The journey of 1,000 miles, it has been said, begins with a single step. So while this region remains light years away — metaphorically speaking — from securing a replacement for the Interstate 5 Bridge, it is significant that a single step has been taken.
Seven of the nine legislators from Clark County have come together to kick-start a process that, ideally, will lead to the eventual improvement of the region’s most vital transportation corridor. Behind bipartisan, bicameral support from the local delegation, companion bills have been introduced in the Legislature to declare the bridge a project of statewide significance. Legislators from throughout Washington would be wise to pass those bills, acknowledging that what happens on the I-5 Bridge impacts the economy throughout the state.
Declarations, of course, often amount to little more than hot air, but Senate Bill 5806 and House Bill 2095 would have some practical impact. Passage would provide a framework for further discussions about replacing the bridge, and it could expedite the permitting and construction process should an agreement be reached.
While it is impossible to predict whether this step eventually will lead to an agreement, Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, noted during a conference call with The Columbian’s Editorial Board: “If we couldn’t get to where we are today, the chances would be zero. But after a year of talking and bringing people into the process and working together, building our trust and learning about the different points of view, I would say my confidence is very high.”
In forging the agreement, Wylie was joined by fellow Democratic Rep. Monica Stonier and Republicans Paul Harris and Brandon Vick. All three local senators — Republicans Ann Rivers and Lynda Wilson plus Democrat Annette Cleveland — also partook. Only Liz Pike and Vicki Kraft, both Republican representatives, did not sign on from the Clark County delegation. This compromise is significant for a project that long has been more divisive than unifying. The demise of the proposed Columbia River Crossing in 2013 has left lingering hard feelings among constituents, among local legislators, and among lawmakers in both Washington and Oregon.
“I thought one of the first questions we needed to answer as a delegation is, ‘What’s different this time?’ ” Cleveland said. “And the answer to that question is that there’s consensus among the delegation here in Southwest Washington.”
Declaring the I-5 Bridge as a project of statewide importance is a logical first step. It demonstrates commitment to lawmakers in Oregon, who must be involved with any agreement; it rightly places the I-5 corridor as a priority instead of allowing for the distraction of discussions about a third bridge across the Columbia River; and it signals to other Washington legislators that the Clark County delegation can work together. Rivers’ involvement is particularly noteworthy, given the lead role she played in killing the Columbia River Crossing proposal.
That being said, consensus is a far cry from unanimity. If the project moves forward, there still are pressing questions about the inclusion of light rail and the use of tolls on a new bridge. There also will be a lingering need for additional bridges linking Clark County with the Oregon side of the river. Rivers said: “The end game is not only to replace an aging piece of infrastructure, but also to create the mechanism by which we have multiple crossings.”
While those questions must be addressed down the road, the first step has been taken.