Jayne: On I-5 Bridge, Gov. Inslee misreads county’s pulse

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor

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Greg Jayne

Webster’s tells us that consensus means “general agreement.” Or “the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned.” Or “group solidarity in sentiment and belief.”

Which is all very informative but doesn’t get us any closer to replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge across the Columbia River. And that presents a problem. Because while Gov. Jay Inslee is correct in emphasizing the need for consensus in this part of the state before we can harbor hopes for replacing the stop sign that is the I-5 Bridge, there seems to be some disconnect about exactly what that means.

That was the takeaway from the governor’s visit with The Columbian’s Editorial Board this week. Inslee was in town and decided to pay us a visit, for which we are always appreciative. He’s a good man, that governor. Thoughtful. Bright. Infectiously enthusiastic about Washington. And, especially these days, it is enjoyable to sit down with a chief executive who speaks in complete sentences and can string together a coherent thought.

Inslee is intimately knowledgeable about what is going on throughout the state, about various projects and various innovations that will continue to place Washington at the forefront of the national economy. But when it comes to the I-5 Bridge and the hope-crushing difficulties that must be overcome, I’m not sure he has his finger on the pulse of this region.

Asked about the idea that most citizens in Southwest Washington are opposed to the extension of Portland’s light-rail system into Clark County, Inslee said, “I don’t sense that consensus at all.” He then added a few more thoughts before closing with, “But I must tell you that I don’t think there’s a consensus that people don’t want light rail in this community. I don’t believe that’s true.”

Support for light rail

That probably comes as news to the majority of voters in Clark County.

In 2012, 57 percent of the electorate rejected a sales tax increase to help pay for light rail in the county. Granted, that was a vote about funding, rather than the question of “Do you want light rail in Clark County?” But it was instructive.

So, too, was a poll conducted around that time by the Washington Policy Center, which found that more residents believe buses are the most cost-effective way to improve mass transit between Vancouver and Portland. So, too, was 68 percent approval of an advisory vote in 2013 that said Clark County should oppose any light rail project that is not first supported by a vote of the people.

Now, we can quibble with the results of those votes, and we can point out that the advisory vote was a silly grandstanding ploy pushed by the silly county commissioners of the time. But it is difficult to argue that there is a consensus in favor of light rail in this county when voters repeatedly have said otherwise.

Which points out the irresistible force and immovable object paradox of reconstructing the I-5 Bridge. Oregon will insist upon the inclusion of light rail, and federal money likely will depend upon it. But many people on this side of the river would rather gouge their eyes out than welcome Portland’s MAX system into the community.

And when it comes to that push-and-pull, Washington has little leverage. Let’s face it, because more Clark County residents rely upon the bridge on a daily basis, the issue weighs more heavily on this side of the Columbia River. We need a new bridge more than Oregon does.

Inslee, however, remains optimistic. “It takes two sides to build this bridge,” he said. “Each has an equal interest, or should. If you have a job there, you want those workers to be able to get to Portland who might reside here. So I would characterize it as both sides should have an equal interest in getting this project done.”

Meanwhile, the governor repeats the mantra that, “The first stage is to develop community consensus in this region.”

Agreed. But that consensus might not be the one that he expects.