Anne McEnerny-Ogle also talked about her wishlist for a new I-5 Bridge
VANCOUVER — Tuesday was Anne McEnerny-Ogle’s 100th day as mayor of Vancouver. She spent part of it sitting down with ClarkCountyToday.com to share her thoughts about the challenges and opportunities she sees at the helm of Southwest Washington’s largest city.
The retired school teacher became Vancouver’s first female mayor after winning easily last November. The biggest change from her four years on the Vancouver City Council, she says, is now being the one tasked with answering the e-mails and letters sent to the entire group. She also confesses she still often corrects the spelling and grammar of letters children send, before responding to their questions or concerns.
McEnerny-Ogle exudes a cheery optimism, and says she’s very much enjoying her turn as Vancouver’s mayor. She believes the city is becoming ever more attractive to businesses, who see it as an alternative to Portland with a higher quality of life and lower cost of doing business.
“More businesses are coming to us because our climate is different on the north bank of the Columbia River,” she says with a smile. “The companies and the young people I’m seeing at these Start-Up weekends came up and migrated into what they thought was the Portland area, looked around, crossed the river and found something very different.
“We just had some very good news that we’ll be sharing in the next couple of weeks,” she hints. “Businesses are looking for land, and we have no income tax, no corporate income tax, we have land, and we have low utility rates.”
But Vancouver isn’t without its share of problems either. While the recovery from the recession took longer in Clark County than many parts of the Metro area, housing and rental prices sky-rocketed over the past three years, leaving a growing number of people scrambling to find a place they could afford.
“They’re starting to come down, because of the market,” McEnerny-Ogle says. “We have 4,300 units either in review or in construction, so that’s starting to bring down the costs of rent and some of those leases. But wages aren’t meeting that 40 percent increase in the rents, so we’re not balancing it very well. And we’re depending on all of our partners to help out with this.”
Those partners include Clark County, the Council for the Homeless, and other groups looking to get people off the street and into places they can afford. But McEnerny-Ogle says at this point Vancouver has no interest in following Portland’s example of stricter rules for landlords, including making them pay moving costs for tenants in some circumstances.
“We did pass three ordinances on how does a landlord determine how much money a renter would have, and proper notice for vacating and rent increases,” she says. “But, that’s as far as the council has discussed right now.”
McEnerny-Ogle says the city isn’t eager to get into the housing business, but they are willing to look at funding for agencies that work in those areas.
“We don’t want to build, but we want to be a partner in advocating for our citizens,” she says. “So, the Housing Authority, the County, and Council for the Homeless, and all of those organizations are helping us meet the needs of our citizens.”
But, she admits, there’s still work to do, especially for people who don’t have the option of moving elsewhere, or finding a second job.
“We have the elderly who thought, in their retirement, that they could afford a certain rent amount if they didn’t own their home,” McEnerny-Ogle says, “and (they) were surprised when that rent doubled, and their social security didn’t double. So now we have a large number of elderly who are trying to figure out their own housing.”
But homelessness is hardly a new issue for Vancouver. McEnerny-Ogle points out that photos of the I-5 Bridge in its infancy, found at the Clark County Historical Museum, show people living in small tent cities underneath the bridge. It was built 100 years ago, as World War I raged.
“We’re all trying to balance this,” she says, “because all of us are wanting greater jobs, which means businesses need to come in, which means the employees want to get closer to the business, which means transportation issues. But the housing piece is our biggest issue right now.”
Housing may be the biggest issue, but transportation is getting most of the headlines these days. A huge part of that focus centers on Oregon, and what they’ll ultimately do about tolls on all or some of I-5 and I-205 in and around Portland. McEnerny-Ogle is one of three Southwest Washington representatives on the Joint Public Advisory Committee on Value Pricing, along with Clark County Councilor Eileen Quiring, and a representative from Washington Department of Transportation.
McEnerny-Ogle can sum up her thoughts about tolling in a single sentence: “The more we hear, the more we’re pretty confident that we’re not real happy about it.”
What she’s primarily not happy with is that, beyond providing a financial incentive to stay off the roads, any money collected from tolling I-5 and/or I-205 likely would do little to improve the infrastructure problems leading to congestion around the area.
“As we look at this tolling process that Oregon is discussing, especially the HOV lanes — one of the five options — we’re not seeing the mitigation that takes care of the congestion,” says McEnerny-Ogle. “It seems, at this stage, that it’s merely generating revenue for them to use at the Abernathy Bridge (in Oregon City) or at the Stafford project, but not here.”
The Advisory Committee meets again this week, to look at possible options to mitigate the impact of tolling on more vulnerable communities. But, as it sits now, no one who lives on the Washington side of the freeways could take advantage of any discount programs Oregon might offer.
Another point of contention has been whether money raised from tolling the freeways could be used for the I-5 Bridge. Oregon’s Department of Transportation is tasked with maintaining the bridge under a cost sharing agreement with Washington. Mayor McEnerny-Ogle believes the directive of the Oregon Legislature when it comes to value pricing would allow money to go towards fixing at least some of the problems along that I-5 bridge.
“The legislation, as it was written, was to take care of the issue from the state line,” she says. “The state line is in the middle of the Columbia River, in the middle of that bridge. So money collected from tolling could still stay in Oregon, and help the bridge.”
New I-5 Bridge
And by help the bridge, McEnerny-Ogle means ultimately replacing it. She has made no secret of her support for getting both sides back to the table and working together on a new bridge.
“Losing (the Columbia River Crossing project) five years ago was a true heartbreak,” she says. “A lot of people are feeling right now like ‘my heart is broken and I don’t want to discuss it.’ Well we can’t wait. Sorry, but we have new people in our community. Things have changed in both of our communities.”
A significant thing that changed was the pull-out of two major cargo carriers at Portland’s Terminal 6, leading to a heavy increase of semi traffic along I-5. Add to that thousands of new residents on both sides of the bridge, and commute times have been steadily increasing in recent years.
So what kind of bridge would Vancouver’s new mayor want to see? A big item on her wish list would be shoulders for disabled vehicles.
“Commuting across that bridge for 25 years as a teacher, if I have an accident I want to be able to pull off,” she says.
Add to that the removal of the lift span, or at least a renegotiation with the Coast Guard about when larger cargo would need to use the river, in order to reduce the number of bridge lifts during the day.
“I don’t need colored tiles on the bridge,” McEnerny-Ogle adds. “I don’t need anything fancy. I’m sure there’s some wonderful existing designs that would work just fine.
“I do need mass transit,” she continues. “Mass Transit is what paid for the bridge the last time. It didn’t make any difference what mass transit, but the money 15 years ago was there for mass transit. That money has gone away.”
McEnerny-Ogle isn’t necessarily dead set on light rail being part of the package, an element that many pushed against for the CRC, but it’s likely Portland would insist on it being part of the deal.
Others have pushed for a third crossing over the Columbia. McEnerny-Ogle says she’d love to see that happen, but only after the I-5 Bridge is dealt with.
“The third crossing has always been on the plans,” she says. “The 1992 high-capacity transit plan that the Regional Transportation Council designed has always had a third bridge. But it was based on getting this bridge done, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”
There’s only one problem with that plan: Metro does not have any interest at this time in a third Columbia River bridge.
“We look at their 2040 transportation plan, and they don’t have a third corridor in Oregon for a third bridge,” says McEnerny-Ogle. “And we can’t build a bridge that is going to just sit and dump into the Columbia River … You need the other state to say, ‘come on over, land your bridge,’ and that’s not there.”
But Oregon is still willing to sit down and talk about the future of the I-5 Bridge. A group of Southwest Washington lawmakers sent a letter to Oregon’s legislature last week, formally letting them know that their neighbors to the north want to get back to figuring things out.
Another conversation they’re having? The possibility of tolls on highways in Southwest Washington. You can probably thank Seattle for that one.
Whatever the future of the I-5 Bridge, or the seemingly inevitable cost of driving on our roads and highways, Vancouver appears to be poised on the edge of even greater growth. It remains to be seen whether its optimistic and energetic former school teacher of a new mayor can guide the city through pitfalls that befall many others in its position. But McEnerny-Ogle says she’s at least having fun trying.