I-5 Bridge talks remain cautious

I-5 Bridge talks remain cautious

More than two years after the Washington state legislature created an interstate committee to restart the I-5 Bridge replacement process, the political fallout from the prior failed effort continues to influence the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee, especially regarding the role community stakeholders could play in the process.

One of the areas of most concern is community engagement and navigating the competing interests of varied stakeholder groups that some blame for the downfall of the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) process. While committee documents note that “extensive and meaningful community engagement is critical,” members at an August 6 meeting expressed apprehensions about how that feedback should be gathered and incorporated into the plan as it develops.

The 2013 CRC process floundered – despite support from both Oregon and Washington governors – due to disagreements among state lawmakers over stakeholder issues such as tolling and light rail. At the same time, some attribute its demise to an oversaturation of community involvement that resulted in gridlock.

Co-Chair Sen. Lee Beyer (D-6) said at the August 6 meeting that previously, the problem was that “the same old people were sitting around the table for years arguing about the same old things and not able to come to a decision.”

Yet issues such as tolling, transit services, and what parts of the previous bridge design to keep are guaranteed to be part of the new discussions. Sen. Lew Frederick (D-22) told colleagues that “commuter rail is something that I think should be part of this discussion in any situation. I think that there should be some discussion about the whole transportation package within that area.”

Another likely source of disagreement among stakeholders is the scope of the project, which ranges from merely replacing the existing I-5 Bridge for safety reasons to expanding transportation capacity in the corridor to improve regional mobility.

For the committee, the question is about how to prevent discussions about these topics from bogging down the process, particularly when the goal is to solicit community feedback. Co-Chair Rep. Susan McLain (D-29) remarked at the August 6 meeting that “we have to make some decisions about how that flow of work is going to happen. I feel like what I observed last time – that did not happen at all. All of those groups thought they were in charge. All those groups thought they were the final word. All of those groups thought they were the decision maker.”

She added that “I really do believe we also have to come to the understanding that we can build consensus but even in consensus, not everybody agrees.”

Beyer suggested the idea of a process whereby policies are chosen gradually, which would allow the committee “to make decisions that move us towards a final decision that gets some momentum.”

At the same time, Washington House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey (D-27) said “we need to be very clear about what the decision-making process is going to be. This is ultimately going to be the two state legislatures making a decision on whether to go with the project and to fund it. I think it can be important for folks to know that from the very beginning.”

He added that the community outreach should be mindful of “the users of the bridge that don’t have people paid to represent their interests, the ones that are left out in this process very easily.”

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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