The key, it must be pointed out, is the inclusion of the disclaimer “long-range” in Clark County’s long-range Regional Transportation Plan. That being said, it is understandable if mention of a replacement Interstate 5 Bridge between Vancouver and Portland leads to cold sweats and hives for many in the area.
It wasn’t long ago, after all, that the proposed Columbia River Crossing was generating plenty of consternation and dismay and hard feelings. The proposal called for a new bridge, freeway improvements on both sides of the river and the extension of Portland’s light-rail system into Clark County. There was talk of tolls for crossing the bridge and a preliminary price tag of $3.3 billion. The proposal met its demise earlier this year when lawmakers in Oregon, following the lead of their counterparts in Washington, declined to provide funding for the plan.
Because of that, it likely was a surprise to many when an I-5 Bridge with high-capacity transit and a price tag of $3.3 billion showed up on the long-range transportation plan. Yet, the inclusion makes almost-perfect sense.
While the CRC proposal had glaring flaws and died an ignominious death, the need for an improved I-5 crossing remains alive and well. It also remains a priority over any proposed third bridge connecting Vancouver and Portland. Eventually, an additional bridge or bridges will be a necessity, but upgrading the century-old span that is the primary conduit between the cities will provide the most immediate benefits. “It’s been identified as a transportation safety need,” said Bart Treece, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Transportation. “Just because the project went away doesn’t mean the need has.”
As mentioned, the inclusion of an I-5 Bridge in the long-range plan makes almost-perfect sense — but not quite. Any proposal that does not fundamentally alter what the public just spent a decade haggling about will only lead to the same result — much talk, many expenditures and no bridge. For any proposal to potentially garner support from the public and from the Legislature, light rail will have to be removed from the initial planning. The extension of Portland’s MAX system into Clark County will — for now and for the foreseeable future — be a deal-breaker, and any new bridge proposal should include the capacity for light rail in the future but recognize that light rail is not viable at the current time.
Of course, the long-range transportation plan has little to do with the current reality. The 2035 Regional Transportation Plan is more like a wish list that is now being reviewed by the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council. The blueprint for the future of transportation in the region is reviewed and updated every couple of years, and Matt Ransom, executive director of the council, said, “In the absence of a different alternative, we’re saying . . . ‘Hey, there’s still a need for improvement and a series of improvements along the I-5 corridor.'”
Yes, there is a need. And the fact is that Vancouver and Clark County and the states of Washington and Oregon and C-Tran and TriMet will have to come together again in the near future and rekindle talks about the future of the Interstate 5 Bridge. Even as the wounds left by the last effort remain fresh. Even if the notion of going through the process again leads to discomfort.
And when that time comes, the question will be whether or not officials have learned anything from the past. If not, they will be doomed to repeat it.