Strictly Business: Don't blink, or you'll miss it

With signs on I-5, Portland says goodbye, Vancouver barely musters hello

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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I’m guessing that by the time you’ve rolled northbound on Interstate 5 past Hayden Island, and by the time you’ve passed the “Leaving Oregon” sign while crossing the Columbia River, that you already know that you’re leaving Portland.

But the Oregon Department of Transportation has placed a sign on the Interstate 5 Bridge span just to make sure you know that you’ve left that city behind.

And it’s right where an “Entering Vancouver” sign should be.

That sign doesn’t come until after the bridge touches land. It’s hardly an eye-catcher, attached to a metal post on the first exit ramp. Welcome to Vancouver, a city that — judging by its skimpy, almost unnoticeable sign — is a city with modest civic ambitions.

“Clearly we’ve missed an opportunity to say ‘you are here,’ ” sighs Kelly Parker, president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce.

Not so Portland. Its overhead sign tells southbound motorists when they’ve arrived even before they’ve hit land. “They announce you’re entering their city really well,” Parker concedes.

When the big issue between Portland and Vancouver is whether to build a new bridge connecting the cities, a trifle over welcome signs is not an issue that makes anyone’s to-do list. Yet it’s one of those small matters that seems to reveal more about the relationship between the two cities than meets the eye. Why is no one surprised that, even in an insignificant matter such as the size and placement of signs, Portland has the upper hand? And why shouldn’t Vancouver be able to find even footing in how it greets visitors?

No one seems to know just why Vancouver plays second fiddle to its much larger neighbor — not saying hello while Portland says goodbye — even on its own turf. Those signs have been in place for decades and few motorists who make the daily trek between cities give them any notice. A first-time visitor could figure out where they are even without an official introduction, since the Vancouver exits are noted on a bridge sign at Hayden Island.

But it doesn’t have to be this way forever. It turns out that this is one small battle that Vancouver can win. If it wants a bigger sign, in a more visible location, all it has to do is ask the Oregon Department of Transportation. And pay.

Oregon manages operations

The bridge is jointly owned by Oregon and Washington, but Oregon is assigned to manage operations. Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Don Hamilton says if the Washington Department of Transportation wants an “Entering Vancouver” sign on the bridge, Oregon will try to accommodate the request.

For WSDOT, the question then shifts to the city of Vancouver, says David Burkey, WSDOT’s Vancouver-based traffic operations engineer. “We would not want to pay for it,” he says.

WSDOT installed the small “Entering Vancouver” sign on the bridge exit because it was the first available place for such a sign, Burkey says. Mounting a sign on the bridge would be difficult and expensive. And some of the best spaces are taken, like the spot used for the “Leaving Portland” sign.

Burkey’s not sure why Portland gets to tell motorists that they’re leaving. In Washington, “we don’t put any signs that say you’re leaving any city,” he says. “That’s them, not us.” Says Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt: “It’s funny they need such a big sign to tell you that you’re leaving Portland.”

Leavitt is running for re-election, but he’s not concerned about any first impressions from understated signs. “We’re doing a lot of things to attract people to Vancouver without a lot of signage,” he says. “The bigger point is ‘Why would we want to spend any more money on that piece of junk bridge?’ ”

The battle over whether to delegate the old bridge to the scrap heap — the proposed Columbia River Crossing is being fought over countless issues, cost, height and light rail chief among them — and it’s unlikely that anyone has given much thought to civic signs.

It’s really not too early to add the sign question to the mix.

Before that bridge gets built, Burkey says, “it would be nice to have the signage worked out.”