I-5 Columbia River Bridge

Glimmer of Hope Surfaces on I-5 Bridge Project Restart

A glimmer of hope has appeared that Washington and Oregon may take the first steps to resume work on replacing I-5 Columbia River Bridge by restarting bi-state project office.

A glimmer of hope has appeared that Washington and Oregon may take the first steps to resume work on replacing I-5 Columbia River Bridge by restarting bi-state project office.

Someday, the I-5 Columbia River Bridge will be replaced. And Washington State hopes that someday is sooner rather than later.

The Washington Legislature generated some fresh enthusiasm when it included $450 million in a proposed transportation investment package to cover the state’s projected share of the cost to replace the bridge. Plus, Washington Governor Jay Inslee included $17.5 million to re-open a project office in his proposed 2019-2020 transportation budget.

The Southwest Washington legislative delegation has tried to stoke the appropriations fires and managed to make the bridge replacement that state’s number one priority in the propose transportation investment package that passed out of the Washington Senate Transportation Committee. However, with a portion of funding for such a packaged tied to creating a carbon fee in Washington, building the necessary support to pass it this year looks more like embers than sparks.

Washington looks poised to retain at least $8.5 million for a project office. While less than early-session expectations, opening a project office would begin laying the groundwork for replacing the bridge. Washington’s Department of Transportation, along with its Oregon counterpart, local cities and community partners, would start re-evaluating permits and design, develop a fresh budget and re-engage with stakeholders on both sides of the river.

Light rail, the bogeyman that helped sink a bi-state deal several years ago, remains a lightning rod. In his budget proposal, Inslee included a light rail provision, even though regional advocates encouraged calling for “mass transit“ to allow for further evaluation. Any mention of light rail has disappeared.

Meanwhile, Oregon, the putative partner in a bridge replacement deal, has been more or less quiet. There have been back-channel conversations between Olympia and Salem, but no real commitments. Majority Democrats in Salem are consumed with a cap-and-trade proposal and quest to raise $2 billion in new revenue for public education. A major transportation funding package is not anywhere near the adult table.

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek remains the most ardent advocate for replacing the bridge, which is part of her North Portland legislative district. She probably has support in the office of Oregon Governor Kate Brown and a good chunk of lawmakers. But without a strong, definitive move by Washington officials there is little reason to start beating the drums in Salem. That definitive move appears to be on the horizon.

 

Vancouver Acts to Relaunch Effort to Replace I-5 Bridge

Untimely bridge lifts delay and irritate motorists and freight haulers crossing the Columbia River on I-5. The City of Vancouver has stepped forward with a resolution seeking to restart a conversation to replace the bridge.

Untimely bridge lifts delay and irritate motorists and freight haulers crossing the Columbia River on I-5. The City of Vancouver has stepped forward with a resolution seeking to restart a conversation to replace the bridge.

Traffic and backups on I-5 haven’t abated and untimely Columbia River bridge lifts continue to slow and frustrate commuters, shippers and motorists just trying to get through. An effort to resume discussions of a new bridge is beginning to take shape.

The Vancouver City Council voted unanimously this week in support of replacing the I-5 Columbia River bridge. The Council resolution also asked Governor Jay Inslee to “provide adequate funding” for the Washington Department of Transportation to relaunch the process that came to a sudden stop in 2015 after Washington lawmakers refused to commit their share of costs and Oregon officials pulled the plug.

Other Southwest Washington municipalities may follow suit, with the goal of creating momentum that brings – or drags – Oregon policymakers back to the table.

That may be more complicated as Oregon transportation officials are finishing up recommendations to toll some or all of I-5 and I-205. The purpose of the tolling is to reduce congestion. Revenue raised from tolls would go to Oregon roadway investments, not a new I-5 Columbia River bridge.

Washington Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler has threatened to block Oregon Interstate highway tolls because of what she views as their disproportionate impact on her constituents.

If bridge talks do restart, the extension of light rail to Vancouver may remain a sticking point. Attitudes north of the river may have changed, but a transit component may be a precondition for Oregon officials to re-engage.

The Vancouver resolution addresses this challenge by seeking a bridge replacement that includes “high capacity transit with a dedicated guideway.” This language would allow for either light rail or bus rapid transit on a new bridge, and presumably would provide some breathing room for future debate on both options. Bus rapid transit has been embraced as a more affordable alternative in some areas in Clark County outside of Vancouver.

The timing of renewed discussion also presents challenges. Oregon lawmakers passed a major transportation and transit measure in the 2017 legislative session. It contained no provisions relating to a replacement I-5 Columbia River bridge,  but did create a panel to review mega projects in the state moving forward. Based on past experience, another major transportation funding proposal would be difficult unless party leaders put their full weight behind a new bridge project. Veteran legislative leaders such as Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek may see this as an opening on a legacy project.

One of the failings of the Columbia River Crossing effort was its single focus on a new bridge and related highway improvements. In reality, Portland-area and Southwest Washington residents and businesses have broader transportation interests in common as population growth and business expansion continues on both sides of the river.

Vancouver officials have signaled a willingness to pursue some kind of bi-state partnership to identify common ground, regional transportation objectives and a strategy to find a bridge solution.

Collaboration has occurred at the ODOT-WSDOT level and there have been coalitions in both states supporting a new bridge, but elected officials haven’t driven the strategy or policy decisions.