Talks between Washington and Oregon state lawmakers have finally begun on a replacement or alternative to the Interstate 5 Bridge spanning the Columbia River from Vancouver to Portland. However, challenges remain for the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee over the bridge’s design, location and purpose.
Per the committee’s Nov. 14 meeting, one of the next steps is to look next at transit on the bridge – something that proved to be one of the most contentious aspects of the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) in 2013. Oregon wanted a light rail line to be included that would extend from Vancouver and connect to Portland’s existing line. However, Washington lawmakers rejected the proposal.
The issue was resurrected during a presentation on the prior alternative bridge designs that ranged from light rail to bus rapid transit (BRT). Rep. Lynda Wilson (R-17) remarked that “when we’re moving forward with this, we keep talking about capital versus how many people ride per driver. If you start looking at Sound Transit 3, the cost up there…you’re looking at this in billions and billions of dollars. We don’t have billions.”
Oregon Sen. Lew Frederick (D-22) remarked that “with the folks that I talk with… they do not sit back and try to count the numbers of cars. They count how much time it takes for them to get from one place to the next. As much as I like light rail, they are not necessarily excited by the idea of light rail…it’s not an express (bus) situation; they are moving at a very slow pace.”
Connected to that debate is the purpose for the new bridge. “The question is if we make improvements…to cross the river – is that going to move traffic faster or not, or is it not going to make a difference at all?” Co-chair Sen. Lee Beyer (D-6) said.
On one hand, the bridge is more than a century old, though it remains safe. Yet the I-5 corridor also has some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, a problem highlighted by truckers and regional business groups. In 2018, 138,374 daily crossings occurred on the existing I-5 bridge’s three northbound lanes and three southbound lanes. Just six years prior, the daily crossings had been 128,373: the same volume as in 2002. That traffic congestion continues into Portland.
Frederick said that “the previous proposal…. might move traffic slightly more at the crossing itself, (but) when it reached Columbia Boulevard it was a bottleneck again.”
Although the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council (RTC) Transportation Corridor Visioning Study recommends new river crossings, a committee staff member said an analysis was “agnostic about whether the region should consider other corridors. You would still be stuck with congestion frame mobility issues and all the other issues with that.”
Other practical considerations stakeholders must eventually decide on is where to place the new bridge, whether the existing bridge should be removed and how to mitigate the impacts to river traffic. A committee staff member told legislators that “keeping the existing bridges and having new bridges becomes a careful consideration for river navigation. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it certainly is a point of concern.”