Bi-State Bridge Proposal Spans Political Ravines

Legislation calling for a new bipartisan, bi-state action committee to look at replacing the I-5 Bridge between Vancouver and Portland is close to passage. Photo: .wikimedia.org

Legislation aiming to renew inter-state talks for replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge appears on the cusp of bicameral approval. This week SB 5806 was assigned to the Rules Committee for review and awaits a House floor debate. Its House companion bill is now in the Senate and received a warm reception during its public hearing on Tuesday, March 28 in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Despite Bipartisan Support, Some Concerns Linger

Although SB 5806 has received overwhelming bipartisan support, it has also encountered pushback in the House from Republican lawmakers who say they have lingering concerns after the 2014 fallout of the Columbia River Crossing (CRC). However, business associations testifying in favor of the bill earlier this month underscored the need to address the region’s transportation infrastructure.

If passed, the bill would call for the creation of a joint Oregon-Washington legislative action committee to come up with recommendations on how to address the southwest Washington I-5 corridor between Vancouver and Portland, Oregon. Among the top priorities is replacing the Bi-State Bridge, which has been ranked as among the least safe bridges in the country. It also has some of the worst traffic in the country.  SB 5806 has received support from the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council (RTC), the Port of Vancouver, as well as the cities of Vancouver, Washington and Battle Ground.

The bill passed in the Senate on February 27 in a 45- 4 vote, with State Sens. Michael Baumgartner (R-6), Doug Ericksen (R-42), Mike Padden (R-4), Kirk Pearson (R-39) in dissent. Prior to that, it received unanimous support in the Senate Transportation Committee. However, in the House the bill cleared the House Transportation Committee on March 22 strictly along party lines; all Democrat legislators voted in its favor and all Republicans were either opposed or offered no recommendation.

How To Avoid Another CRC

State Rep. Mark Hargrove (R-47) was one of the Republican committee members who voted against it.

Earlier this month prior to the March 22 executive session, he told Lens that many lawmakers are still apprehensive of bridge talks due to the enormous investment made by the state in the CRC, with no results. He added that some lawmakers are also concerned about legislative commitment from Oregon’s end.

“Last time we spent $200 million, and got nothing for it,” he said. “We don’t want to see a repeat of that.”

This trepidation was expressed at the March 22 committee meeting in the form of two amendments proposed by State Rep. Liz Pike (R-18), who has introduced her own bi-state bridge bill, HB 1222. The first amendment would have required the task force members from both state Houses be jointly appointed by the House majority and minority leader. The current bill only allows the Senate minority leader to jointly appoint.

The other amendment concerned a $350,000 allotment to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) in order to collect existing planning data for bridge construction. The amendment would have stipulated that money not be spent until WSDOT receives a written commitment from the Oregon State Legislature to participate in the action committee.

However, both amendments failed to pass. Before the vote against the first proposed amendment, Vice Chair Rep. Sharon Wylie (D-49) spoke out against it. She is the primary sponsor of SB 5806’s House companion bill, HB 2095. It passed the House on March 6 in a 60-38.

Wylie said, “For the last 50-100 years there’s been a process for appointing committees like this, where the minority leader recommends, the majority leader appoints, and there’s usually and always as far as I know no problem with that, so this does something that isn’t necessary and it adds another step to getting the bill moving forward.”

Pike defended her second proposed amendment, arguing that it “just says that before we spend $350,000 of taxpayer money on looking through the cobwebs of the CRC that we will first get an agreement signed by our neighbors to the south in Oregon saying ‘We want to help build a bridge.’”

Wylie was also critical. “Just as we wouldn’t like it if the Oregon Transportation Department tried to ask us to do something and sign something, it’s not appropriate for our legislative body for us to do the opposite. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Bridge Congestion Hindering Economic Growth

At the March 9 public hearing of the House Transportation Committee, testifiers reiterated urgency in replacing the Bi-State Bridge.

“We grow increasingly concerned that the failure to address the bridge replacement will stymie the efforts in our region to attract employers,” John McDonagh told the committee. He is the CEO of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, the largest business organization in southwest Washington.

He added that one Vancouver-based businessman has opened up a new location in Oregon “because he can no longer efficiently and effectively get his product to market throughout the region, including Oregon.”

“While we aren’t the only region suffering from an outdated and failing infrastructure, having a plan to address the I-5 corridor will certainly position us to lead the way given the process called for in this bill would lead to a project,” he added.

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