Washington lawmakers continue to favor the exploration of an I-5 bridge replacement

Efforts by area lawmakers to prioritize the replacement of the Interstate 5 (I-5) bridge as the first solution to transportation issues in Clark County and the Portland Metropolitan area took another step forward Monday with the passage of Senate Bill 5806 (SB 5806) by legislators in Olympia.

SB 5806 — sponsored by Sen. Annette Cleveland (D-49th District), Sen. Ann Rivers (R-18th District) and Sen. Lynda Wilson (R.-17th District) and others — passed a floor vote 45-4 Monday. The bill, and its companion in the state House of Representatives (HB 2095), reflects an attempt by area lawmakers to continue the process of exploring solutions to the area’s transportation congestion while making the replacement of the I-5 bridge the first priority.

HB 2095 — sponsored by Rep. Paul Harris (R-17th District), Rep. Monica Stonier (D-49th District), Rep. Brandon Vick (R-18th District) Rep. Sharon Wylie (D-49th District) and others — recently was voted out of the House Transportation Committee and is currently in the Rules Committee, awaiting a vote on the house floor.

Washington lawmakers continue to address bills addressing Clark County’s transportation congestion. On Monday, state senators passed Senate Bill 5806 by a 45-4 floor vote. The bill would make replacing the I-5 bridge a priority. Photo by Mike Schultz
Washington lawmakers continue to address bills addressing Clark County’s transportation congestion. On Monday, state senators passed Senate Bill 5806 by a 45-4 floor vote. The bill would make replacing the I-5 bridge a priority. Photo by Mike Schultz

The companion bills were introduced in contrast to HB 1222, sponsored Rep. Liz Pike (R-18th District). Pike’s bill, endorsed by Rep. Vicki Kraft (R-17th District), was an attempt to bring Washington and Oregon lawmakers together in a process to examine all solutions for the area’s transportation problems. Both Pike and Kraft are supporters of the exploration of developing a third (and even a fourth) crossing over the Columbia River prior to starting a replacement project on the I-5 bridge. HB 1222 failed to receive enough votes to make it out of the transportation committee.

Opponents of the former Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project, which died in 2014 with a vote in the state Senate, have accused the lawmakers supporting SB 5806 and HB 2095 of attempting to resurrect the CRC. And, those bills do call for $350,000 of funds dedicated to a mandatory inventory to be taken of all the previous work done on the CRC and a report made back to the legislature by Dec. 1, 2017. The bills would create a legislative action committee, made up of transportation officials from both Washington and Oregon.

“A few days ago, my bill (HB 1222) received a hearing in the House Transportation Committee but it is not going to advance any further,’’ Pike told ClarkCountyToday.com last week.

Pike thanked Clark County residents Neil Cahoon, Phil Haggerty, Anna Miller and Bill Wagner for testifying in front of members of the House Transportation Committee in support of HB 1222, which was also supported by the Washington Trucking Association, Northwest Washington and Idaho District Council of Laborers, the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council, International Union of Operating Engineers Local 302, Fred Meyer stores and Longview-Kelso building and construction trades.

Pike said she doesn’t support HB 2095 and SB 5806 because those bills focus solely on an I-5 bridge replacement.

“I do not support those bills because it is clear to me that Oregon’s I-5 corridor is failing,’’ Pike said. “Any new bridge built in the same corridor that dumps freight haulers and commuters into that existing Portland traffic morass would do nothing to fix congestion. I’ve told people it’s just going to waste precious tax dollars and result in a nicer parking lot heading south on I-5.

“While House Bill 2095 did advance out of the House Transportation Committee, not one Republican voted for it,’’ Pike added. “What that means is it was approved on strictly a party line vote, 14 Democrats voted yes and 10 Republicans voted no. I’m pretty sure that will end all discussions about HB 2095 being a bi-partisan bill.’’

Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-20th District) is the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee. Orcutt’s testimony before the committee included his belief that “Just replacing the I-5 Bridge will not do anything to solve congestion.’’

Orcutt went on to say that HB 2095 “Fiscally, it makes no sense … From a congestion standpoint it makes no sense … All this does is put us back to what was roundly rejected before,” he said, referring to the CRC.

Vick holding to his beliefs

Vick told ClarkCountyToday.com that his beliefs about solutions to Clark County’s traffic congestion haven’t changed. He said he is not in favor of a resurrection of the CRC and he is in favor of a third crossing as a necessary first step, but he feels an I-5 bridge replacement project is likely the first feasible “bite out of the apple.’’

“We have a lot of ideas and, quite frankly, we should consider them all,’’ Vick said. “There was a certain amount of momentum with this proposal. I felt that the voices of a lot of people in Clark County weren’t represented in the process last time.

“We are totally open to continually exploring other crossings,’’ Vick said. “If I had a magic wand, that’s the first thing I would do. I think we need more crossings. But, looking at the political landscape, if something does wind up moving forward, you would need four bodies of legislature (Washington and Oregon) and two governors to sign on. If we find political support, that (an I-5 bridge replacement) would be where we would find it.’’

“I think the big things we came out of the CRC with, that gave us that pit in your stomach feeling, were at the end of the day the fact that you had a bridge that didn’t reduce congestion or improve freight mobility all that much, maybe by a minute,’’ Vick said. “It wasn’t enough to spend $3-4 billion on.’’

The proponents of SB 5806 and HB 2095 have not defined a public transportation element for a potential, new I-5 bridge replacement. Clark County voters have loudly and soundly objected to light rail in the past and it was a prominent component in the CRC’s failure.

“Obviously, light rail is the most political of the issues,’’ said Vick, who went on to say that he has not seen a light rail proposal that he believes “serves Clark County all that well.’’ He also said, “Do we build something that has tolls just for the sake of building? I think we can find some better options. I don’t think we should move forward with a project that has tolls just for the sake of moving forward.’’

Vick stressed that passage of HB 2095 and SB 5806 would not create an actual I-5 bridge replacement project, just a process to examine a potential project. And, even though the bills don’t address other solutions, he said the process should include a discussion about options in addition to the prioritized I-5 bridge replacement.

“We’re not talking project at this point,’’ said Vick, who indicated that even though seven Clark County lawmakers were supporting the companion bills, “Everybody at the table is very clear what the other parties would draw a line in the sand for.’’

And, ultimately, Vick believes light rail would need to be a concession to moving the process forward.

“I think there is an understanding by everybody that if we do wind up with a chance to move forward with something, in order to maintain that type of cohesion on those things that would be in play (there would have to a consensus),’’ Vick said. “I think some people in the group would like light rail, but would they be willing to lose the Republicans involved over that? I don’t think they would.’’

Sens. Cleveland, Rivers and Wilson have each either declined or not responded to interview requests from ClarkCountyToday.com. Vick said he understands if opponents of HB 2095 and SB 5806 are concerned about his contingent of lawmakers attempting to resurrect the CRC.

“I think that is an absolute valid skepticism,’’ Vick said. “If this thing took off without folks who shared my vision, my voice and my constituents’ voices not at the table, that wouldn’t be a good thing. I don’t know if I can stop everything I disagree with, but I believe folks like (Republicans) Rep. Harris and Sens. Rivers and Wilson would say something similar to what I’m saying.

“I get that there is a very sour taste when you bring up an I-5 bridge replacement and the CRC,’’ Vick said. “The two things go hand in hand. But, we are asking folks from the two states to sit down at the table and try to figure out what the best process is. We want to make sure the public is involved on the front end. We don’t want to even see the plans of the old CRC. We don’t want that even to be part of the discussion.’’

Washougal City Council tables its discussion

Members of the Washougal City Council were set to consider a resolution of support for declaring the I-5 bridge replacement, solely, as a transportation project of statewide significance and requesting expeditious replacement. After comments, the resolution was tabled until a later day.

Councilor Dan Coursey spoke in opposition to the resolution.

This is part of an RTC (Regional Transportation Council) campaign to have Clark County cities endorse the program, accompanied by legislation pending in Olympia,’’ Coursey said on his Facebook page, where he also offered his testimony from Monday’s meeting. “I oppose this resolution because it does not direct the focus groups to look at alternate crossings first, or at all. It directs all efforts solely to an I-5 replacement bridge.

“This series of city’s resolutions is just the latest effort to revive the same old failed Columbia River Crossing project and expecting the results to be different,’’ Coursey said. “We should be seeking more affordable, reasonable, corridor solutions that would be much more effective in solving our traffic congestion problems.

“If this movement comes to pass, I have little doubt that it will turn into another end-run around the voters and taxpayers here, to enable debt-ridden TriMet into Clark County, and establish Portland’s long sought after beachhead for light rail into Clark County,’’ Coursey said. “This has been roundly rejected by the majority of citizens here in Washougal and across the county. If the I-5 replacement beachhead does happen first, with its attendant cost, and Portland’s mass transit requirement, then Portland will be done. Then, there is serious doubt that a third bridge would ever be built — not even in your grandchildren’s lifetimes. We all deserve better.’’

Vancouver City Council in support

Members of the Vancouver City Council previously voted 6-1 in support of a resolution that would make an I-5 bridge replacement a priority. Councilor Jack Burkman said an example of the urgency for that project is congestion that is flowing over from I-5 near the bridge and into Vancouver city streets.

“I’m not sure a lot of people realize that the I-5 bridge southbound traffic is creating such a bottleneck that people are flooding through the city trying to bypass the congestion,’’ Burkman told ClarkCountyToday.com. “It completely shuts down our downtown. It’s just one of the many impacts the congestion has on our city. The bridge itself is a bottleneck. There are numerous issues along I-5 but that’s the really big one and we need to replace that bridge.’’

Burkman said he supports the I-5 bridge replacement first over developing a third crossing.

“The I-5 bridge comes with a corridor,’’ Burkman said. “Any other alternative requires its own corridor in addition to a bridge. To me, it’s most important that you fix what you have first.’’

Burkman, who also serves on the C-TRAN Board of Directors, is open to a discussion about light rail.

“We are not presupposing any mass transit solution,’’ he said. “I’m optimistic about that. We can talk about something that has a dedicated light rail roadway for the future but we do Bus Rapid Transit first. There are different ways of doing mass transit, but phasing it in over time. I just think there are different ways for approaching it this time.’’

Opponents of SB 5806 and HB 2095 have expressed the need to have a third crossing in place prior to beginning a I-5 bridge replacement because of their belief that construction of an I-5 bridge replacement would create even greater traffic issues for Clark County residents during the process. Burkman dismisses that fear.

“Replacing the bridge won’t shut down I-5,’’ Burkman said. “You build one span big enough to hold all I-5 traffic and you divert over to that. Then you put the other span in and tie it in. It’s nothing like closing down a highway. It’s just a matter of how you phase it in. You can minimize the disruption.’’

Lawmakers on both sides of the discussion are eager to seek federal participation in any project, primarily because President Donald Trump has already stated the need for making national infrastructure projects a priority.

“I really believe an I-5 bridge replacement is what we can do fastest and if we do it fast enough, then we have a good chance at federal participation,’’ said Burkman, who added that replacing the I-5 bridge “won’t fix all the problems. We will still have to work on the rest.’’

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About The Author

Ken Vance got his start in the newspaper industry in 1987 as a reporter at The Columbian Newspaper in Vancouver. Vance graduated from Stevenson High School in Stevenson, WA, and attended Clark College in Vancouver. He worked for The Columbian from 1987-2001. He was most recently a staff member of The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground, where he served as editor since 2010 and reporter since 2007. Vance’s work in the newspaper industry has won him multiple awards, including a first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for in-depth reporting.

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