When the news broke Wednesday that the Columbia River Crossing will not pay for the landscaping of a freeway lid that’s planned as part of the new Interstate 5 Bridge project, the first response from proud local communitarians might have been, “How dare they?” But a more studied perspective leads to a more positive conclusion.
First, a little background: The CRC plans to build a cover over I-5 extending south from Evergreen Boulevard, as part of the project to replace the bridge. The cost of the lid is projected at about $30 million. Although the landscaping cost is undetermined, a Seattle firm in 2009 won out over three other proposals with a plan that included native meadows, a reflective pond and basalt walking paths.
But as The Columbian’s Andrea Damewood reported this week, the CRC now says it will not pay for what covers the lid, and the city of Vancouver ultimately will be responsible for paying for the landscaping. When we look closer at what’s really going on, several lingering plus factors emerge:
It looks like we’ll get the lid. That wasn’t always a certainty, but largely through the advocacy of former Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard, the “community connector” became accepted and now appears solidly installed as part of the project. CRC Director Nancy Boyd said this week that state and federal planners are “very committed” to putting a lid on the freeway.
Officials at the CRC and the nonprofit Fort Vancouver National Site say they will help the city of Vancouver — currently cash-strapped, like all municipalities these days — search for a federal grant to pay for landscaping the lid. Boyd even says “we’ll have identified funding for that treatment on top” by the time the freeway is widened and the lid is built.
Even if such a funding source is not secured, Boyd says the CRC would pay for a grass cover on the lid “so it would look like an extension of (the fort’s) parade field.” That’s an acceptable last resort. At minimum, the community connection could be achieved and opened to the public.
This is not the first time the CRC has trimmed costs from the project, and such parsimony is a healthy sign. That’s especially true as Washington and Oregon legislators start looking for ways to pay their portion, estimated at about $450 million each.
Kept alive are three distinct benefits of the freeway lid. First, foot traffic would be expedited in ways unseen since the freeway was built more than a half-century ago. Ever since, there has been no pedestrian crossing of the freeway between Columbia Way (on the riverfront, passing under the bridge) and Evergreen Boulevard. Second would be the reconnecting of the downtown and fort and Vancouver Barracks areas.
As Pollard pointed out in 2007, “There’s a scar there we have an opportunity to heal. Why not do it?”
Third would be the elimination of perceived cultural and societal divides that began when I-5 was built. Making the community’s core whole once again would be good for all members of the community.
Elson Strahan, executive director of the Fort Vancouver National Site, makes a good point: The footprint of the lid must be kept as big as possible. That development will bear watching, as will the joint commitment by the CRC and the national site to secure federal funding for the landscaping.
The key focus of this issue remains sharp and strong. Get the lid built. We all can worry later about how fancy the top will be.