An 'East County Bridge' would need broad buy-in

Madore just starting to reach out to slew of other governments

By Eric Florip and Tyler Graf

Published:

 

Clark County Commissioner David Madore has spoken passionately about the need to build a third metro-area bridge across the Columbia River, but when it comes to that proposal, partnerships may be hard to foment.

The cornerstone in Madore's plan to ease interstate congestion, a toll-free "East County Bridge" would take buy-in from a complicated web of landowners and jurisdictions on both sides of the river. While Madore has pushed the project in recent weeks, going so far as to say it's "possible that we could be driving across our new third toll-free bridge in five years," it appears the project faces a slew of regulatory and boundary hurdles.

In spite of those, the commissioner who made his opposition to the Columbia River Crossing project the foundation of his 2012 campaign is standing by the proposal.

Bill Ganley, a Battle Ground city councilor who also sits on the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, said receiving the necessary approval from local and state agencies will take time. A five-year timeline, while not impossible, is unlikely, he said.

"The bigger the (jurisdictional) boundaries, the more you'll have to work through those issues," he said. "Once you cross a state line, the more players you have at the table, and that always takes longer."

The city of Vancouver, perhaps the most important would-be partner, will also likely be the toughest stumbling block. As proposed, the bridge would extend from Southeast 192 Avenue across the Columbia River, through Port of Portland-owned Government Island, before touching down in Oregon. Southeast 192nd Avenue is inside Vancouver city limits.

Mayor Tim Leavitt, a supporter of the erstwhile Columbia River Crossing project, said he'd oppose talks between Madore and the city on the bridge project.

Leavitt said he'd only heard about the project in vague terms and that specifics hadn't been adequately explained. He called that an ironic twist, considering Madore's pronouncements against the Columbia River Crossing and its sponsors.

"He's doing this (planning) all behind closed doors," Leavitt said "All this is being done in the cloak of meetings with people we're not aware of."

It's also unclear whether Madore knew 192nd Avenue is inside Vancouver city limits. Responding to Leavitt's comments, Madore said he "would hope (the mayor) would have the presence of mind" to be open to new ideas. He added that it didn't matter because the road was inside Camas.

According to county maps, however, Southeast 192nd Avenue is within Vancouver's eastern-most boundary. Leavitt said whether the road was inside Vancouver wasn't in dispute: "Not surprising he doesn't know the facts," Leavitt said.

Long in the works

The concept of an east county, inter-state bridge has existed since before Madore's proposal, as a way of alleviating traffic congestion.

In the early stages of the Columbia River Crossing, regional leaders discussed a range of alternatives that included an additional span in east Clark County. They ultimately landed on the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement because it better met the project's stated goal of relieving congestion on the I-5 corridor and solving other functional problems there, said Don Wagner, regional administrator with the Washington State Department of Transportation.

"A new bridge without doing something on the existing bridges does not address all of the issues," Wagner said.

The twin drawbridge spans of the I-5 Bridge opened in 1917 and 1958. Both are considered "functionally obsolete" by state transportation officials.

That's not to say building a new crossing at 192nd Avenue couldn't provide a benefit, said Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Dave Thompson. It would just address a different problem than the CRC was trying to solve, he said.

"Maybe it's a separate problem worth solving," Thompson said.

A 2008 study found that an east-county river crossing would provide significant congestion relief on the I-205 corridor, possibly resulting in 15 to 20 percent fewer trips on that freeway. But it wouldn't provide any relief to I-5, according to the study.

Also in 2008, the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council included possible eastside crossings in its Transportation Corridor Visioning Study.

But an East County Bridge isn't currently in any regional long-range plans or maps, said RTC Executive Director Matt Ransom. Such a project would have to clear a number of regulatory hurdles to become reality, he said, and go through formal reviews that so far haven't started.

The proposal would have to comply with the State Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental impact studies, an analysis of alternatives and other assessments. It would have to secure the proper local, state and federal permits.

Those aren't necessarily barriers, Ransom said, "but these are just part of the process."

As for the states' role in the project, WSDOT wouldn't need to be a project sponsor for an East County Bridge to materialize, Wagner said. But the agency would have to give its consent for any changes to state Highway 14, he added. WSDOT also owns the land where a 192nd Avenue bridge would first land on the Washington shore of the Columbia River.

Wagner said WSDOT hasn't been directly engaged so far about an East County Bridge, other than what the agency has seen through the media.

"The county would have to have some conversations with the city of Vancouver about connecting there, in addition to the department of transportation," Wagner said.

The 192nd Avenue corridor isn't a federal or state roadway. But it's not unprecedented for a local thoroughfare to cross state lines. In the Columbia River Gorge, the Bridge of the Gods carries a nonstate roadway between Stevenson and Cascade Locks, Ore. The span is owned by the Port of Cascade Locks.

Forging partnerships

Many aspects of the proposed project have been kept under wraps, despite Madore's vocal support of it. Although a website dedicated to the bridge, http://eastcountybridge.com, proclaims an estimated sticker price of $900 million, Madore didn't answer where the money could come from.

Madore has also spoken enthusiastically about the bridge's "world-renowned" designer, who's working "at no cost to our community." That designer is Kevin Peterson, a Friday Harbor-based architect and planner. He's worked on a number of high-profile projects worldwide.

Madore said calls for more information about the project are premature.

"One step at a time," he said. "Everyone is going to participate."

Earlier this year, Ron Papsdorf, government relations manager for Gresham, Ore., advised Madore to discuss the project with other local jurisdictions. So far, little of that work has taken place.

Samantha Nelson, city administrator for Fairview, Ore., where the bridge would land on the Oregon side, said Madore hadn't contacted her about the proposal.

Metro, the Portland area's regional government, received a letter about the project, signed by Madore and Commissioner Tom Mielke. Metro has said that any changes to Oregon roads for a bridge project would require approval of the Metro council.

And neither Washougal nor Camas has discussed the project with Madore. Washougal Mayor Sean Guard voiced skepticism that such a large-scale project could move forward without talks' taking place.

"It's something that will have to be vetted to high heaven," he said.