Southwest Washington lawmakers have introduced a bill in Olympia to address the region’s most divisive topic: how to replace the 100-year-old Interstate 5 Bridge.
The measure introduced Thursday, if passed, would declare replacing the piece of aging infrastructure a project of statewide significance, a move that could expedite the permitting process and construction of a new bridge.
For more than a year, members of the local delegation met behind closed doors to hammer out a deal in an effort to revive productive dialogue surrounding the bridge.
At times, the conversations were tense. Powerful outside voices, such as former County Councilor David Madore, a proponent of a third bridge, tried to weigh in.
Some community members waited hopefully, believing the bridge bill would be introduced last week. Instead, there was more back-and-forth, language tweaks and bill drafts.
“It has been a hard-fought battle,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. “We had a lot of things to overcome. We had to have some pretty uncomfortable conversations and do (some) trust building.”
But Rivers, a vocal opponent of the now-defunct Columbia River Crossing project, added, “I’m really proud of what we’ve come up with.”
On its face, the measure is mainly a process bill.
The key component is designating the bridge replacement idea as a project of statewide significance. That’s an important step for the Southwest Washington delegation, since there’s been an effort to focus instead on a building a west-side bridge, which some believed would delay or derail replacing the Interstate 5 crossing. It’s also rare to declare a mega-transportation project one of statewide significance.
The measure, which has yet to be assigned an official bill number, directs Washington’s governor to work with Oregon’s governor to create a legislative action committee, made up of key stakeholders and employees of both states’ departments of transportation. It also calls for a public comment process and directs officials to examine any inventory from the Columbia River Crossing project that remains relevant.
On light rail, one of the more controversial topics when it comes to the new bridge, the bill is vague, saying only that all mass transit options will be considered.
The bill carves out $350,000 for the necessary work and mandates an inventory report back to the Legislature by Dec. 1, 2017, from the Washington state Department of Transportation.
Although the measure might not sound earth-shattering to some, it’s symbolic of something greater: a step away from years of toxic conversations in Southwest Washington surrounding the CRC project and toward a more unified effort from the local delegation — a group that has struggled to work together in the past — to find a solution.
This time, Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver said, the goal is to not tear the community apart.
“We’re not starting from a point of division. We’re starting from a place of agreement and transparency. That’s why we’re focused on the process and designing the process, so everyone understands what needs to take place and keep track of what steps we’re on. The public being included is very important to all of us,” Cleveland said.
When working together, the delegation tried to avoid even mentioning the Columbia River Crossing project.
“I’m personally adamant that this is not a resurrection of (the Columbia River Crossing), and I think it was important to show that we as a delegation are working together,” said Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, who took Sen. Don Benton’s seat in the senate. Benton was a key player in killing the CRC.
Two Republican legislators from the region didn’t sign on to the bill. Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, said she hasn’t seen the measure and is championing her own transportation bill. Pike has been an advocate of the third-bridge idea.
Pike said replacing the I-5 Bridge is not the solution.
“(It) will not substantially solve our congestion problems or improve freight mobility,” she said.
Freshman legislator Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, also didn’t sign on to the measure.
Rivers said she’s hoping the measure sends a message to Oregon legislators that this side of the river is ready to move forward.
Washington walked away from the Columbia River Crossing project in 2013, and an Oregon-led version of the CRC fizzled in 2014. The approximately $3 billion CRC would have replaced the Interstate 5 Bridge, extended light rail into Vancouver and rebuilt freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River. About $200 million was spent in a planning process that stretched back to 2001.
“The goal is to send a signal not only to Southwestern Washingtonians that rely on the bridge … but also to the legislators and governor in Oregon that we have our sleeves rolled up, we’re ready to get back to work and we’ll have a process in place,” Rivers said.