Opinion: Let’s eliminate light rail and tolling from the I-5 Bridge replacement at the same time

Editor Ken Vance shares changes to elements of the proposed project that he believes many Southwest Washington residents would support.

Editor Ken Vance shares changes to elements of the proposed project that he believes many Southwest Washington residents would support

Ken Vance, editor
Clark County Today

For many Clark County citizens, support of a replacement project for the I-5 Bridge comes down to two elements in the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program’s (IBR) Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) that I object to. Those are the choice of light rail as the transit element of the project and the use of tolls to help pay for it.

Editor Ken Vance
Editor Ken Vance

There are many, many other elements of the proposed project that still face scrutiny by members of the public, community leaders and elected officials but for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to focus on light rail and tolling.

I believe it is important to point out that when a public vote was held about extending TriMet MAX light rail across the Columbia River into Clark County in 2012, a majority of voters in every city in Clark County, including Vancouver, rejected the C-TRAN ballot proposition. Again in 2013, voters supported a vote on light rail prior to any funds being spent on it, even though a county-wide vote was never held. I wish I could share more recent proof, but it is my belief that a majority of Clark County residents still oppose light rail.

When it comes to tolling, I don’t think it’s much of a leap for most of us to think that a majority of drivers would prefer to continue to not pay tolls to drive on roads or cross bridges that currently are not tolled. One anecdotal note to support that theory is that in 2017-2018, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) put together a Value Pricing Policy Advisory Committee. During that process, ODOT officials informed the members of the committee that 50,000 drivers were currently leaving the highways and traveling on side roads due to a lack of vehicle capacity. If tolling were to be implemented on Portland’s highways, ODOT officials estimated an additional 80,000 drivers would divert to the side streets to avoid paying tolls. Add to that the fact that in May, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek and the Oregon Legislature recognized that ODOT needed to slow down on its tolling plans, in large part to resistance from the public. As a result, tolls will not be collected until 2026 and a new legislative subcommittee on Transportation Planning has been formed

When the IBR team announced details of its LPA in April 2022, it was revealed that the transit component of the project would be an extension of TriMet’s MAX light rail line across the new bridge and into downtown Vancouver. Since that announcement, the IBR team has provided cost estimates that indicate the light rail element of the project will cost as much as $1.99 billion. Total price of the project is expected to be between $6 billion and $7.5 billion. The IBR team reports that it hopes to get between $900 million and $1.2 billion from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which would leave the project with a funding shortfall of as much as $1.1 billion for the light rail component. Ironically, that is eerily close to the $1.25 billion the IBR team hopes to raise by tolling travelers, including the 75,000 or so Southwest Washington residents who commute to Oregon for work.

Let’s eliminate both elements with one decision

I have never said that I oppose a project that would replace the I-5 Bridge. I do, however, oppose any project that includes tolls and an extension of TriMet;s MAX light rail into Vancouver. It is my preference that we focus on creating a third crossing and corridor over the Columbia River first and then move on to the replacement of the I-5 Bridge after that. But, many disagree with me, believing there is greater urgency in replacing the I-5 Bridge so that a significant seismic event doesn’t cause it to crumble into the water below.

So, for the sake of this discussion, let’s continue to focus on the current project. I believe it would please a majority of Southwest Washington residents if the light rail component of the current project was replaced with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). C-TRAN is currently working on its third BRT project in Clark County. The cost of each of those projects has been roughly $50 million, far less than the (as high as) $1.99 billion price tag of the proposed light rail element of the current I-5 Bridge replacement project.

I confess I’m not a transit expert. But, transit ridership across the Columbia River continues to hover below pre-pandemic numbers. An estimated 1,000 citizens currently use transit to cross the border each day. I understand, as a community, it is important that we serve those citizens and their dependency on transit. But, wouldn’t it be more efficient to do so with millions of dollars rather than billions?

Obviously, C-TRAN officials have devoted a great deal of time, effort and energy into their BRT projects. C-TRAN CEO Shawn Donaghy supports the light rail element currently proposed in the I-5 Bridge replacement project. However, Donaghy recently told area legislators that federal transit officials are big supporters of BRT projects and he elaborated on those comments in an email exchange with Clark County Today.

“During a recent discussion with some SW Washington legislators, the subject of C-TRAN’s Mill Plain BRT project came up and I shared with the group that the FTA was/is a big supporter of this project,’’ Donaghy wrote in his email response to me. “FTA is funding many BRT projects across the nation in part because they typically cost less and provide more flexibility compared to other modes.  In fact, at C-TRAN’s groundbreaking event for Mill Plain BRT, it was noted by FTA and others that BRT has created a great opportunity for Clark County and they see this as a key part of our continued growth into the future.  

“While the FTA certainly supports all modes of transit, there continues to be strong funding support for BRT projects across the country in areas where there may not be population densities and land use that supports other high capacity transit modes like light rail,’’ Donaghy wrote. “This is not the case as it relates to the IBR project, given the existing light rail network in Portland that will be extended just across the Columbia River to Evergreen. 

“C-TRAN’s long-range plan is based on a BRT system throughout the Clark County, but as we have communicated related to the IBR project and C-TRAN’s approval of the MLPA last year, extending LRT to Evergreen is the best location for our transit systems to connect while providing another high capacity option for our residents to use who need to travel into Portland,’’ Donaghy added.

I respect Donaghy. He’s a transit guy and I’m not. Reasonable people can respectfully agree to disagree. We’re not going to see eye-to-eye on every transit project. So, it’s his belief that light rail is the best project for the I-5 Bridge replacement. I, however, do not share that belief and I think there is ample evidence to suggest a majority of citizens agree with me. 

As a result, I call on our elected officials and community leaders to join a great number of Southwest Washington residents in calling for C-TRAN’s Bus Rapid Transit to replace TriMet’s MAX light rail on the I-5 Bridge replacement project. It would trim the overall cost of the project by as much as $2 billion while also eliminating the need for tolls on the new bridge.

Also read:

Also read:


  1. JimK

    One oregon supreme court judge wrote that it is actually a light rail project, with just enough highway fo shove it down our throats.: The massive Interstate 5 bridge and freeway project is a “political necessity” to persuade Clark County residents to accept something they previously didn’t want—a MAX light-rail line from Portland to Vancouver. (To read the Feb. 16, 2012 Oregon Supreme Court decision regarding the Columbia River Crossing Project, click here (PDF, 18 pages)) https://www.wweek.com/portland/article-18881-the-2-5-billion-bribe.html

  2. Pete

    This insanity with Trolly Cars continues. The route extension to Vancouver will be a painfully slow trip over city streets and probably require transfers to other lines for most transit commuters. But first, there will be a bus ride and transfer in Vancouver to get on the Trolly Car. Experience I have from the SF Bay Area is that a bus-rail trip adds 15-20 minutes to the travel time, since the arrivals and departures rarely ever coincide conveniently. In contrast, Bus Rapid Transit, can take many riders directly from their pick up points to a central point where transfer to TriMet can occur with choices of several lines – or may be routed directly to “popular” destinations. (This depends on proper coordination and cooperation between C-Trans and the Portland transit system.)

  3. Andee Locke

    It was stated that some 75,000 Washington residents work in Oregon and many more cross the bridge every day to shop in order to avoid paying Washington Sales Taxes. Not sure how many of Washington Residents commute on a daily basis to Oregon but it seems like a large burden on the bridges. Many new comers like and want light rail. Clark County is changing and so there are many opinions.

  4. Margaret

    The most recent votes on extending Portland’s MAX light rail to Clark County, WA , Clark County voters REJECTED light rail.
    1-2012: Every city in Clark County, and the limited county area allowed to vote, voted AGAINST extending MAX light rail into Clark County, and the extra taxes that will be added.
    2013- Whole county permitted to vote, and insisted on a public vote PRIOR to spending taxpayer $,$$$,$$$,$$$ on light rail. The Interstate Bridge Replacement gang has forged ahead with light rail in spite of Clark County’s votes AGAINST light rail.

    The light rail cabal who stands to make a lot of $$ if light rail is extended continues their relentless push for a slow, gold plated train system that is inflexible and carries zero freight. Other options that are far less costly, and more flexible using shared roads for all are not given true consideration. The 1-3 % of commuters that use light rail do not warrant over $1 BILLION wasted on a travel option that few use that doesn’t share the lane with freight, commuters, tourists, commercial, emergency and other drivers. Economical roads for all vs. light rail for a tiny number of riders? Solutions that serve the most users for less $ needed.

  5. Derek Fisher

    what a load of crap. Light rail consistently has been shown to be more effective at transporting large amounts of people than Bus lines, primarily because the load of passengers being carried is far greater with rail cars versus a bus network, and the fact that rail lines are dedicated and unencumbered by any vehicles whatsoever, whereas vehicles will often get in the way of a bus, even if it is a dedicated bus line I’ve seen plenty of drivers that just dont care and ignore it. Hard to ignore several tons worth of train cars coming at you though.

    Thats not to say BRT doesnt have its purpose. It would work great alongside a rail network serving the most dense corridors, think North Portland / Hayden island to Clark College or WSU Vancouver, perhaps with one additional line going to East vancouver. That way, BRT can be used for servicing the rest of Vancouver between neighborhoods, as well as neighborhoods to a Light Rail station.

    I absolutely do not understand the ideology behind putting blatant falsehoods against such an economically viable solution to this areas poor transit solution. Many people younger and older in this city want options and don’t want to have to drive all the time. Time and time again this rail issue comes up and its always some out of touch contrarian who doesn’t understand what they are talking about and just wants everything to remain the same. I am glad you are at least considering BRT in our city’s future, but it simply is not enough. To say “Clark County voters don’t want it” is so out of touch and disregards a lot of people it would benefit from it, not to mention that it is false.

    1. Pete

      Note that the extension of Tri-Met into Vancouver uses a line that runs over the city streets, though in its exclusive right-of-way. It stops at traffic signals. It has to deal with traffic crossing the rail line for left turns. It averages 15 mph (so I’m told). My experience with BART (which I used for many years for my commute) is that public transit is inefficient. Promises made by the proponents are not kept (“a seat for everyone” – “Free parking at suburban stations” and many other promises, not a single promise made by BART proponents get kept, though the free parking at suburban stations did take about 15 years before the parking charges started.) I doubt that the “promises” being made by Tri-Met will be any more likely to be kept — but taxes will be charged — and the “fair share” for Clark County residents will be far in excess of actual costs allocated to actual use by Washington state residents. Indeed, Tri-Met will probably start pressuring extensions of lines into Clark County — even though there is no place in the county that has the kind of high density population that can possibly justify these glorified trolly cars. I also note that statistics on public rail transit systems show that the finished building cost is double the initial estimates — and the usage is typically about half the estimated passenger counts. It would be much better if the money allocated to the Tri-Met extension were spent on an additional lane for the bridge (perhaps allocated to Bus Rapid Transit during rush hours). I also note that the trolly cars on the line from Vancouver do NOT (currently) have a convenient connection to the rest of Tri-Met, as they turn off before reaching the “transit center” where convenient connection to other Tri-Met routs are available.

  6. Bill

    Eliminating tolls mean more taxes. I don’t like paying tolls either but bridges are expensive infrastructure and they need to be paid for somehow. Better to directly tie usage to the taxes.

    I also don’t have a problem with light rail…it’s far more efficient at moving people and if we want to think selfishly then each person riding it is one less car I’m stuck behind in traffic!

  7. John Laird

    Third-Bridge proponents seem to forget that this bridge also connects to and affects a much larger population in Oregon. So the question remains: Can you name one landing spot for a third bridge in Oregon that is accepted by Oregonians? The answer is no. The Don Benton/David Madore/Tom Mielke Cabal can squawk all they want, but until they show a willingness to at least listen to Oregonians, they’ll continue as part of the problem instead of part of the solution. (Disclosure: Much to my chagrin, I no longer reside in Clark County.)

    1. Ken Vance, Editor

      Why shouldn’t we expect Oregonians to listen to us? Why do they get to dictate the terms of this bridge replacement project or a third bridge/crossing? Thus far, they’ve proven to be a very bad partner in this endeavor.

      1. John Laird

        We should expect Oregonians to listen to us because they are our neighbors. No one expects them to dictate, but they should have a stronger role because they are a larger stakeholder. Ignoring fellow stakeholders is a poor strategy for solving a problem. But that’s just my opinion and, as usual, I could be wrong.


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