Clark County Council passes resolution on I-5 Bridge replacement project

Karen Dill Bowerman and Gary Medvigy
Karen Dill Bowerman and Gary Medvigy

County Council resolution approves a project, but not one with light rail unless it is first approved in an advisory vote by a majority of county residents

Members of the Clark County Council passed a resolution Wednesday in favor of a replacement I-5 Bridge that supports relief of traffic congestion and ensures seismic safety. However, in the resolution, the councilors expressed their opposition to Clark County residents paying for construction, maintenance and operation costs of MAX light rail on the bridge and into Clark County and made it clear that C-TRAN’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) was preferred for the project over light rail.

The County Council’s resolution comes on the heels of a unanimous vote of support for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program’s (IBR) Modified Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) by the members of the Vancouver City Council and a majority of support by the members of the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council. In addition, other partners of the project in both Oregon and Washington also recently gave their support to the project. 

Wednesday’s resolution from the County Council was the strongest comment to date in opposition to the project. The resolution also included support for the creation of a truck-only lane for improved freight mobility, a fourth passenger vehicle through land and for community partners to begin work in support of a third bridge crossing between Clark County and Oregon.

“The different regional stakeholders are weighing in from (Portland) Metro, the City of Vancouver, local Ports, to C-TRAN all joining in to support the locally preferred option that notably includes light rail,’’ said Councilor Gary Medvigy. “They are doing so with conditions, but focusing on providing support to build the bridge quickly. The Clark County Council is not a named stakeholder, but we have a responsibility to speak up on behalf of our constituents that are not being represented by these stakeholder groups.’’

The  County Council considered the resolution during a long meeting Tuesday night.  However, Chair Bowerman was uneasy with some language in the resolution, specifically concerning light rail, so the council decided to consider an amendment of the resolution during their Wednesday morning Council Time. New language for the resolution was presented and discussed during council time, and a vote was taken. Councilor Medvigy, Chair Bowerman and Councilor Dick Rylander  each voted in favor of the resolution and Councilor Julie Olson voted against. Councilor Temple Lentz was absent from both the Tuesday and Wednesday meetings, therefore did not vote on the resolution. 

“I got the white paper out that I had written for the resolution and it really looked to me that the first draft was very clear,’’ Bowerman said. “I sent it out to the council and said let’s consider putting this back into the resolution because it says what we all agree we want to have said. That being that the council opposes every light rail project in Clark County unless it is supported by a majority of the voters in a county-wide vote of the people.’’

Bowerman said the language goes on to state that C-TRAN’s BRT is preferred “because of its cost effectiveness and its flexibility in responding to the transportation needs of the area.’’ 

Medvigy said the council’s resolution represented area residents who have continually voiced opposition to the inclusion of light rail in the project, both in the failed Columbia River Crossing (CRC) and the current project.

“The issue for SW Washington’s taxpayers is that they have on multiple occasions spoken up and expressed, including through advisory votes, that light rail is NOT supported,’’ Medvigy wrote in an email response to Clark County Today. “The lessons learned from the failed CRC are different for different stakeholders. Notably, the takeaway for (IBR Administrator) Greg Johnson’s team is to manage their messaging differently, instead of the direct taxpayer message – don’t include light rail. So, it was important for the county to speak up and not join the chorus of this narrative to support the locally preferred option. 

“There is no current mass transit data to support building light rail at this time,’’ Medvigy stated. “A plan to expand C-TRAN buses as a transit option isn’t strongly supported either at this time, since ridership across the river is not in great demand. Buses, however, can readily expand as the need grows at comparatively low cost. So, buses, as the mass transit component makes the most sense today and into the near future. On the other hand, a $1.3 billion and higher price tag (for light rail) as an add-on cost to the I-5 bridge at a time when there is little demand is a very poor decision and an excessive waste of precious taxpayer money. Light rail is a complex capital project by itself, with a huge price tag and should be separately addressed as a future project once the demand signal for its existence is clear. That data doesn’t exist today.’’

Although the Clark County Council is not considered a partner to the current project, the resolution will be passed on to the IBR team.

“That is the message we hope to deliver to Greg Johnson and with an open mind the stakeholders will return to focus on what is essential: a new bridge, congestion relief and freight mobility through auxiliary lane expansion,’’ Medvigy said. “Let’s drop the added complexity and cost of light rail for the locally preferred option.’’

Bowerman said the IBR team is “good at listening and they need to hear that all of Clark County is not, in fact, united on the joy of bringing light rail to the county. That’s what this message tells them. It says there are other factors that need to be considered before it is pushed on to the citizens of the county, that being not just the financing, but also a vote being taken on whether or not they wish to have it in the county.’’ 

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