Effort to expedite 179th/I-5 interchange funding denied

County had asked state to make money available before 2023

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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Local leaders hoping to get funding sooner rather than later to improve the outdated Interstate 5 interchange at Northeast 179th Street suffered a setback after two budget-writing committees in the state Legislature denied their request.

In the lead-up to this year’s legislative session, the Clark County Transportation Alliance, a coalition of 28 local governments and business groups, assembled a list of transportation projects they asked lawmakers to prioritize.

Included among those projects is a new interchange at Northeast 179th Street, at Exit 9 near the Clark County Fairgrounds near Ridgefield. In 2015, the Legislature approved a transportation funding package that made $50 million available to improve the interchange. However, the package didn’t make the money available until 2023.

The Northeast 179th Street interchange is the oldest interchange remaining in Clark County. According to Clark County, the east freeway bridge, carrying northbound I-5 traffic, was built in 1960, and the west bridge, carrying southbound I-5 traffic, was built a few years later.

Both are considered obsolete for several reasons:

• The vertical clearance of the underpass does not meet design standards for new bridge construction.

• The bridges do not meet modern earthquake safety standards.

• The narrow underpass prohibits widening of Northeast 179th Street from two lanes and one turn lane, creating a major bottleneck for east-west traffic flow.

Local leaders have called attention to how the interchange is inadequate to accommodate projects, some of them job-oriented, from taking shape in the vicinity. In response, they’ve asked the Legislature to make funding for the project available sooner.

That wish wasn’t granted in the 2017-19 transportation budget released by the Legislature’s House Transportation Committee on Monday.

The budget released by the Senate Transportation Committee last week also didn’t move up funding for the project, which has been a particular priority for Clark County.

“We are going to continue to do what we can locally to improve that interchange,” said Clark County Councilor Julie Olson, whose district encompasses the proposed project.

Specifically, Olson pointed to how the county currently has bids out for work to extend, widen and improve Northeast 10th Avenue along the west side of I-5.

The county’s lobbyist, Mike Burgess, said that other jurisdictions in Washington had also asked the Legislature to hasten the availability of money for local transportation projects but were similarly denied. Burgess said that because the transportation package is still relatively new, committee chairs were reluctant to alter its funding timetable.

However, Ron Arp, president of Identity Clark County, which coordinates the Clark County Transportation Alliance, isn’t dismayed.

“It’s too early to know exactly what will or will not be included by the time this very lengthy and complex budget process is concluded,” he said.

State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, has been pushing for the project to be included in the state’s transportation budget. When asked for comment about the project not being in the respective legislative budgets, Eric Campbell, a spokesman for the state Senate Republicans, replied with an email with Rivers’ response: “We’re working on it.”