Strictly Business: Let’s span I-5 Bridge differences

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor

Published:

 

Gordon Oliver, Columbian's business editor

Sarah Palin is back, and so is another discussion of a Columbia River bridge. Both evoke strong emotions that are sometimes detached from reality.

State Rep. Sharon Wylie, a Vancouver Democrat, and Rep. Liz Pike of Camas, a Republican, want the Legislature to spend $100,000 on a new discussion of replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge. But any talk of a bridge with light rail will face the usual chorus of critics who succeeded in killing off the old Columbia River Crossing. One has to wonder if any of them are among the thousands who wile away the hours every day traveling to and from jobs in Oregon.

Getting a new bridge would be an uphill battle, as it’s always been. Washington and Oregon legislative leaders are skeptical about whether Southwest Washington will rally politically behind a project that accommodates some form of transit, a key issue for Oregon. Everyone is tired of the endless debate that encases a vital transportation improvement project in a toxic envelope of fear and hostility toward Portland and light rail.

Unfortunately, the problem of trying to move people and goods across the Columbia won’t go a way if we just ignore it. And we know that opposition to rail can’t be wished away, either. After all, opponents wouldn’t get much traction if they weren’t raising legitimate issues about construction costs, tolls, the effectiveness of rail transit, and the potential for reducing congestion in a corridor without much room to grow.

But what if we step back and take a fresh look at what might work as a new Columbia River crossing, now that we’re free from the baggage of the failed project of the past?

First, about light rail. Its benefits and drawbacks are well-known. It’s expensive and disruptive to build, and it doesn’t always fulfill its promise of attracting transit-oriented development. And in the case of Clark County, the politics surrounding rail are so polarized they can make a much larger road and transit project a nonstarter.

If the main goal is to move people — and that’s what we need to do to break our river crossing bottleneck — bus rapid transit service might be a better option. Sure, TriMet’s light-rail line runs north almost to the state line, and a rail connection makes sense. But what if C-Tran operated bus service in exclusive lanes on a new Columbia River bridge? The buses could continue deep into Clark County neighborhoods, including the new Vine bus rapid transit alignment now being built, eliminating the need for a huge Park & Ride in downtown Vancouver. And maybe, just maybe, some of the opposition would melt.

While we’re at it, we should talk about sorting out the transportation mess at Portland’s Rose Quarter. Oregon transportation planners have looked at ways to improve that giant interchange, which is a big part of the ugly morning southbound bottleneck. A new bridge would be an easier sell if we didn’t ignore that elephant in the traffic lane.

There’s plenty of chatter about a third bridge, and that might make sense someday. But the idea has no support in Oregon, and without a major connection in Portland it would be our own bridge to nowhere. And that’s something we can ask Sarah Palin about.