I-5 Bridge bill finds support in Olympia

Measure to study crossing issues has now passed Senate, House

By Lauren Dake, Columbian Political Writer

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A measure addressing the region’s most divisive topic — how to replace the 100-year-old Interstate 5 Bridge — passed the Statehouse in Olympia on Thursday, clearing the pathway for it to land on the governor’s desk.

“This bill has had a long journey,” Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, told her colleagues on the House floor Thursday while urging them to support the measure.

The bill doesn’t create a project. But, Wylie continued, it “starts the conversation. It utilizes some of the work done in the past to get us to a point where we can replace the Interstate 5 Bridge and it also includes a process to look forward at other bridges in the future.”

In 2013, the state Legislature delivered what many considered to be the lethal blow to the Columbia River Crossing project. Former state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, was a key player. Nearly every legislative session since, Southwest Washington legislators have attempted to prove they are capable of having a constructive conversation about replacing the congested bridge. But each effort failed; every measure introduced later imploded.

Meanwhile, pressure from the community mounted as traffic on the I-5 Bridge increased.

Last year, Benton announced he wasn’t seeking re-election. Some of the internal personality conflicts within the delegation dissipated. Local lawmakers decided to start meeting regularly behind closed doors with the intent of simply kick-starting conversations about the future of the aging infrastructure. This session, they introduced a measure tackling the topic.

Once again, Benton tried to kill the bill, making calls to several state lawmakers from his new post as a senior White House adviser, warning one legislator that “no good for you can come out of this.”

But Thursday, the bill won final approval from the House.

It passed the Senate previously, but a technical amendment must go back to the upper chamber for concurrence before Gov. Jay Inslee can sign the measure.

Inslee has called replacing the bridge a high priority. The governor requested $3 billion toward the I-5 bridge replacement in Washington’s list of potential federal infrastructure projects. And he’s long urged the Southwest Washington delegation to coalesce around the topic.

The measure, his spokeswoman Jaime Smith said, is the first step in addressing the problem.

“Building community consensus is key,” Smith wrote in an email.

What the bill does

Senate Bill 5806 calls for an inventory and cataloguing of all the previous work done on the Columbia River Crossing. It would create a legislative action committee, made up of key stakeholders and state transportation employees in Washington and Oregon.

The measure carves out $350,000 for the necessary work and mandates an inventory report from the Washington State Department of Transportation to the Legislature by Dec. 1. It continues to keep any talk of mass transit vague. It also calls for an examination of all the crossings over the Columbia River, but it prioritizes the I-5 Bridge.

Lawmakers know contentious days are not behind them and more political wrangling over the aging infrastructure is ahead. But the goal this time around, lawmakers said, is to not tear the community apart but to start from a point of unity. While working together, the delegation even tried to avoid uttering the words “Columbia River Crossing.”

“Today is monumental,” Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said about the bill’s passage. “(It) gives hope to all of us who grapple regularly with the frustration of the antiquated I-5 drawbridge. Passage of this bill represents new willingness among Southwest Washington legislators to work together.”

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, a vocal critic of the Columbia River Crossing project, said she’s adamant this effort is not resurrecting the ill-fated project.

“This is one step closer to finding a good answer to our congestion on the I-5 corridor,” she said.

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said it was an opportunity to take a new look, with Oregon, at what’s possible.

“What this does not do is lock anyone into a project. The joint committee this bill creates would act as a sort of ‘bridge authority,’ in my view, that is free to consider other crossings or investments to meet regional transportation needs. As someone who has long thought a third-crossing option deserves serious consideration, I wouldn’t have supported this legislation if it didn’t allow that kind of flexibility,” Rivers said.

And although the majority of the lawmakers who consider themselves part of the Southwest Washington delegation supported the bill — Sens. Rivers, Cleveland, and Wilson and Reps. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, Brandon Vick, R-Felida, Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver and Wylie — two local Republican representatives disagreed with the approach.

Those two, Republican Reps. Vicki Kraft and Liz Pike, are among those who support a third bridge over the Columbia River as a priority over Interstate 5.

“Identifying new corridors is essential,” Pike, of Camas, said recently. “Absent of any new corridors, any replacement of the I-5 Bridge is of little value to the commuters and freight haulers.”

Harris also is in favor of building a third bridge.

But he added, “Be pragmatic. We’ve done work on I-5. Which one is going to get done first and fastest?”

Harris pointed out Washington also needs Oregon’s buy-in to build a new crossing, but Oregon officials don’t seem interested in a third bridge. Retrofitting the existing bridge to make it seismically safer does not make financial sense, he added.

Washington walked away from the Columbia River Crossing project in 2013, and an Oregon-led version of the CRC fizzled in 2014. The approximately $3 billion CRC would have replaced the Interstate 5 Bridge, extended light rail into Vancouver and rebuilt multiple freeway interchanges on both sides of the river. About $200 million was spent in a planning process that stretched back to 2001.