are projected to more than double over the next 25 years. Vehicle-hours of delay on truck routes in the Portland-Vancouver area are projected to increase by more than 90 percent over the next 20 years. Growing demand and congestion will result in increasing delay, costs, and uncertainty for all businesses that rely on this corridor for freight movement;”
  • The report also accents the concerns of some environmentalists that it might make sense to ensure the project is actually multimodal and includes better transit, walkways and bike paths between the adjoining domains of Portland and Clark County.

About that seismic vulnerability. The Portland Tribune reported last fall: “‘The bridge was built for horses and it rests on Douglas fir pilings in mud in the Columbia River. A state geologist report on the bridge includes the term ‘total collapse’ in case of an earthquake,’ says TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane.”

So there’s work to do, and perhaps lives to save, despite the tangled politics of it all. But clearly, official talks may not be starting any time very soon to get things back on track. Perhaps unofficial talks are exactly what’s needed first.

Here’s an opening gambit from Columbian business editor Gordon Oliver in an opinion piece, Let’s Span I-5 Bridge Differences. Oliver suggests that bus rapid transit replace light rail as the transit component of the project.

Everyone is tired of the endless debate that encases a vital transportation improvement project in a toxic envelope of fear and hostility toward Portland and light rail. Unfortunately, the problem of trying to move people and goods across the Columbia won’t go a way if we just ignore it. And we know that opposition to rail can’t be wished away, either.

…opponents wouldn’t get much traction if they weren’t raising legitimate issues about construction costs, tolls, the effectiveness of rail transit…

…bus rapid transit service might be a better option..what if C-Tran operated bus service in exclusive lanes on a new Columbia River bridge?…maybe, just maybe, some of the opposition would melt.

To which we might add, wouldn’t it make sense for Oregon – in conjunction with toll-friendly Washington state – to buck up and propose that the once-envisioned tolls to help pay for this less torturous and greener I-5 bridge corridor be accompanied by tolls on the main alternative route, the I-205 bridge to the east? Neatly nips in the bud what planners call “toll-induced traffic diversions.”

Granted, tolling has lousy press right now in the Northwest thanks to mangled implementation of express toll lanes on I-405 east of Seattle, something state legislators and the Washington Department of Transportation are in the process of trying to fix. That controversy aside, there’s a solid basis for the underlying policy: rationally pricing the scarce highway resources available for peak-hour solo driving in major metro regions. It’s something done all over the U.S. and the world, and which typically, environmentalists and free-marketeers can agree upon. As have some leading Washington state business groups.

If Oregon could be convinced to move off of light rail in the bridge corridor for another, better transit mode; and if both states could embrace the beginnings of an actual, implemented regional tolling policy rather than a one-off approach, then Clark County could reasonably be levered into compromise as well.

The specifics are important, and admittedly have been a minefield to date. Ultimately though, more than the specifics it’s the brokering of a deal to upgrade this unsafe and costly bridge corridor that’s most essential.

There’s even a word for this kind of thing.

Leadership.

1 COMMENT

  1. I have a hard time with Clark County’s xenophobic stance on light rail. Who says that Portlanders don’t want Vantuckians going over to their side? Tolls are a fact of life in many areas of the country, deal with it. Moreover, no politician is going to get involved in any sort of crossing without making money off of the endeavor. Simply building a bridge won’t solve anything anyway, it’ll only shift traffic congestion toward downtown Portland which is already too congested. What is needed is a plan much broader in scope that any of the previous proposals. The best solution wold be elevated Express Lanes over the present route of I5. These would start around the State Route 500 on the Washington side and extend south of of downtown Portland. Local traffic can use the roadway and bridge as they stand. Traffic that is trying to get through the Portland/Vancouver metro area would be able to go through the area unimpeded by local traffic. Just my $0.02 worth.

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