Regional Transportation Council approves I-5 Bridge replacement resolution

The resolution calls for mass transit with a “dedicated guideway”, but doesn’t mention added traffic capacity

VANCOUVER — After months of talk, the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council (RTC) voted Tuesday to approve a resolution supporting a new effort to replace the aging Interstate Bridge on I-5. The council’s resolution, which was essentially unchanged from what was discussed at their September meeting, includes language asking for high-capacity transit with a “dedicated guideway.”

The Regional Transportation Council meets at the Clark County Public Service building for their October session. Photo by Chris Brown
The Regional Transportation Council meets at the Clark County Public Service building for their October session. Photo by Chris Brown

That language prompted Clark County Council members Eileen Quiring and Jeanne Stewart to vote against the resolution.

“This resolution doesn’t mention capacity. It doesn’t mention how we’re going to pay for it,” Quiring told the council’s Board of Directors at the October meeting on Tuesday. “And although it does mention high capacity transit, it doesn’t specifically say ‘bus rapid transit,’ if we must have a guideway for it.”

Vancouver mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, who is vice-chair of the RTC Board, brought the resolution forward, although Executive Director Matt Ransom crafted most of the language.

“We purposely did not discuss what color the tiles are, or the lights, or anything else,” said McEnerny-Ogle. “We want the conversation to start moving forward on a new project, and we have had significant support from Oregon to come back to the table.”

In public comments before the vote on the resolution, Camas resident John Ley pointed to recent studies that show the biggest traffic problem in the metro area, outside of Highway 26 west of the Vista Ridge Tunnel, is I-5 through the Rose Quarter in downtown Portland.

“The interstate bridge is not the problem,” Ley told the board. “Oregon will waste half of the $450 million allocated in HB 2017 for the Rose Quarter to create real estate. They’ll build two concrete lids over I-5 and build a bike/pedestrian bridge. This will do nothing to improve traffic congestion nor vehicle safety.”

As for high capacity transit, Ley and Quiring both pointed to recent data from C-TRAN that showed about 1,500 people currently ride their route into Portland each day, raising questions about how popular a dedicated mass transit option would be.

“Just because Oregon demands a new Light Rail project in search of a bridge, doesn’t mean you should spend our transportation dollars on something that doesn’t fix the problem,” said Ley.

“Realizing that part of the reason for saying that we’re going to have this separate guideway for the bridge is to obtain more Federal funding, I think we need to be careful to listen also to what the majority of the people in the county said in the past,” said Quiring. “Since passing the resolution at the county I’ve heard a lot from people who were very unhappy that we weren’t listening to what the people said by what was in even our resolution that was amended.”

Clark County Council is expected to soon pass another resolution related to Federal funding of the Interstate Bridge project, pushing the US Department of Transportation to approve enough funding to avoid the need for tolls on either the new bridge, or both crossings into Portland.

A dedicated guideway, in transportation terms, simply means a lane exclusively used for mass transit. Clark County Chair Marc Boldt wanted to know if including that term in the RTC resolution meant they were asking for a larger project than just replacing the 100-year old bridge.

“When we say ‘dedicated guideway,’ it’s gotta start somewhere and stop somewhere,” Boldt said. “So are we just talking about the bridge for the dedicated guideway? … Are we saying that the project is larger than the bridge? Because you’ve gotta get off and get on this dedicated guideway.”

C-TRAN Executive Director Shawn Donaghy said the new bridge would likely compose at least 85 percent of the guideway.

“Our long-term goal is to terminate somewhere on Hayden Island,” Donaghy said. “We would probably need an exit ramp for that, and an on ramp. And probably some consideration as well for some type of a combined northbound freight/public transit only exit into Vancouver.”

The RTC resolution does not mention adding any added capacity for regular traffic, which both Quiring and Stewart mentioned in saying they wouldn’t support it. WSDOT Regional Administrator Kris Strickler abstained because he is leaving at the end of this week to take a job with Oregon’s Department of Transportation. Metro Council representative Shirley Craddick also abstained.

The RTC vote is the latest in a series of such resolutions passed by city governments and the county council. La Center’s city council decided, instead, to send a letter to the governor’s office, rather than passing an official resolution.

“I keep in mind the big picture, because you each used different language,” said Ransom. “But the core feature is the same, which is asking for the next step.”

McEnerny-Ogle said her office already has a meeting set up with Washington Governor Jay Inslee in November to address the bridge, and push for funding to open a Department of Transportation office in Vancouver to work on the project. 17th District Representative Paul Harris said the Southwest Washington legislative delegation met last week to discuss priorities, including the Interstate bridge project. He said a meeting with Governor Inslee is set to request $10 million for the new WSDOT office, along with Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek and, possibly, the rest of the Oregon legislature. Meetings with Oregon’s governor will have to wait until after the results of November’s election.

Whatever happened to a third crossing?

One issue brought up in public comments was the possibility of a third Columbia River crossing, either east of I-205 or west of I-5.

John Ley pointed out that RTC itself was once a vocal supporter of a new crossing. “It’s been a decade since you produced an excellent product — the 2008 visioning study,” said Ley. “It looked at population growth and transportation needs for both 2030 and 2050. You identified the need for two new bridges across the Columbia River. You provided two separate options for each of the proposed new bridges and transportation corridors.”

Sharon Nasset with the Economic Transportation Alliance said even many elected officials don’t seem to remember that the Columbia River Crossing project wasn’t just about replacing the I-5 Bridge, but an environmental impact study looking at multiple options. The bridge replacement was, ultimately, adopted as the Locally Preferred Alternative.

“The independent panel review, which you spent a million dollars on said all the people who started it (the CRC) need to be fired,” said Nasset, “a new group needed to come in, and that they could reach out to the community, but the community did not, and could not reach in.”

But Ed Barnes, a Vancouver resident, said the idea of a third crossing isn’t an efficient use of the limited transportation funding available.

“When you look at east county and west county, you’re not just looking at a bridge, you’re looking at a freeway to get there, and those freeways aren’t cheap,” Barnes countered. “And the property that my local union owns on the Oregon side of the river, the east county bridge would jump right into that property that they have over there, so I’m just urging everybody here, let’s go forwards, not backwards. It doesn’t do any good to keep hashing over what happened five years ago, three years ago, ten years ago. Let’s look and see what we can do today to make this happen.”

Just before calling for the vote, Ridgefield City Councilor Ron Onslow, chair of the RTC Board, said he’d love to have a conversation about added traffic capacity, funding, and even a third crossing, but that this steps needs to be taken before we can get there.

“In this case we’re just asking for the talks to begin,” said Onslow. “Nothing more. We’re not trying to say ‘you’ve got to put this in the road,’ or how high it’s going to be, or where it’s going to be. It’s just an open request.”

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