Washington forms I-5 Bridge committee

Oregon yet to show interest in new project

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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Washington has taken a step towards restarting the process to replace the chronically congested Interstate 5 Bridge. But so far, officials in Oregon, who would have an equally important role in replacing the bridge, haven’t indicated that they’re interested in taking that walk with their Washington counterparts.

On Thursday, Washington House Speaker Frank Chopp issued a letter appointing a bipartisan group of four state representatives to a legislative action committee tasked with overseeing the replacement of the bridge. The committee was created by Senate Bill 5806, which was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this year. Its 16 members are to be appointed by Democratic and Republican legislative leaders from Oregon and Washington. Washington Senate legislative leaders haven’t finalized their picks.

In Oregon, legislators have yet to indicate they will participate in the committee. Oregon legislative leaders did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment, with the exception of Rick Osborn, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland.

“There really hasn’t been a whole lot of discussion about that,” Osborn said.

He said Burdick doesn’t have immediate plans to appoint anyone to the committee but said that could change. He noted that the Oregon Legislature recently passed its largest ever transportation package, which he said has taken up lawmakers’ attention. He said that years ago there was an opportunity to replace the bridge that didn’t work out, a reference to the ill-fated Columbia River Crossing project.

The project would have replaced the I-5 Bridge with a larger crossing that included light rail. Planning for the $3.4 billion project was costly, and it was widely criticized. While Oregon ended up buying into the project, it was effectively killed in the Washington Senate in 2013.

The new committee aimed at reviving talks of replacing the bridge includes state Representatives Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, and Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver. Neither say they’re discouraged by Oregon’s initial lack of interest in restarting talks.

“Eventually, I think they have to come to the table because it’s in the region’s interest to do that,” Wylie said. She added, “Ultimately, if it was easy, we would have already had a bridge.”

In addition to creating the committee, the bill directs $350,000 for the inventory and cataloging of previous work done on the Columbia River Crossing project. That work will be delivered in a report by the Washington State Department of Transportation to the Legislature by Dec. 1.

Wylie said it’ll take some work to get Oregon to come back to the table. She said she’s been reaching out to officials in Oregon, where she previously served as a legislator in the 1990s. She hopes that Washington will eventually signal to Oregon that it’s serious about moving forward on replacing the bridge that tens of thousands of Clark County commuters rely on.

Vick also said he’s been in touch with Oregon business leaders and lawmakers. He said that the committee may issue a formal invitation to legislative leaders across the river to appoint members. Both Vick and Wylie said that part of why the Columbia River Crossing failed was due to a lack of buy-in from the public and other stakeholders. They said they’ll try to avoid the same mistake through better cooperation and outreach.

“It’s not going to be real useful to sit around and talk to ourselves about a project that takes two states,” he said.

The committee also includes Representatives Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, and Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.

Orcutt and other lawmakers have advocated for building a third bridge instead of replacing the I-5 span, and he voted against the bill that created the committee he now sits on. Previously, he told The Columbian that he wasn’t convinced Oregon would come to the table if the bill was passed. Now, when asked if he still thought Oregon would refuse to participate, he said, “I don’t know, but I hope not.”

“My role on this committee will be to try and get an improved I-5 crossing and a reduction in congestion in the area,” he said. “And I think a third bridge is necessary.”

Orcutt said he sought the appointment because he is the ranking minority member on the House Transportation Committee and wants to represent people in his district, some of whom commute to Oregon.

He said that it doesn’t make sense that Cowlitz County has five crossings across the Cowlitz River while Clark County, which has a larger population, only has two bridges across the Columbia River. He said that while on the committee he will advocate that a third bridge be included along with the replacement of the I-5 crossing.

“We will fail economic development miserably if all we do is just replace I-5 and not deal with other congestion issues,” he said.