TriMet chief: Need for new I-5 Bridge remains

He says I-5 corridor still congested, may have gotten worse

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter

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The Delta Park/Vanport Transit Center is shown in 2012.

It’s been 16 months since the Columbia River Crossing project office closed its doors for good.

Is it time to revisit the failed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement effort? At least one leader in Portland thinks so.

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane told the Portland Tribune in an article published Thursday that he believes Washington and Oregon need to address a problem that didn’t go away when the CRC did. The I-5 corridor remains chronically congested, and conditions have gotten worse by many accounts.

“The bridge is on the No. 1 economic corridor on the West Coast. We have to get back to it,” McFarlane told the Portland Tribune.

Those comments likely won’t come as a surprise to close observers of the CRC. TriMet, the Portland-area transit agency, was a sponsoring agency and strong supporter of the project before its demise. In November, McFarlane indicated in a letter to C-Tran that he was holding out hope that the CRC — or something like it — could be resurrected someday.

Still, don’t expect a CRC revival any time soon. Lawmakers in both states have expressed little interest in addressing the project again, meaning it’s unlikely to gain much political momentum. That’s particularly true in Washington, where the Republican-controlled Senate has strengthened its majority since the chamber delivered what turned out to be a fatal blow by denying funding to the project in 2013.

McFarlane addressed the Portland City Club last week as part of a panel discussion on the future of public transit in Portland. A TriMet spokeswoman declined to elaborate on his remarks, instead referring questions to the Oregon Department of Transportation. An ODOT representative could not be reached for comment Thursday.

McFarlane’s remarks came on the heels of a major milestone for his agency: This month, TriMet opened a new light rail line between Portland and Milwaukie, Ore. The Orange Line also crosses the new Tilikum Crossing, a car-free bridge that spans the Willamette River in Portland.

The approximately $3 billion CRC would have replaced the I-5 Bridge, extended light rail into Vancouver and rebuilt freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River. Washington walked away from the project in 2013, and an Oregon-led version of the CRC fizzled in 2014. About $200 million was spent in planning alone.

The project’s failure left a few loose ends, including a controversial agreement that TriMet and C-Tran signed in 2013. The document spelled out how the two agencies would have operated light rail in Vancouver as part of the CRC. The contract only takes effect if the project is actually built. But it also has no end date, leaving it in a sort of limbo.

C-Tran had asked that TriMet join it in terminating the agreement. In his letter to C-Tran board members last year, McFarlane called that action “premature” and said his agency has no plans to do so.

As recently as last week, Washington State Department of Transportation Regional Administrator Kris Strickler said “we don’t have a project at this point” when referring to the CRC. Visiting Vancouver earlier this month, the head of the Federal Transit Administration said the CRC is “not in our pipeline.”

Attempts to restart talks at the legislative level have also fallen short. In the most recent legislative session, state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, and Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, spearheaded an effort to carve out $100,000 to hire neutral facilitators to help Oregon and Washington work together to address the I-5 Bridge. The effort failed.

At the time, Oregon’s House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, responded to Pike’s efforts, telling her Oregon officials were not ready to begin anew the bi-state conversations.

Reporter Lauren Dake contributed to this story.