The 16 Washington and Oregon lawmakers pledged a clean slate on the long-delayed project
VANCOUVER — Friday represented a milestone in the effort to reinvigorate plans to replace the aging Interstate Bridge on I-5. But, while Oregon lawmakers joined their Washington counterparts on an official basis for the first time since the failure of the Columbia River Crossing project in 2013, the only thing clear after the group’s first meeting was that something needs to happen.
“We can’t spend forever to do it,” said Rep. Sharon Wylie of Vancouver’s 49th District. “The time is now.”
The meeting drew a capacity crowd to the Vancouver City Council chambers, with people spilling out into the hallway.
The 16-member committee, officially dubbed the Joint Interstate 5 Bridge Committee, is split between Oregon and Washington lawmakers, with Sen. Annette Cleveland (D-Vancouver) of the 49th District and Rep. Brandon Vick (R-Vancouver) of the 18th District splitting co-chair duties on the Washington side.
“In case you are worried this wasn’t an official government event, I am the fourth co-chair of this committee, so we’ve got that covered,” quipped Vick.
On the Oregon side, the co-chairs are Sen. Lee Beyer, a Democrat from Springfield, and Rep. Susan McLain, a Washington County Democrat representing West Hillsboro and Forest Grove. McLain is one of only two Oregon lawmakers from the Portland-metro area on the committee. The other is Sen. Lew Frederick, a Portland Democrat, who noted he “still carries some scars” from the previous failed efforts to replace the bridge.
The Oregon Legislature put its committee together last August, eight months after an unofficial meeting between the Washington delegation and Oregon lawmakers on Hayden Island in December of last year. At that time, the discussion centered largely around hard feelings from when Washington pulled out of the Columbia River Crossing project after Oregon had approved funding from their side. This time around there was a more conciliatory tone.
“We’re starting from ground zero,” said Beyer. “There’s no assumption that we will fix the bridge, although I would think we need to do that.”
Of the eight Washington lawmakers, six are from the Clark County area.
“For me to get from here to my house is 231 miles,” noted Rep. Caddy McKeown of Oregon’s 9th District, which covers much of the southern coast.
“I was a freshman in the legislature in 2013,” McKeown added. “The first thing that the speaker did was privileged me with a seat on the committee that failed in its attempt to move this project forward a number of years ago, and all that did was whet my appetite for what we’re starting on today.”
Six members of the Oregon delegation do sit on the state’s Transportation Committee, and many who drove hundreds of miles to attend the meeting (and presumably will again for meetings Nov. 13 and Dec. 20), said they believe the gridlock happening between Oregon and Washington State represents a massive problem for businesses across the region.
“To us that are located many miles away, and most of my home industries are,” said Sen. Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario). “We want something that works, because we’ll be helping pay for it. And, more to the point, we’ll be using.”
Bentz was heavily involved in the CRC, which collapsed after lawmakers in Oregon approved funding, only to watch their colleagues in Olympia get cold feet.
“I’m looking at that in the rearview mirror and saying, ‘gee, I hope that doesn’t happen again,’” said Bentz. “And thus I’m very happy that we’re here today with this kind of fresh start, or do-over, or 2.0.”
This time, it’s Washington coming to the table with money in their pockets, though not the $450 million it appeared the legislature was set to pass earlier in the previous session. Ultimately, lawmakers approved $35 million, which will be spent largely on studying options for a new bridge, and examining how much of the CRC research can be repurposed for this project.
Oregon set aside $9 million in its most recent budget aimed at studying potential I-5 Bridge replacement options.
While $44 million towards a project that could cost up to $3 billion seems like a drop in the bucket, the spending did at least delay repayment of $140 million that Oregon and Washington owe the federal government for grant funding towards the CRC.
Under that agreement, the states must show a comprehensive plan for a new Interstate Bridge by September of 2024 in order to avoid having to pay back the money.
“The first effort took about 13-15 years of public discussion. I don’t think we’re gonna do that again,” said Beyer. “At least I’m not going to do that.”
Old bridge growing more costly
While there are endless debates about how much the current bridge spans contribute to daily traffic congestion, there is no question that they have outlasted their lifespan.
Prior to their meeting, the lawmakers had a chance to tour the bridge, including maintenance tours that are staffed around the clock.
Travis Brouwer, Oregon’s deputy director for transportation, said that ongoing maintenance costs around $1.2 million annually. While the bridge is considered structurally sound, keeping it that way is getting increasingly costly.
“There are very significant capital maintenance costs that are coming up in the next few years. Around $280 million dollars,” Brouwer told the committee. “And all of those projects will have significant impacts on traffic flow.”
The most impactful of those projects will be a replacement of the trunnion on the northbound bridge span in September of 2020, which will close the span for nine days. Traffic both directions will use the southbound span, with lane closures being moved to allow for two lanes of southbound traffic in the morning, and two for northbound traffic in the afternoon.
Even as work continues to keep the lift span functional, Brouwer noted that the bridge is woefully outdated from a modern design perspective, prone to failure if a large earthquake were to hit the region. It also lacks shoulders, creating massive problems whenever there is a stall or a crash on the bridge. The stretch of freeway also includes a higher density of on and off-ramps.
“And as we’ve seen, it’s one of the few stoplights on the interstate system,” added Brouwer. “This has been ranked one of the worst truck bottlenecks in the nation consistently for 15 years at least, and currently it is rated the 29th worst bottleneck by the trucking industry.”
During the analysis period for the Columbia River Crossing, Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) estimated some $40 billion worth of truck freight moves over the bridge each year. That number is likely much higher now, with more freight moving up the freeway to ports in Tacoma and Seattle.
At present, an estimated 138,000 vehicles cross the I-5 Bridge during each weekday, creating up to four hours of southbound congestion in the morning, and 5-7 hours of northbound congestion in the afternoon. That has created traffic problems in neighborhoods along the freeway as people seek alternate routes around the congestion, leading to unsafe conditions and pollution.
The increased congestion affects an estimated 68,000 people from Clark County who live on this side of the river, but work in Oregon.
Brouwer noted that his state has created funding for work to hopefully alleviate some of the traffic congestion problems at the Rose Quarter, considered to be the worst traffic bottleneck in the city of Portland. That work won’t add more lanes of travel to the freeway, but will rework some of the on and off-ramps in order to have less traffic entering the freeway in that area. Oregon is also considering adding tolls to some of its freeways, partially as a traffic control device, but also to raise revenue for future highway projects.
Focusing on the bridge
The longest discussion of the afternoon centered on adoption of the committee’s foundational principles.
Sen. Annette Cleveland (D-Vancouver, 49th District), who shares the co-chair seat with Rep. Vick, noted that the list was in no particular order, but some members took issue with the wording of item number one, which stated “Designate the replacement of the I-5 Interstate Bridge as the primary goal.”
“I would move that we change that opening statement to ‘determine if replacing the I-5 Bridge is the primary goal,’” said Bentz. “In other words, folks, I don’t want it said that we walked in here with just replacement of the bridge as the goal.”
Bentz said he wanted to make sure that the committee is open to discussing future plans as well, including potential exploration of a third crossing over the Columbia River. Cleveland noted that there was also another foundational principle that stated the committee would “consider and review future bi-state Columbia River bridge needs for possible repair, maintenance, or new construction.”
Ultimately, the group decided to change the word “designate” to “discuss,” creating a more open-ended approach for the group to talk about all avenues to replacement of the I-5 bridge.
The group also took up Rep. Vick on his recommendation to make the foundational principles a bulleted list, rather than numbered, and agreed to make it a living document that can be altered at a later date.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, people were given two minutes to share their views.
Several brought up their views that the committee should be focused on a third bridge. One said a tunnel would be the most cost-effective, long-term solution. There was even the suggestion of a large waterslide-type contraption from a tower in downtown Vancouver into Portland.
That last one, it must be assumed, was largely tongue-in-cheek.
While the group’s foundational principles, as well as the governors of both Oregon and Washington, have said light rail or some other mass transit component must be part of any new bridge, some have argued that doing so is a waste of resources.
“Only 1,422 people use any of the seven express bus lines, that C-TRAN offers into Portland,” noted John Ley of Camas. “That’s a rounding error of the 310,000 vehicles that cross.”
Ley noted a recent survey by Pemco Insurance of drivers in Oregon and Washington, in which 94 percent said they prefer to drive to work each day.
Several people noted that the committee should set its top priority as “reducing traffic congestion” rather than simply replacing an aging bridge with another one that won’t address the growing problem of a long daily commute.
“That was not listed in the priority and needs. Only safety and freight was numbered today,” said 17th District Rep. Vicki Kraft (R-Vancouver). “That’s a travesty.”
Kraft also noted the same Pemco survey, and further attacked mass transit, noting that only 10 percent of C-TRAN’s operating budget comes from rider fares.
“Building mass transit is not going to get people to want to get out of their cars, and all of a sudden stand in the rain, or do whatever, to take mass transit,” added Kraft. “That is our reality.”
During closing comments, 18th District Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-Vancouver) somewhat addressed those remarks from Kraft, noting that the stated goal of the Washington Bridge Commission has been the alleviation of traffic congestion.
I do want to make it clear here that in the bill that we passed a couple of years ago was to address and alleviate congestion,” said Wilson. “We’re always talking about safety, but we put a priority on the fact that we need to be discussing congestion and it is on the first page of the bill.”
Other lawmakers suggested that, for their next meeting, staff present a list of other options that were considered leading up to the locally preferred alternative for the CRC, along with a list of pros and cons, in order to revisit some previous suggestions.
The committee is scheduled to meet again on Nov. 13, then on Dec. 20. Locations for those meetings have not been finalized.