In Our View: Build Bridge With Oregon

Repairing trust among first needs for Interstate 5 replacement to succeed

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The analogy was apt and humorous, distilling the difficulty of getting Washington and Oregon officials to work together on replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge.

As Oregon Sen. Lee Beyer noted, lawmakers in his state feel “a little bit like Charlie Brown” — as in when Lucy would pull the football away as poor ol’ Charlie tried to kick it. At least, that is what Beyer told Columbian reporter Lauren Dake for a recent update about the region’s most pressing transportation problem.

Given the manner in which the Washington Senate yanked away the Columbia River Crossing proposal in 2013, after years of planning between multiple stakeholders, it is understandable that Oregon officials are gun shy. Fool me once, and all that. As Washington Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said: “I’ve always recognized we have broken that trust with our partners and we were going to have to work hard to address the lack of trust.”

Washington lawmakers have taken a step toward restoring that relationship by passing a bill to restart discussions between the states. But despite support from the Legislature and from Gov. Jay Inslee, the bill is merely the starting point for what will be a long journey. Trust can be fragile and it can be difficult to repair once damaged.

Because of that, additional steps will be required from leaders and lawmakers in Washington. Foremost among them will be some form of consensus from this side of the river. There is little question that the overcrowded bridge must be improved, and the guess is that the opening of Ilani Casino Resort near La Center will only exacerbate the maddening congestion. But until Washington representatives can present a united front regarding a bridge proposal, Oregon lawmakers will be reluctant to listen.

Will residents of Southwest Washington be amenable to light rail extending into Clark County? That is unlikely. Ever since the Columbia River Crossing was scuttled, largely because of discord over light rail, The Columbian has recommended editorially that a new bridge should be light-rail ready and that the system should be extended into this state only when Vancouver reaches a specified population density. Until that time, extending the costly system would be a boondoggle.

What about questions regarding the height of the bridge clearance, mitigation payments to upstream industries, and nearby Pearson Field Airport? The bridge height will have to be negotiated, but the impact on manufacturers and the limitations imposed by the airport are on this side of the river and will require some difficult decisions. By trying to make a bridge high enough for downriver shipments but low enough to accommodate nearby small planes, officials are attempting to thread a camel through the eye of a needle. Those issues must be addressed early in the process rather than in the final hour as happened last time.

It is possible, as these issues are revisited, that better solutions can be forged; we’re open to suggestions. And if Washington leaders are serious about kick-starting the process, such solutions must be sought. Failing to learn from the history that led to the demise of the Columbia River Crossing will mean that we are destined to repeat that history while signaling to Oregon that Washington is not worthy of trust.

With Oregon leaders being understandably reluctant to engage in such discussions at this point, such a repetition of past failures would induce a predictable response: “Good grief!”