Of primary concern among stakeholders involved in the preliminary discussions on replacing the Interstate Bridge across the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon is how to avoid the same fate as that of the 2013 Columbia River Crossing (CRC). The prior effort involved years of work and ultimately cost almost $300 million before it failed when the Washington State Senate refused to approve it.
While the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee for the past three years has reexamined options, the Washington and Oregon State Departments of Transportation have formed an I-5 – Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Executive Steering Group composed of 12 members from a variety of local governments including municipalities and ports. Its task is to provide recommendations reflecting the concerns and priorities of the region’s various communities.
To that end, it is forming a 25-30-member Community Advisory Group (CAG). Although some steering group members stressed the need for greater representation among communities indirectly impacted by the projects, others in public testimony offered a taste of the contrasting project visions both CAG and the steering group likely face as discussions move forward.
Steering group member and Oregon Department of Transportation Director Kris Strickler told colleagues at a Nov. 6 meeting that CAG should be kept at a “manageable level. You can’t let the comprehensive nature slow you down to where you don’t make progress.” He added that they should “be very explicit about what we’re expecting out of those individuals that are coming to the table. We are in a two-way dialogue here. We do have an expectation that is on us.”
Another task for the newly-formed steering group will be defining “equity,” which is both a CAG membership eligibility criteria and is to be incorporated “in every aspect of the program” by a separate equity work group. That equity would also apply to how the bridge is financed; while the project is likely to include federal funding, tolling is presumed to be a major financing tool.
Whatever choices are made, Bi-state Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Administrator Greg Johnson told the steering group “(it’s) critical that this region comes together collaboratively to get this project done. I’ve seen what the results are when a region cannot act in a collaborative manner.”
The emphasis for regional dialogue reflects the project’s need to secure solid political support among affected communities. With the CRC, opposition from southwest Washington state senators was sufficient to overcome support from the Washington state House, the entire Oregon state legislature, and both state governors.
The entities to be represented on the CAG include:
- Environmental groups;
- Southwest Washington and North Portland neighborhoods;
- Tribes; and
Steering group member and Oregon Metro Council President Lynn Peterson told colleagues that representation among the CAG needs to be even broader: “It was not clearly defined how the system was going to work last time with this project, (which) created a lot of angst. Whether it’s elected official representation or business interest, we have industrial areas that will be impacted. We need to understand what the impacts are going to be, with or without I-205 tolling in the future.”
Yet, one of the problems cited by the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee for the CRC’s demise was the inundation of competing voices that bogged down the process.
At the same time, former Washington District 18 legislative candidate John Ley noted during the steering group’s Nov. 6 meeting public comment period that CAG didn’t include “the voice of the taxpayer. Where’s the value, and what do the people want?”
The question raises one of the many sticking points among stakeholders as to the purpose and function of the new interstate bridge. Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission member Chris Smith told the steering group during public comment that while there are “good reasons to replace the bridge,” the project should not expand the number of lanes.
However, Ley said “overwhelmingly, people want a reduction in traffic congestion. We do not want to be managed.”
He also noted that the steering group intends to release a draft conceptual finance plan on Dec. 1, even while the project’s scope has yet to be defined. “Can anybody tell me what the cost of the project…? If you don’t know the cost, how can you come up with the finance plan?”
The steering group’s next meeting is Nov. 30.