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Clark County Council divided over I-5 Bridge resolution

The issues of mass transit, traffic capacity, and tolling have become sticking points for a resolution headed to Gov. Jay Inslee

CLARK COUNTY — The demise of the Columbia River Crossing project undoubtedly set the future of a new Interstate Bridge on I-5 back several years, at least. In the five years since that project stalled out, costing taxpayers over $170 million, traffic congestion has grown steadily worse, especially for the thousands who call Clark County home, but work in Oregon.

The I-5 Bridge, as seen from Warehouse 23 on the Vancouver side of the Columbia River. Photo by Chris Brown
The I-5 Bridge, as seen from Warehouse 23 on the Vancouver side of the Columbia River. Photo by Chris Brown

Now efforts are underway, on the Washington side of the Columbia River anyway, to revive the conversation over what to do with the 100-year old I-5 bridge. Last week, Vancouver City Council members approved a resolution stating their support for a new bridge project. In that statement, mass transit would be a key component of any bridge, including the possible extension of Light Rail into Clark County.

At their council time meeting this week, the Clark County councilors debated their own version of that resolution, but struggled to find consensus on the language around mass transit, as well as whether tolls should be used to help fund a bridge replacement.

While language in the bill says the county supports a fiscally responsible project that considers the economic impact on Clark County families, it doesn’t explicitly come out against the idea of implementing tolls.

“So the statement from Clark County Council will end up being ‘we don’t care if there are tolls for our citizens,’” said councilor Jeanne Stewart. “Because we’re not objecting to them.”

Clark County Councilor Jeanne Stewart speaks at a Regional Transportation Commission meeting. Photo by Chris Brown
Clark County Councilor Jeanne Stewart speaks at a Regional Transportation Commission meeting. Photo by Chris Brown

Councilor Julie Olson countered that getting into the weeds on such details is premature at this point, since this is just a resolution to express to the governor’s office the importance of the I-5 Bridge project to the future of the region.

“We’re not talking about a project here. There’s not a project identified,” said Olson.

Stewart, who was a Vancouver city councilor when the Columbia River Crossing project was imploding, responded that ambiguous language at this stage can lead to problems down the road.

“It’s gonna mutate,” she said. “I’m gonna buy a hat for myself today, and in about three or four years, if we don’t see mutations in whatever we thought was our best effort here, I’m gonna eat that hat.”

Regional Transportation Commission Director Matt Ransom speaks at a meeting in August. Photo by Chris Brown
Regional Transportation Commission Director Matt Ransom speaks at a meeting in August. Photo by Chris Brown

In terms of adding mass transit capacity to the new bridge, all the council members agreed that it should be there in some respect, but most believe that C-TRAN’s new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service would be a more cost-effective solution to spending billions bringing Light Rail over from Portland.

“The Oregon side believes that the remedy for congestion is that you don’t go there in a car,” Stewart said. Councilor Eileen Quiring agreed, saying a dedicated BRT lane on the new bridge could represent a significant cost-savings that could be used elsewhere in the project.

Bridge Resolution considered by RTC

On Tuesday, the I-5 Bridge resolution was a topic at the monthly Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council (RTC) meeting, which Quiring and Stewart sit on. It is co-chaired by Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, who said their resolution was intentionally vague.

“This resolution was simply to ask the governor to put it into his budget to direct WSDOT to start a new project,” she said. “To start the conversation.”

“A conversation has started,” Quiring shot back. “It’s already been named a project of state significance. RTC has had it on their plan for years.”

Rep. Vicki Kraft, of the 17th District, also said it’s her opinion that emphasizing mass transit in the project is a waste of money, considering C-TRAN’s express service currently only carries around 1,500 passengers a day to and from Oregon.

“As of the 2017 financial report, of all the revenues that C-TRAN receives, only 11 percent are from ridership payment,” Kraft said. “So taxpayers are subsidizing the rest of that entire C-TRAN system. That’s very, very expensive. So when ‘meeting demand’ is included in this resolution, I don’t think it’s an accurate reflection of the reality.”

Stewart shared the same concern, that the resolution RTC was considering adopting spent a lot of language talking about the need for mass transit, and little about addressing existing congestion through adding vehicle lanes.

Carly Francis, Regional Planning Director for Washington’s Department of Transportation (WSDOT), said the conversation around mass transit is likely to be different this time around, because C-TRAN’s Bus Rapid Transit service wasn’t around during the ill-fated CRC project.

“And so I think being open to those possibilities makes a lot of sense right now, just to look at what the data says for what reliability can be provided through those transit options looking forward,” said Francis.

The RTC meeting ended with some confusion as Third Bridge Now advocate Sharon Nassett yelled that Director Matt Ransom was lying about the I-5 bridge project, and some commission members expressed confusion over what they had actually just voted for. Ultimately, the commission moved the resolution, as written, to their next meeting in October for more discussion and a possible vote to approve it.

As for the Clark County Council’s I-5 Bridge Resolution, no date has been set for a final vote. The city of La Center is scheduled to vote on a resolution supporting the project at their council meeting next week.

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About The Author

Chris Brown

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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