Advocates push 'common sense' CRC alternative

Plan would first build separate, smaller bridge for local traffic, light rail

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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As the Columbia River Crossing lurches forward, a small group of advocates is making a renewed push to promote an idea they say could work better for a lower cost.

Jim Howell is one of the architects behind the "Common Sense Alternative," which focuses less on freeway expansion and more on smaller fixes and a local connection between Vancouver and Portland.

As proposed, the CRC would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, extend light rail to Vancouver's Clark College and rebuild five miles of freeway. The project is looking to secure state funding from both the Washington and Oregon legislatures this year, and hopes to begin construction in late 2014.

The multi-faceted alternative championed by Howell goes like this:

First, modify the BNSF Railway bridge just downstream of I-5. Moving the railroad's swing span toward the middle of the river (it's now near the north bank) would eliminate the need for most I-5 Bridge lifts, he said. By lining up the rail bridge's opening with the hump of the I-5 Bridge, vessels could take a straight shot under both spans without the S-curve or I-5 Bridge lift they need now, Howell said.

The proposal would also build a new drawbridge from Vancouver's Columbia Street carrying local traffic -- and light rail -- between Vancouver and Hayden Island. The extra crossing would eliminate the need for the freeway onramps at Hayden Island and state Highway 14 responsible for much of today's backups around the I-5 Bridge, Howell said.

That's phase one. Estimated cost, Howell says: $700 million.

A later phase could eventually replace the existing I-5 Bridge, and build another multi-modal bridge near the railroad span for passenger rail, freight trucks and other traffic.

Iterations of the Common Sense Alternative have floated around for years, Howell said. An earlier version landed in a YouTube video in 2011. Howell believes the proposal still has a good chance of getting traction, particularly if the CRC runs into one of several potential snags over funding and bridge height.

For its part, the CRC has indicated it's well past the point of considering other proposals. Local leaders approved the project's preferred alternative in 2008. A final environmental impact statement was published and approved in 2011.

Howell and others behind the "Common Sense" plan count themselves as light rail supporters -- a stance that won't win them the favor of many CRC opponents in Clark County. But Howell, a retired architect and former TriMet employee, said the proposal would initially only carry light rail as far as Fifth Street in downtown Vancouver. That gives residents a "taste" of the system, and a chance for it to work, he said. The idea is to create an interconnected, effective transit system that puts less emphasis on vehicles, Howell added.