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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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‘Northwest Passage’ tollway proposal stirs debate

Oregon lawmaker wants to create bypass west of I-5

By , Columbian staff writer, and
, Columbian Political Writer

Washington lawmakers aren’t the only ones looking to ease congestion on the region’s roads this legislative session. An Oregon state legislator wants to give local jurisdictions the power to create what he’s dubbed the Northwest Passage — a new tollway west of Interstate 5.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Rich Vial, a Republican who represents Scholls, would allow local jurisdictions to create special districts to build and operate highways. It would be financed through tolls or local taxes and not rely on state or federal money.

Jack Burkman, a Vancouver city councilor and member of the Regional Transportation Commission, said his first reaction to the Oregon bill was, “wow.”

“This (could be) six to 10 times the costs of the Columbia River Crossing with no federal or state money. That’s a challenging way to start,” Burkman said. Vial told The Oregonian, which first reported on the bill Wednesday, that the project could cost $12 billion to $20 billion to build.

More local control

The route specifics are vague in Oregon’s House Bill 3231, but Burkman said it appears the suggested routes would present some considerable challenges.

“I don’t have the details, but if you start at Woodland, there’s environmentally sensitive areas, there’s a wildlife refuge, there’s the fairgrounds — and then you get into urbanized areas. You’re getting into city arterials and then downtown,” Burkman said.

Vial, a land-use attorney with a background in transportation policy, said he’s received positive feedback from the Washington side of the Columbia River. The point is not to be overly specific, he said, but give local jurisdictions more control.

“This is an idea in concept for a long time, and we’ve never had sufficient resources or impetus to move forward. It gives jurisdictions the ability to come together and form a special district. These folks can then fund feasibility and alignment studies,” Vial said.

Vial said the concept wouldn’t supplant needed work on the Interstate 5 Bridge, but would supplement it.

‘Dreaming big’

Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, a champion of considering a third bridge over the Columbia River rather than primarily focusing on replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge, said she’s exchanged emails with Vial.

“I’m optimistic there may be others who are open to solutions on the west side,” Pike said, adding later: “Imagine going from Salmon Creek to Hillsboro in 15 to 20 minutes. Wow.”

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, isn’t convinced. She has spearheaded an effort in Olympia to ensure the focus remains primarily on fixing the Interstate 5 corridor before moving on to a third crossing.

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“While I appreciate dreaming big and having a vision for the future, as a policymaker, I understand the need to temper that with what is prudent and reasonable now,” Cleveland said. “I see our first responsibility as maintaining and replacing existing transportation infrastructure. For any new infrastructure proposals, I would first need to see compelling data demonstrating the need.”

Cleveland added that her first question would be “are there enough people trying to travel from Hubbard and other west-side Oregon locations to Ridgefield and places north in Washington to warrant the tremendous cost of building a bypass?”

Vial will also likely receive pushback among his fellow Republicans in the Oregon House.

Oregon Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, said she appreciates the idea of adding lanes and infrastructure, but she’s not sure this is the correct route. Philosophically, she said, many Oregonians have a problem with tolls.

“We have seen with the ODOT (Oregon Department of Transportation) conversations with about the CRC (Columbia River Crossing) that they couldn’t give us accurate tolling data,” Parrish said. “It raises skepticism about their ability to manage any kind of tolling.”

Washington State Department of Transportation spokesman Bart Treece said it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment on the bill, since the agency takes its direction from the Washington Legislature and not Oregon.

Although Vial told The Oregonian that he wouldn’t name an exact route, the story nonetheless featured a map of two potential routes for his Northwest Passage.

Both routes branch off of Interstate 5 at Woodland. One would cross straight over to Columbia City, Ore., curve to the west of state Highway 30 and eventually reconnect with I-5 south of Wilsonville.

Parallel to I-5

The other alternative would run parallel to I-5 within a few miles to the west, bisect the Cowlitz Indian Reservation, through Ridgefield and the Discovery Corridor, Salmon Creek and Hazel Dell before passing through the Lincoln, Hough and Esther Short Park neighborhoods before crossing the Columbia somewhere near the BNSF Railway bridge west of downtown Vancouver.

John Ley, a Camas resident and an advocate for a third bridge, said he was “thrilled” to see Vial’s idea, saying a solution to the area’s transportation issues has been overdue for three decades.

“I applaud Rep. Vial’s effort and hope his fellow legislators take his effort seriously,” he wrote to The Columbian in an email.

Columbian staff writer
Columbian Political Writer