Lance Dickie: Olympia, Replace the I-5 Bridge Between Portland, Vancouver

By Lance Dickie, April 12, 2013, Seattle Times

Washington’s best shot at replacing the aged Interstate 5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland hangs in the balance in Olympia. The state Legislature cannot let this opportunity get away.

The Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project is important enough to the national economy that U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was in the state Capitol Wednesday to meet with Gov. Jay Inslee and lawmakers.

Replacement of the bridge, whose northbound span was built in 1917, has been under discussion, study and review for more than a dozen years. The mile-long bridge picked up a twin section in 1958.

No one is overcome with nostalgia for a rickety crossing that suffers hours of daily traffic jams, is an earthquake hazard and has cramped, antiquated space for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Washington, Oregon and the federal government are in this together. The Obama administration put the project on its list of “We Can’t Wait” initiatives last year.

The federal government is offering $850 million to pay for, among other things, a 2.9 mile light-rail extension in Vancouver. It would connect with Oregon’s 52 miles of light-rail service, which Vancouver commuters cross the bridge every day to use.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber signed legislation into law last month to provide $450 million for the bridge project. Provision of the money is contingent upon Washington coming up with an identical share.

Right now the money does not exist. Both the House and Senate transportation budgets include money to carry CRC staff work forward. Even that money has a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t quality.

Missing is the big commitment of $450 million. That money would come from an even more hypothetical pot of future revenue: perhaps a 10-cent bump in the state gas tax — to 47 cents.

Yes, gasoline is already plenty expensive, but the vast portion of the money flows out of state. For me, I see a definable return from an infrastructure investment that helps the economy work.

Paying for a modern bridge that links the local, regional and national economies is a no-brainer. As the current crossing reminds us, the investment will be here for decades to come.

The price tag on the Columbia River Crossing project is $3.5 billion, which will provide 10 lanes for local and through traffic, with light-rail stations in Vancouver, park-and-ride lots, interchange improvements and safety shoulders.

Electronic tolling will help pay off the debt. A user fee is hardly unknown to this crossing. The bridge opened in 1917 with a nickel charge. The toll went away, and then returned in 1958 with the second matching span.

Local support for the Columbia River Crossing is broad, though the politics surrounding the new bridge — and perhaps more accurately, light rail — are intense.

There is more of a Luddite quality to the complaints from surrounding Clark County. No substantive critiques were raised that have not been addressed.

Pick a topic. Taxpayers in Washington will not pay for TriMet pensions in Oregon. Bridge towers do not interfere with general aviation out of Pearson Field, Vancouver’s municipal airport.

The project is endorsed by two governors, Vancouver’s legislators, Portland and Vancouver city councils, local port districts, regional governments, transit agencies C-Tran and TriMet, state transportation departments and all manner of local businesses and labor groups. Even the medical community. Some 300 ambulances cross the bridge each month, and there is no easy way around the traffic jams.

The U.S. Coast Guard will report back by September on the proposed 116-foot height of the bridge, which CRC analysis suggests might have impeded a scant fraction of 1 percent of river traffic between 2002 and 2012.

Three fabricators up river might have to change how pieces of their output is transported or be relocated past the bridge with financial help. Helping move them, one legislator noted, is cheaper than redesigning the bridge.

The Columbia River Crossing project must not implode in Olympia.

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