As a new interstate work group continues to look at replacing the century-old I-5 bridge spanning the Columbia River from Vancouver to Portland, some residents and former political candidates are emphasizing the urgent need for additional crossings previously recommended in a 2008 study that regional transportation planning staff say is another 40 years down the road.
“Citizens are begging for a third bridge and traffic congestion relief,” former District 18 legislator candidate John Ley said at the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council (RTC) July 4 meeting.
The RTC acts as the metropolitan planning organization for Clark County, which aside from Vancouver includes Camas-Washougal, Ridgefield and Battle Ground. The RTC’s 2018 Congestion Management Process concludes that the region needs to “address strong demand for bi‐state travel” and lists recommended corridor improvements such as intersections and interchange improvements.
However, at the RTC’s July 2 meeting Ley told the council that a regional solution to congestion requires more crossings.
“Portland’s got a dozen bridges across the Willamette river,” he said. “We need more than two bridges across the Columbia.”
The RTC’s Transportation Corridor Visioning Study recommends four possible locations for two new, non-tolled “parkway” crossings located west of I-5 and east of I-205 that would have four to six lanes. At the RTC’s June 4 meeting, Senior Transportation Planner Dale Robins said that a new bridge is “probably 40 years out. It’s really probably something that we have discussed in the past as a land use issue that the county needs to tackle.”
Clark County Councilor and RTC councilmember Gary Medvigy said “if we look to a future planning, look at another 40 years down the road, today’s the day. We need to get another corridor as one of your long-term strategies to encompass the future of congestion in this region and add that as a planning guideline. Hopefully it won’t take another 40 years to build another corridor.”
At the July 4 meeting, Ley argued that crossings can’t wait another 40 years. “In Milwaukie, the I-35 bridge was replaced in one year. What’s it going to take for this Board to show some leadership? When will the RTC take action on a 3rd bridge?”
He also argued that the problem has been identified for decades. A 1988 state legislative study noted that “the increase in traffic volumes are causing major congestion problems on I-5 during the morning and evening peak travel hours. The traffic volumes on I-205 are not causing immediate congestion problems but are increasing at a very rapid pace. Depending on the travel forecasting technique, traffic volumes on the I-5 bridge will reach or exceed capacity within the next 3 to 10 years” (page 50).
Ley told Lens that “for 40 years, they’ve kicked the can down the road.”
Limited corridor capacity is one of the chief reasons that stakeholders are eager to replace the I-5 Bridge. The bridge now has three northbound lanes and three southbound lanes that as of 2018 has 138,374 daily crossings. Interstate 205 crossing the Columbia River east of I-5 in 2018 had 165,097 daily crossings – a figure that has increased from 145,927 in 2005. The Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee is tasked with coming up with a process to examine the future of the bridge. One of the challenges are conflicting priorities regarding the bridge and whether it should be tolled and include a light rail line from Portland into Vancouver.
One thing that has changed since the 1980s is that “inside Portland they’ve hardened their mindset against cars.”
If agreement can be reached on a new bridge, Ley says one option is to simply leave the current bridge intact as a crossing for local traffic and use the new bridge for cargo freight. Two years ago he noted that the bridge remains safe, despite concerns about its age.
“That makes huge sense to me,” he said. “Why not make I-5 the current I-205…and get the interstate travel off it?”