Disagreement among Washington and Oregon stakeholders regarding the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) in 2013 put a long pause on – then the Washington state legislature in 2017 created a new interstate committee to restart talks. However, the challenges of high capacity transit – an issue that ultimately led to the project’s demise – will still need to be addressed by the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee.
Additionally, state agencies involved in the new process will have to account for changes that have occurred in the last seven years that could influence decisions regarding the best transit option. Since 2013, the city of Portland’s population has increased from 609,670 to 654,741 and the city of Vancouver has also grown from 171,954 to 184,463. With those additional residents comes new development in areas where transit infrastructure might be built.
While the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is also reassessing bridge concepts, i.e. replacement versus other alternatives, Bridge Replacement Program Assistant Administrator Frank Green told the committee at its Oct. 1 meeting that “it isn’t just the bridge over the water on the Columbia. That bridge has to integrate into the communities. You have to look at the holistic alternative. How does a bridge over the Columbia touch down into an access point…or depending on what the river crossing is, how does it integrate into the community?”
During the CRC process, stakeholders examined a wide variety of transit options including ferry service, people movers, high speed rail, and commuter rail via Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s (BNSF) tracks. However, the process eventually whittled those options down to a handful that included light rail and bus rapid transit (BRT).
Ultimately the CRC chose light rail, which would have run from Clark College in Washington across the new Interstate Bridge and linked to an existing light rail line in Portland. However, the decision sparked intense political backlash in southwestern Washington that concluded with a majority in the Washington State Senate opposing the CRC.
Now, some seven years later, the agencies conducting a new transit analysis will have to incorporate changes made since the CRC such as the addition of The Vine, a Clark County-based BRT line started in 2017 that now plans to extend to downtown Vancouver.
Oregon Department of Transportation Mobility Office Director Brendan Finn told the committee that both updated traffic and ridership modeling will be crucial to assessing Interstate Bridge transit options, in addition to emerging transportation technology such as autonomous vehicles (AV) that could impact traffic.
WSDOT Southwest Regional Administrator Carley Francis told the committee that the “volume of demand as well as where that demand would run to and from is critical,” adding that “there’s this need to both serve folks taking a long through-trip but might also have a more localized destination. (It’s) a critical factor in understanding the pathway that people want to take.”
Relevant to this work is that the Interstate Bridge project involves replacing the existing bridge or adding additional nearby bridges. It’s another part of the CRC process WSDOT is currently reexamining. Initially, there were 23 river crossing ideas that included tunneling and multimodal arterial bridges. The process finally settled on a replacement bridge, concluding that it would improve safety, involve less future congestion, and be less expensive to operate. Finn said that tunneling is theoretically possible but would depend on what impacts to adjacent communities would be acceptable.
Aside from debates over transit options, another sensitive topic among stakeholders is bridge tolling. A 2019 memorandum of intent by Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Oregon Governor Kate Brown created the joint Oregon-Washington state project , directing them to take a second look at replacing the bridge and “assume” tolls will be used to pay for a portion of the costs. A final report from that office is due to both governors and state transportation committees in December.
The Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee will receive an update on river crossing alternatives early next year.