Press Talk: The path to that new bridge

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian Editor

Published:

 

Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian's editor emeritus. His column of personal opinion appears the first Saturday of every month. Reach him at lounews1@gmail.com.

Can we really get there from here?

Really?

What I’m talking about, of course, is a replacement for that old, creaking Interstate 5 Bridge.

And I’m thinking — this time — yes.

Look, anyone who has been here longer than a millisecond knows residents were recently put through a long, painful — and unsuccessful — attempt to get that dang bridge replaced.

Three things primarily killed the old Columbia River Crossing proposal:

• Light rail.

• Tolls.

• Lack of consensus.

But today, there’s a new sheriff in town. Well, OK, it’s actually a bunch old sheriffs, but with a changing environment. And it’s that changing environment that will allow consensus — and a new I-5 bridge — to happen.

Let me explain.

Essentially we have the same players in Olympia — both Democrats and Republicans — as we did when the CRC failed. So what led Democratic state Sen. Annette Cleveland to say this?

“There is consensus among the delegation here in Southwest Washington and there is commitment to work together.”

Consensus? About what exactly?

Cleveland would say only that there was consensus on the process. But I’m figuring that — and $3 — still won’t buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

So how do we get from consensus on the process to consensus on the rubber meeting the road? Here’s your answer:

Extract the political pressures that have prevented both Republicans and Democrats from doing the right thing.

Wait. Is that even possible? Listen up. And let’s start with light rail.

Light rail

This was a huge deal-breaker in the past. Our local Republicans hated it. Our local Democrats felt it was needed. The topic was so toxic for most Republicans that they could not even agree to a light-rail ready bridge.

But what if I were to tell you that many big bridge projects today have light-rail components already built into them. Why is that important? Because it gives politicians “cover.” They can agree to it because it’s just the way it is.

OK, on to tolls.

Tolls 

Tolling was the other road block to consensus. But today there really is a new sheriff in town. And his name is President Donald J. Trump.

One of things Trump has been touting is a huge, very huge, very, very huge, spending program on the country’s infrastructure. And do you know how he plans to finance this program? Well, he has a plan to essentially turn over infrastructure improvements to the private sector.

And do you know how the private sector would gain a profit from its investment? Yep. Tolls.

So the political types who had to oppose tolls before have now been given political cover by Trump. Tolls will simply be a fact of life.

Sure, there are other issues that need to be dealt with. Oregon will have to consent to building a light-rail ready bridge, which I think they will. And Republican state Rep. Liz Pike — a local outlier on this project — will simply have to wait until later — much later — for her beloved east county bridge to be built.

Time Frame

OK, one thing most politicians hate being asked is when they’re going to actually get something done.

I get it.

But one thing most journalists love is asking that question. So I did.

And to her credit, Sen. Ann Rivers — who, oh by the way, was a major player in killing the last bridge project — was willing to take a shot at it.

“At the risk of being put on your website with a countdown clock, I’d be shooting for maybe five years.” 

And knowing all the possible booby traps, what then?

“I’m an eternal optimist and my confidence is high,” Rivers said.

Hey, I’m not betting against Rivers or anyone else in this group. So let’s get ’er done!