Despite passage of I-5 bridge replacement bills in Olympia, plenty of division remains over Clark County’s traffic congestion

Editorial by Ken Vance

Senate Bill 5806 received approval Monday by a vote of 44-4. It’s companion bill in the House, HB 2095, had previously passed by a similar margin and now the issue will go to the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee, who no doubt will pull out his rubber stamp.

Ken Vance, Editor
Ken Vance, Editor

You likely remember the companion bills establish the replacement of the I-5 bridge the priority of Washington lawmakers attempting to address traffic congestion in the area as well as safety concerns with the existing I-5 bridge.

The Senate bill doesn’t establish a bridge project. It just starts the process of working toward a bridge project by establishing a joint Oregon-Washington legislative action committee to work in a variety of ways, including beginning a process towards development for a new bridge.

For the life of me, I just can’t comprehend why there is such an overwhelming support by lawmakers to make the I-5 bridge replacement the first attempt at addressing the traffic congestion issues we currently suffer with on our side of the Columbia River in Clark County.The bill would also provide $350,000 for the Washington Department of Transportation to sort through data generated by the infamous Columbia River Crossing project to determine if any of that information could be helpful to the construction of a new I-5 bridge.

From those I have talked with on the subject, virtually everyone agrees with a simple premise. That is, the existing I-5 bridge has a lifetime. It will have to be replaced at some point. But, it isn’t the long-term solution to our traffic congestion. The only thing that will reduce the traffic congestion is more crossings over the Columbia River.

If we all accept that basic premise, then why start with the I-5 bridge replacement? I was told once again this week that the existing I-5 bridge has about one-third of its life left, which could be about 50 years. I’m not suggesting we wait 50 years to replace it, and it will require rather significant maintenance and repairs in the next 15-20 years, but it can serve us for a good while longer.

Also, I still haven’t been convinced that Clark County is a place I want to live and drive during a multi-year project to replace the I-5 bridge if we don’t have at least a third, if not fourth, crossing over the Columbia River first.

While there is overwhelming agreement in the Washington legislature to make the I-5 bridge replacement project the priority, we shouldn’t interpret that to mean there won’t be some serious disagreements in the future over how that should proceed and what that project will look like.

Many Republicans who have offered their support to SB 5806 and HB 2095, still remain opposed to a light rail component with an I-5 bridge replacement.

“Obviously, light rail is the most political of the issues,’’ Rep. Brandon Vick told me a while back. Vick who went on to say that he has not seen a light rail proposal that he believes “serves Clark County all that well.’’

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.’’

I desperately hope that Vick is right in his assumption of his fellow lawmakers. Those of us in Clark County will be watching closely to see which legislators are willing to sell their souls by agreeing to light rail. It will equate to political suicide if they do.

Not only do our lawmakers still have to agree on the details of a project, they also have to reach some kind of an accord with their Oregon counterparts, many of whom are still bitter over Washington pulling out of the disastrous Columbia River Crossing project.

The bottom line is, while there has been considerable agreement in Olympia over the bills making the I-5 bridge replacement a priority, there is much division that remains.

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