Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney gave a trademark rebuke this week to State of Washington legislation that seeks to resume bi-state planning for a replacement of the I-5 Columbia River Bridge.
Courtney said he was so upset when Washington abruptly pulled out of bi-state cooperation on what was called the Columbia River Crossing that he angrily swung his arm, toppling the Pope Francis bobblehead sitting on his desk. “He got wounded. We bandaged the poor pope,” Courtney said, adding the hurt – presumably his, not the bobblehead’s – hasn’t gone away.
In less colorful ways, Governor Brown and House Speaker Tina Kotek were equally adamant as Courtney in deflecting Washington’s effort to rekindle interest in a new bridge to address one of the most serious bottlenecks on I-5 in the Pacific Northwest. All three officials said the transportation package being crafted in the Oregon legislature won’t include any provision relating to bridge replacement.
While the sentiment among Oregon officials is understandable, the consequences may mean that any progress on a new bridge, which Washington Governor Jay Inslee now says is a “high priority," could be pushed off for another decade. Oregon manages to come up with a significant transportation plan about every 10 years.
Then there is the Trump $1 trillion infrastructure plan. As outlined by President Trump, the plan would favor projects that private developers could build and toll to recoup their investment. Trump also says he wants to prioritize projects that are ready to go. There is a fairly advanced plan to replace the Columbia River I-5 bridge with vehicular and transit bridges, which presumably could be quickly resuscitated, tweaked as needed and put in play for funding from the Trump plan.
Traffic on the two bridges connecting Portland and Vancouver has continued to climb after a brief decline during the last recession. Now around 300,000 vehicles use the two bridges daily, lengthening peak-hour commuting times. Commuter “peak hours” have extended to three or more hours, traffic engineers report. Bridge lifts on the I-5 bridge routinely thwart motorists who cross the river for doctor appointments, job interviews and child care pickups.
Oregon lawmakers face a daunting challenge to find a politically acceptable solution to a $1.6 billion budget hole and what Republicans call unsustainable spending, which already has added to complicated political calculus of building a transportation funding package for roads, bridges and transit. But they also might be guilty of missing the forest for the trees.
Vancouver’s major waterfront redevelopment is well underway, which is likely to change attitudes about light rail. Reluctance among Clark County officials to hook onto Portland’s MAX system was a major factor in deep-sizing the Columbia River Crossing plan. One of the most vocal opponents, Senator Don Benton, has left town to work in the Trump administration, heading up the Selective Service.
It doesn’t take enormous imagination to see stars suddenly align on a plan that Washington and Oregon officials – and commuters and freight haulers in both states – could embrace in time to pitch for a piece of the Trump infrastructure pie. The timing may not be convenient and hard feelings may not have receded, but the stakes seem too high to ignore.
A capstone project like a new I-5 Columbia River bridge might ignite even greater interest in an Oregon transportation funding package and inject fresh energy into expansion of the metropolitan light rail system, which today awkwardly ends in the Portland Expo Center parking lot on the Oregon side of the Columbia River.
Courtney, using Trumpesque language, says the transportation bill under development in Salem is “extraordinary” and will be “one of the greatest transportation plans Oregon has ever seen. “We’ll take care of our own backyard,” Courtney explains, “and then we’ll decide whether or not there’s a state north of us.” Frustrated motorists and truck drivers who sit sometimes for hours waiting to cross the I-5 bridge can attest there definitely is a state “north of us."