Monday, March 1, 2021
March 1, 2021

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In Our View: Stop Stalling on I-5 Bridge

Backups costly to Clark County drivers, economy; leaders must find way forward

The Columbian

The cold reality is that efforts to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge amount to a dysfunctional relationship — a situation that should be unacceptable to taxpayers.

Lawmakers in both Washington and Oregon have been unwilling to embrace the need to talk about the bridge; leaders on both sides of the Columbia River have demonstrated that they prefer demagoguery to engagement. Meanwhile, the populace is suffering. As the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council was told last week, the daily commute across the bridge has turned from gridlock to grrrrridlock.

With an improved economy and lower gas prices generating more traffic, the morning commute from state Highway 500 to Jantzen Beach, across the I-5 Bridge, has gone from an average of about 6 1/2 minutes in 2011 to 25 minutes today. The cost in terms of delayed commerce, wasted gas, and driver frustration should be obvious and should call for action on the part of elected officials. “The situation on 5 has gotten to the point where doing nothing is probably not an option,” said Dale Robins, senior transportation planner with the RTC.

This is not a surprise to anybody who regularly traverses the I-5 corridor or to anybody who watched the demise of the Columbia River Crossing proposal, which was a decade in the making. Not only is the daily commute increasingly frustrating, but even the typical Saturday morning drive into Portland is met with delays and frequent brake-pumping.

For Clark County residents, who comprise the vast majority of I-5 commuters on work days, the problem is that we are largely beholden to Oregon. With Portland serving as the destination rather than the starting point, the situation is less pressing for officials on that side of the river. Yet, compromise is necessary, and it is with great urgency that we reiterate the steps that must be taken:

• Compromise is needed on the issue of light rail. A new bridge should have the capability to carry Portland’s MAX system into Clark County but should be earmarked for the future. When the population of Clark County reaches a designated density, light rail can be extended.

• TriMet officials, who run Portland’s mass-transit system, must tear up an agreement with C-Tran that spells out operation of light rail. With the demise of the CRC, the deal should be sent back to the drawing board, which local officials foolishly agreed to in perpetuity.

• Drivers should be prepared to pay tolls on a new bridge. Not only is this logical for a multibillion-dollar project, but such user fees fit in with conservative fiscal principles. By having people who actually use the bridge pay a larger share, it will mitigate costs for those who do not use it.

• Any proposal must focus on improvements to Interstate 5 near the Rose Quarter in central northeast Portland. A continued bottleneck there would diminish any benefits derived from an expanded bridge 7 miles to the north.

• Plans for additional bridges across the Columbia River should be formulated once an I-5 replacement is underway. It is disingenuous, irresponsible, and unreasonable to focus upon a third crossing when the I-5 Bridge is in dire need of replacement.

Any and all of this will first require discussion between lawmakers in both states, and in this regard they are failing their constituents. By refusing to address the issue in a meaningful manner, leaders are placing an albatross around the local economy that will hamper the region for decades to come.