Washington Lawmakers Send Smoke Signal About Bridge Replacement

The Columbia River Crossing project went away, but not the congestion that continues to frustrate shippers and  commuters between Southwest Washington and Portland who have gained the attention of Washington lawmakers.

The Columbia River Crossing project went away, but not the congestion that continues to frustrate shippers and  commuters between Southwest Washington and Portland who have gained the attention of Washington lawmakers.

Plans to replace the aging, congested I-5 Columbia River Bridge crashed two years ago and now lawmakers from Southwest Washington are trying to send smoke signals to their Oregon legislative counterparts that there is still life in the project.

Life support might be a better description.

An ambitious project to replace the vehicle bridge and add a crossing for light rail from Portland to Vancouver faltered when the Washington legislature failed to come up with its share of funding to match federal and Oregon funding commitments. Light rail was a sticking point, but legislative attention and favor was aimed at a major project in the Seattle metropolitan area.

It didn’t help that former Southwest Washington Senator Don Benton planned the project. Benton is now working in DC as part of the Trump administration.

Qualms about light rail extending into Vancouver may still remain, but the more dominant narrative is the continued frustration of Southwest Washington commuters who endure ever longer delays because of bridge lifts and thick congestion on I-5. The Southwest Washington delegation has gotten the message.

What the delegation has managed to eke out Is legislative language coming out of the Washington Senate Transportation Committee calling the I-5 Columbia River Bridge a “project of great public importance.” That would strike commuters heading daily into Portland as classic understatement.

Senators Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center, had pushed for more. They wanted the bridge project tagged with the phrase “statewide significance,” which could help to expedite permitting for the project. Despite the downgraded wording and vague reference to mass transit and other Columbia River bridge crossing, the senators tried to put the best blush on the outcome and hoped Oregon lawmakers would take notice. They said it shows there is consensus to move forward.

Oregon officials are trying to pass a transportation funding package in the 2017 legislative session, but the starting list of projects proposed by Governor Brown didn’t include the I-5 Columbia River Bridge. Coincidentally, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane suggested this week several major congestion-fighting projects in the Portland area, including light rail extension to Tualatin, but his list didn’t include light rail extension to Vancouver or a new bridge.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, whose North Portland House district includes the area leading up to the bridge, was  and, according to a spokesperson, remains a strong advocate for a replacement of the existing bridge.

The Washington legislative action would authorize $350,000 to inventory and catalogue previous work on the Columbia River Crossing, which devoured millions of dollars in engineering and consulting services, and prepare a report back to the Washington legislature by December 1.

That may be enough for Oregon officials to reciprocate and agree to resume some level of bi-state exploration of a solution to what may be the worst bottleneck in the region, if not the entire Pacific Northwest. Even if discussions resume, an actual consensus project still may be years off and the necessary funding further downstream.