Even with the Columbia River Crossing in the process of closing up shop, there is no shortage of ideas for funding and building a replacement Interstate 5 bridge. That’s because there is no shortage of need for such a bridge.
The CRC officially is dead, with the final blow being struck when the 2014 session of the Oregon Legislature adjourned without acting on the project. That came after the 2013 Washington Legislature failed to provide state funding for the CRC. And that came after a decade or so of input and negotiations and wrangling between multiple public agencies and numerous public leaders. Through it all, the need to replace the century-old I-5 Bridge over the Columbia River never dissipated. So it was no surprise Friday when state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, put forth the latest idea for a project that is dead but won’t go away.
Pike, who joined representatives Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, and Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, in meeting with The Columbian’s editorial board, said she is working with state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and others to bring together a coalition of Washington and Oregon lawmakers to discuss the bridge. “Any bridge isn’t going to get built without both legislatures coming together,” Pike said. “Let’s start at the beginning.”
The very beginning, it has been said, is a very good place to start. And back at the start is where the I-5 project finds itself these days. The project has been abandoned by both states, and the CRC’s official office in Vancouver is scheduled to be vacated by Monday. Yet still the need remains, even as the mistakes of the most recent effort linger.
Among those mistakes, in the mind of Harris, was the federal government’s insistence upon the inclusion of light rail in the project. The feds offered $850 million toward the project to extend Portland’s light-rail system into Clark County. That was in transit dollars rather than transportation dollars, as then-U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood stressed during a meeting with Washington lawmakers in 2013. Harris said: “I think the most damning thing LaHood did was come to Olympia. Let’s focus on the I-5 bridge first.”
The insistence upon light rail on the part of the federal government — and the governors of both states — became a rallying point for critics of the project, and it served to obfuscate the primary issue in the discussion — the bridge itself.
Other topics also have distracted from the discussion. Clark County Commissioner David Madore has said that he is working toward a bridge that would connect east Vancouver with Oregon and that he can have it built within five years. Vick said, “Five years would be a miracle.” Hoping for a miracle is merely a distraction from what should be the focus of the discussion. As Pike said of Interstate 5, “This is the corridor that needs to be worked on.”
Which brings us back to Pike’s plan to engage lawmakers from both states and, ideally, both parties if there is any hope of eventual success. Critics of the CRC project often complained about a lack of public input in the planning, but those complaints don’t jibe with the reality of hundreds of public meetings during the discussion phase. In truth, what the CRC was lacking was input from legislators on both sides of the river.
Lawmakers in Washington and Oregon demonstrated over the past two years a stern willingness to ignore the wishes of their governors and act in what they thought was the best interest of their constituents. They didn’t like the CRC. Now it’s up to them to devise a new plan.