The lines are once again drawn when it comes to solutions to traffic problems

Clarkcountytoday.com Columns Tuesday

What had been suspected for quite some time was finally revealed this past week in Clark County. A fight is brewing and there’s plenty of folks on both sides of the issue at question.

Ken Vance, Editor
Ken Vance, Editor

The discussion over how to fix the area’s traffic congestion problems had been tabled recently, essentially since Republicans in the Washington State Senate — aided by the efforts of other elected officials and engaged citizens from Clark County — blocked the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project in June 2013.

The traffic congestion and freight mobility problems haven’t gone away. We all knew the battle would be resurrected eventually and that’s exactly what has taken place in recent days and weeks in Clark County and around the state.

First, Rep. Liz Pike introduced House Bill 1222, which proposes to create a process in which a bi-state bridge legislative work group made up of eight Washington and Oregon legislators — an equal number of Republicans and Democrats — would assess the I-5 corridor, identify new corridors and develop a 10-year, 25-year and 50-year plan to solve the problems. The group would report its recommendations to transportation committees of the legislature by Dec. 1, 2018. Rep. Vicki Kraft has provided her support for Pike’s bill.

Just last week, a group of seven lawmakers — led by Senators Annette Cleveland, Ann Rivers and Lynda Wilson — introduced a bill that instead of focusing on any and all potential solutions to the area’s transportation issues, will once again zero in on a replacement for the existing I-5 bridge first before examining other potential solutions.

If approved,  Senate Bill 5806 would declare the I-5 bridge replacement project a matter of “statewide significance,” create a bi-state committee of transportation officials and key stakeholders in Washington and Oregon.

The bill also would also set aside $350,000 from Washington’s motor vehicle fund to pay for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to sift through several years’ worth of existing studies and reports, written during the 2005 to 2013 time period when Washington and Oregon lawmakers last tried to replace the aging I-5 bridge. WSDOT would be expected to submit a report to the legislature by Dec. 1, 2017, detailing their findings from the planning study inventory.

Members of the Vancouver City Council voted 6-1 Monday night to throw their support behind SB 5806, which doesn’t address the issue of light rail. The supporters of the bill are making every effort to not have the bill be branded as a resurrection of the CRC, but their opponents are highly skeptical of that it offers a solution that differs from the failed CRC.

With seven of Clark County’s nine lawmakers in support of Senate Bill 5806, it’s clear that movement has a majority among elected officials. But, do they have a majority of support from Clark County’s residents?

Vancouver Council Member Jack Burkman, an outspoken leader in the fight for an I-5 bridge replacement that includes a light rail component, made an eye-opening — if not ridiculous — statement at Monday’s meeting. Burkman said the talk of a third river crossing “is quickly going away” and he urged the other city council members to “keep the focus on I-5 and fix it as quickly as we can.”

Burkman was not seen at a Saturday Town Hall meeting in Vancouver hosted by Pike and Kraft at which a standing-room only crowd of more than 150 area residents, community leaders and elected officials gathered to discuss any and all options to solve traffic congestion and freight mobility issues. The overwhelming majority of those who gathered at that meeting spoke in favor of focusing on adding a third or fourth traffic corridor and crossing before replacing the I-5 bridge.

Pike and Kraft plan at least two more Town Hall meetings — likely in Battle Ground and Ridgefield — to allow area residents the opportunity to voice their thoughts about the process.

“Probably the most profound difference in the two bills is HB 1222 basically says that we are not just going to focus on the I-5 corridor, we are going to look at other corridors for new capacity to improve freight mobility and relieve traffic congestion,’’ Pike told ClarkCountyToday.com. “That is essential to the bill. “It’s really key that we put a plan in place that both states can accept and embrace, but it has to start with the people first.’’

And, Pike displayed a large, colored map at Saturday’s event that showed a majority of Clark County voters have overwhelmingly and consistently opposed light rail in the past. Pike’s graphic showed that only five Clark County precincts — all in the downtown area of Vancouver — out of more than 200 precincts recently approved light rail into Clark County.

“Where I’m at right now, I feel that it is top priority we go to the citizens before we decide on any project,’’ Kraft said. “We can’t just assume, in my opinion, what was is today. We need to be able to hear from citizens today. What are the needs for them and their families? Certainly, what are their commute needs? What they like and don’t like. That should drive the priorities, which project is the right one to go after first. Certainly, that’s not to say at some point we don’t have to look at the I-5 replacement.

“Based on the conversations I’ve had with citizens, feedback I’ve had with citizens, if we’re truly going to solve I-5 congestion or improve it, we’re going to have to add extra capacity by adding a third bridge, maybe a tunnel,’’ Kraft said. “if we tackle I-5 first, it’s only going to compound the congestion problems. Right out of the game we’re going to be down to one or one and a half bridges (during construction on an I-5 bridge replacement). That is the truth and reality.’’

Clark County Councilor Eileen Quiring also spoke at Saturday’s event in support of Pike’s HB 1222. Former Sen. Al Bauer and former Speaker of the House Bob Schaefer attended Saturday’s Town Hall meeting and threw their support in favor of SB 5806.

Sen. Rivers cited a “full schedule’’ in her denial of a request for an interview by ClarkCountyToday.com. Sen. Cleveland did not respond to a request by ClarkCountyToday.com for an interview.

I find it disturbing that the lawmakers supporting SB 5806 have already pre-determined a solution to the area’s traffic woes that is largely in opposition to the consistent majority voice of Clark County citizens. The battle lines are being drawn, which side are you on?

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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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