Fresh Start Eyed On Bi-State Bridge Fix

Fresh Start Eyed On Bi-State Bridge Fix
The paired bridges on I-5 connecting Clark County, Washington, with Portland, Oregon, date to 1917 and 1958 respectively. They're dangerous, congested and badly in need of replacement. Along with poorly-engineered corridor interchanges, they are hurting economic development in the region, according to officials. Bi-state negotiations to upgrade the corridor fell apart in 2014 but may resume in 2017. Photo: Lennar.com.

The proposal for a new bi-state bridge connecting Washington and Oregon went down in flames of acrimony two years ago. The Columbia River Crossing (CRC) became synonymous with political dysfunction, and then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said it would be at least a decade before it was built. However, some Washington state and local officials will be pressing ahead much sooner than that.

Light Rail, Tolling Were Flashpoints

CRC tanked despite the thumbs-up from both state governors, after lawmakers on both sides of the river couldn’t compromise on final bridge design and funding. Oregon legislators wanted the Portland light rail line extended across the new bridge into Vancouver, Washington. That, and the tolling needed to help pay for the new bridge corridor, sparked intense opposition in Clark County. Under the CRC proposal, tolling would have paid for half the project.

A vocal CRC critic was Clark County Councilor David Madore, who rallied opponents and voted against it as part of a hostile majority he led on the then-three-member council. However, in the August 2 primary, Madore was knocked out by fellow Republican John Blom and Democrat Tanisha Harris.

Blom was ahead of Harris 51.2 percent to 48.8 percent the morning of November 14. He told Lens he is not opposed to tolling, but “the community was pretty clearly against it.” The county needs to “make sure we have the right project,” that “people are willing to support,” he said.

Reasons To Get Cracking

The Federal Highway Administration National Bridge Inventory lists the current structure as one of the most dangerous in the country. Bloomberg News wrote, “…drivers on the busiest West Coast trucking corridor encounter this white-knuckle ride just north of Portland: Three 10-foot-wide lanes squeeze into a space fit for two. A humped midsection blocks sight lines. There are no shoulders. One winding on-ramp merges directly with car and truck traffic blowing past at 50 miles an hour.”

The corridor is also one of the most heavily congested in the nation. Corridor traffic times between State Route 500 in Washington and Jantzen Beach in Oregon have increased by 300 percent since 2011. Truck freight volumes are projected to more than doubleAt a June meeting of the Washington State Transportation Commission, Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes called the corridor “the single largest barrier to regional prosperity.”

Truckers Need Congestion Relief

Sheri Call is the vice president of government relations for the Washington Trucking Association, which represents over 1,000 member companies. Call told Lens that truckers can normally get around congestion, via alternate routes.

However, I-5 bridge corridor bottlenecks are an “entirely different” dilemma, she added. The nearby I-205 bridge to the east isn’t always feasible for truckers whose destination is metro Portland, and is a longer route with higher gas costs, said Call. “With trucks getting six or seven miles per gallon, every mile counts,” she said.

Legislative Work Group Eyed

Washington State Rep. Liz Pike (R-18) hopes to restart the process in 2017 by reintroducing a version of a 2016 bill that did not advance. It would create a bi-state bridge project legislative work group consisting of eight bipartisan, bicameral state lawmakers from Washington and Oregon.

“Portland and Clark County is one regional economy,” Pike said. “Everybody understands that. When you have your delivery trucks sitting in traffic, nobody wins.” She added, a range of options should be examined including the seismic retrofitting and repurposing of the older span into a new north-south frontage road system to better separate local and through traffic in the bridge corridor.

Also worth a hard look, Pike said, is an auxiliary bridge to the west of I-5 directly connecting Oregon’s populous and jobs-rich Washington County – including the towns of Beaverton, Hillsboro and Tigard – with Clark County.

Sen. Ann Rivers (R-18) is part of a group of Washington state lawmakers working on a separate proposal they hope to release in December. Rivers told Lens that it does not deal with the bridge directly, but the stakeholders involved. “I think there were way too many private interests in the kitchen” during the CRC project, she said.

Light Rail Compromise?

Light rail remains a tough sell for some Clark County legislators such as State Rep. Lynda Wilson (R-17), who just defeated Democratic challenger Tim Probst for the district’s state senate seat. Wilson told Lens that the region currently lacks the population density to justify light rail.

One compromise on light rail could be preserving capacity for it later. The approach is recommended by The Columbian, as well as Clark County Board Chair, Marc Boldt.

Rivers is warm to the idea, as well. She says the approach would prevent stakeholders from getting “hung up on what the component looks like right now.”

The focus should be traffic relief on both sides of the river through adding more bridge lanes, Wilson said. “My biggest concern is we do not create more congestion in the process of building another bridge,” she added.

Others have a few ideas about how to address that.

No solution to the impasse will work without also resolving the fearsome bottleneck in Portland’s Rose Quarter where I-5 merges with I-84 and Oregon Route 26, Rep. Pike stressed.

Steve Stuart, city manager for Ridgefield in Clark County, said the I-5 interchanges on both sides of the river lack ramps allowing vehicles to gain sufficient speed before entering the lanes. Fixing this also has to be part of the project, he said.

Renewed Call For Action 

With the city of Vancouver and economic development group Identity Clark County, the county council plans to send two joint letters to key elected officials, calling for renewed action on the bridge corridor. Recipients will be the Washington state legislature and Governor Jay Inslee, plus Oregon and Washington congressional leaders. That’s according to Boldt.

Boldt told Lens that Oregon and Washington federal politicians need to referee the two states this time around to ensure a successful agreement. “We need to have that coach saying ‘Get to work,’” he said.

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