Renewing Talks On Bi-State Bridge Replacement

Renewing Talks On Bi-State Bridge Replacement
Three years after the Columbia River Crossing failed to get off the ground, Washington lawmakers behind SB 5806 want to renew the conversation on how to replace the bi-state bridge on Interstate 5 between Vancouver and Portland. Photo: wikimedia.org

State lawmakers want to restart discussions for replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge connecting Washington and Oregon, after the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) succumbed to political gridlock three years ago. The bipartisan sponsors behind SB 5806 intend to avoid that same fate through better collaboration between stakeholders via a new joint bi-state committee. The proposal received a unanimous recommendation from the Senate Transportation Committee at a Tuesday, February 21 meeting. Testimony provided by Washington business associations, regional transit authority directors, and local lawmakers in favor of the bill at a February 20 public hearing underscored the need to end the political impasse on replacing the century-old bridge.

Building A Bridge To Economic Growth

“Not a day goes by that I don’t hear from businesses who are frustrated with the inaction on this issue,” Mike Bomar said February 20 to the committee. He is president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC), a private-public partnership in Clark County.

He added that “for us, it’s not simply an issue of getting people to and from work, it’s about attracting a talented workforce, and it’s a major deficiency in our economy’s ability to operate in a major metropolitan region, as well as a significant impediment to freight.”

SB 5806 is sponsored by Democratic Assistant Floor Leader Sen. Annette Cleveland (D-49) and cosponsored by State Sens. Ann Rivers (R-18), Lynda Wilson (R-17), Steve Hobbs (D-44), Maralyn Chase (D-32), and Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson (D-34).

The bill would designate the I-5 bridge a project of statewide significance. It calls on Governor Jay Inslee to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Oregon Governor Kate Brown creating a joint bi-state legislative action committee. That committee would study potential bridge project development and report its recommendations to both state legislatures by December 2018.

The MOU’s objectives would also include the following:

  • Determine agencies responsible for the project’s permitting, construction,  operation,  and maintenance
  • Set up a public comment process on the bridge development plan
  • Study the feasibility of a Columbia River bridge authority, as well as all mass transit options for the bridge, such as light rail and bus rapid transit (BRT).

The bill also appropriates $350,000 from the Motor Vehicle fund for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to gather existing I-5 bridge construction planning data from prior proposals.

Bi-State Bridge “Backbone” Of Transportation System

Cleveland underscored to panel members the significance of the bridge not just for the regional economy but for international freight mobility between Mexico and Canada. Truck freight volumes within the I-5 bi-state bridge corridor are projected to more than double over the next 25 years.

“It is the very backbone of our transportation system throughout the entire West Coast,” she said.

CRC proved controversial in Clark County for the inclusion of a light rail line extension from Portland to Vancouver and a toll to cover half the construction costs. Despite support from both state governors, the plan ultimately fell apart in 2014, after the Washington state legislature failed to approve funding for it.

Cleveland cited disagreement between lawmakers from districts by or near the bridge as a primary cause for CRC’s demise.

“That’s why it seems prudent to begin any new effort with first and foremost those southwest Washington legislators. We’ve committed to first laying out a process that’s transparent, that’s open, that very much includes the public in every step,” she said.

She added that SB 5806 represents “commitment by our delegation in southwest Washington to work together to solve our region’s transportation challenges.”

Preventing Breakdown In Bridge Discussions

However, panel members such as State Sen. Dean Takko (D-19) expressed concern that a dispute over light rail could once more undermine any new bridge replacement project.

He told Cleveland, “When you talk about consensus, I got to ask: is there any kind of consensus on light rail?”

Cleveland replied that “we’ve purposefully focused on the process, first and foremost, because we feel that’s where there was also a breakdown in the past discussions.”

Ending Bi-State Congestion Nightmare

Business advocates and local lawmakers stressed to panel members the enormous burden congestion has placed on the region. Not only is the bridge one of the most dangerous in the country, the corridor has also seen traffic increase by 300 percent since 2011. That is only expected to get worse as Clark County’s population grows.

“Growth itself warrants needed investment in infrastructure,” Matt Ransom told committee members. He is the executive director of the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council.

“The sooner we get restarted in a conversation, the sooner constituencies in southwest Washington, Vancouver, the greater Portland metropolitan area will benefit from this needed infrastructure,” he said. “We need bi-state collaboration, and I think this bill delivers that.”

In agreement was Mike Ennis, government affairs director on transportation for the Association of Washington Business. He told committee members the bill is a “critical first step to establishing framework” for developing a new bridge.

“This project is sometimes characterized as a southwest Washington problem, however, I can tell you that traffic congestion due to the Interstate 5 bridge negatively impacts freight mobility and the economy of not only Washington state, but the entire U.S. West Coast,” he added.

Labor Roundtable of Southwest Washington Chair Ed Barnes framed the traffic conditions in starker terms to committee members. He said it was “killing” southwest Washington cities such as Vancouver, Camas, and Washougal because “workers up there can’t even…go to work in the morning without being late for work.”

SB 5806’s companion bill HB 2095 is sponsored by House Transportation Committee Chair State Rep. Sharon Wylie (D-49) and cosponsored by State Reps. Monica Jurado Stonier (D-49), Paul Harris (R-17), Brandon Vick (R-18), Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn (D-41), Transportation Vice Chair Jake Fey (D-27), Assistant Majority Whip Joan McBride (D-48), and Nicole Macri (D-43).

In a statement, Inslee’s Deputy Director of Communications Tara Lee said their office is still reviewing SB 5806. “The governor appreciates that local legislators are coming back to the table, because the problem hasn’t gone away,” she wrote.

Bomar told panel members February 20 that “I’m not here today to advocate for a specific final product, but I can tell you that problem’s getting exponentially worse, and we can no longer afford inaction.”

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