Where do we go from here?
With the latest — and presumably permanent — demise of the Columbia River Crossing, that question remains the elephant in the room: Where do we go from here? What is the solution to traffic problems on the I-5 corridor that are large and destined to grow? Will the next time the situation is addressed be any different, or are we destined to be entrapped in circular reasoning that lands the project right where it is now?
When the Washington Legislature declined last year to provide funding for a replacement Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River, the project that was a decade or so in the making was mortally wounded. When Oregon lawmakers ended their 2014 session Friday without bringing an alternative CRC plan up for a vote, the stake was driven home. "No equivocation. It's over," said Rachel Wray, spokeswoman for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. The Oregon Department of Transportation said the project will be shut down completely by May 31.
The demise of the project, which has cost some $180 million without a plan being finalized or a shovel of dirt being turned, surely is being met with rejoicing in some circles. "The misguided Columbia River Crossing plan Oregon lawmakers were asked to support is an expensive proposition that threatens Oregon's economy more than it solves legitimate transportation concerns," said Washington state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.
Benton was one of the loudest voices in opposition to the CRC, but he certainly wasn't alone, and that points out the massive challenge that is inherent in replacing the I-5 Bridge. Any project bringing together two states, multiple regional governments, and multiple transportation agencies while being reliant upon federal funding might simply be destined to collapse under its own weight.
And yet, the problem has not gone away; the CRC is dead, and still the need for an updated I-5 bridge remains crucial to the economic future of the entire West Coast.
To be sure, the Columbia River Crossing was not conceived in a vacuum. The proposal was the result of years of planning and consideration, and assertions that it did not include public input are provably false. Some CRC opponents are insisting upon a third bridge, but there are good reasons that idea was rejected. Some are opposed to tolls being used to pay for part of any new construction, yet modern financial realities leave no choice. Some are opposed to bringing Portland's light rail to Clark County, but any hopes for federal funding rely upon the inclusion of mass transportation. In short, there are varied and valid reasons for the demise of the CRC — yet, $180 million later, we are waiting for reasonable alternative.
Where do we go from here, and how quickly can we get there? The people of Clark County, undoubtedly, are suffering from CRC fatigue, yet there is no time for waiting before moving forward. The project is too crucial for delay.
The reasonable alternative is to begin planning for a bridge with increased traffic capacity and the ability to add light rail in the future. Yes, increased bridge capacity will do little to mitigate the I-5 bottleneck at Portland's Rose Quarter, but it will be a start, one that both states can build upon as progress ripples outward from the bridge.
That, in the end, is what is at stake here — progress. Both Oregon and Washington have been mired in conflict over this project long enough. The time has come to find some middle ground and decide how to get where we're going.