Freeway cap aimed at offsetting impact on fort

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

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Planners have settled on an alignment that pushes the new Interstate 5 bridge away from Fort Vancouver.

But that doesn’t mean the reconstructed fur trading post will be untouched.

Doug Wilson, archaeologist for the National Park Service, recently stood just outside the fort, on the formersite of a 19th-century village in the southwest corner of the 366-acre Fort Vancouver National Site. From there, he gazed toward Portland’s West Hills far in the distance.

“That’s a scene that’s been here since the Hudson’s Bay Company,” Wilson said.

That view will be eliminated by an elevated ramp alongside the new bridge. In addition, about three acres will be sliced out of the site to accommodate the new Columbia River Crossing.

Wilson and Park Service officials don’t dispute the need for a new bridge — the fort itself was founded as a Euro-American foothold for trade and transportation — but they intend to make sure the impact is fully mitigated, as required by federal law.

A freeway cap, intended to re-establish a link between downtown and the national site, is the primary mitigation being proposed.

A city-led design competition last year settled on a 600-foot-long “community connector” extending south across the freeway from the existing Evergreen Boulevard overpass. A grassy parklike setting with views to Mount Hood, this tree-covered cap would extend just beyond the southern edge of the former Post Hospital.

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However, CRC planners have no engineering plans, no cost estimate and make no guarantee that such a cap will be included in the final project.

By one estimate, placing the lid atop I-5 could cost as much as $100 million.

Elson Strahan, president of the nonprofit Fort Vancouver National Trust, is growing increasingly concerned that cost-conscious highway planners may shortchange it. Because the cap will effectively serve as a buffer between the World War I-era hospital and freeway traffic rumbling just a few feet away, Strahan said, a truncated community connector would fail to meet its purpose.

The lid needs to be 600 feet wide to reach from Evergreen Boulevard to the south side of the old hospital.

“If you shrink the lid down because you don’t have as much money as you like … then you’ve failed in the very mitigation you’re trying to accomplish,” Strahan said.

Strahan added that the CRC represents a chance to reverse or compound mistakes of the past: The railroad berm effectively cut off Vancouver’s downtown from the Columbia River a century ago. Then I-5 severed downtown’s connection with the national site.

Done right, Strahan said, the project could stitch together the gap between the city and its beginning.

Done wrong, Vancouver could be left with a small cap that’s inadequate to offset the looming presence of a massive new freeway bridge. Wilson, the archaeologist, said he’s concerned about the new span’s visual and auditory impact on the “colonial capital of the entire Pacific Northwest.”

“This is our Jamestown,” he said.