When a family desperately needs a new car during an economic crisis, the style and appearance of that new car do not matter as much as cost and functionality. And those priorities are crucial for two states and the federal government as they continue efforts to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge.
That’s why Monday’s decision by Govs. Chris Gregoire and John Kitzhaber to proceed with a deck truss bridge makes sense. Multiple bridge experts agree the deck truss will be more affordable and less susceptible to construction delays and cost overruns than a cable-stayed bridge or a tied-arch bridge. Because a deck truss bridge in many ways resembles the Glenn Jackson Bridge on Interstate 205, some architects and others complain that the Vancouver-Portland area is losing the opportunity to construct an iconic bridge that would help define the personalities of the cities, the river and the collective communities.
That point is well-taken. We, too, would prefer a cable-stayed bridge whose appearance would draw national and global renown. That would be the best-case scenario. But the states and the federal government are wrestling with worst-case budgets, and the urgency factor (a new bridge won’t get any cheaper) cannot be overlooked. Kitzhaber said his personal preference was a cable-stayed bridge, but that “would not only cost more, it would carry us out of the timing window for federal financing. If we miss this window, we not only put at risk the overall project financing, but also the $800 million in federal funding for light rail.”
So just as a family chooses the reliable, reasonably priced new car over the stylish luxury car, a deck truss bridge makes the most sense now. And although a structure similar to the I-205 bridge does not meet the iconic standard that many people value, other river-crossers have pointed out that such a bridge allows the best views of the mountains and river.
The governors also announced a more aggressive pursuit of almost $1.3 billion in federal funding. But as the effects of the Great Recession linger, what kind of support can they expect in Washington, D.C.? That will be a tough sell, for sure, but at least two key officials offer encouraging perspectives. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called the Columbia River Crossing “a forward-thinking multimodal project that will not only serve area residents, but create jobs, spur economic development and help ensure that the region’s economy continues to thrive.” And U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is chair of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee. She calls a new I-5 bridge “not just a regional imperative, it’s also a national priority that deserves a strong federal investment.”
Gregoire and Kitzhaber also set 2013 as the goal to begin construction. They will be held accountable for that goal because, as Gregoire noted, “timing is important … We must secure a federal Record of Decision on our design this year to ensure the best chance of receiving full funding.” And LaHood and Murray must be held accountable for their endorsements of the project. Remember, this is not just a bridge. It’s a five-mile project with an extended light-rail system, at least six new freeway interchanges and bike-pedestrian connections of the two cities.
The CRC’s Bridge Panel Review (16 national and international experts) concluded that a deck truss is the least costly, most likely to meet schedule, easiest to build and will attract the most competitive bids. Other designs would require delays of at least 12-18 months for new design work and environmental impact statements.
The governors on Monday took another key step in a long journey. It’s time to seize the momentum and make sure this reasonably priced, thoroughly vetted bridge is built as soon as possible.