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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Time to Talk About Bridge

Vague plan floated in Oregon Legislature has issues but may start a conversation

The Columbian
Published: March 6, 2017, 6:03am

Allow us, for a moment, to take a Pollyanna-ish view of a proposal for a third bridge linking Clark County to Portland: At least Oregon is talking about the issue.

That, for now, is the best that can be said about a bill introduced in the Oregon Legislature by Rep. Rich Vial, a Republican who represents the Scholls area, southwest of Portland. Starting the discussion about bridges across the Columbia River is the first step toward finding a solution.

Vial has made a vague proposal to give local jurisdictions the power to create special districts for the purpose of building a bridge to the west of the Interstate 5 crossing. Although he is not identifying a specific route for the offshoot of I-5, a story in The Oregonian included a map of two possible paths, with each branching off of I-5 near Woodland. One would cross the river to Columbia City, Ore., and reconnect with I-5 south of Wilsonville; the other would carve a path through the Cowlitz Indian Reservation and the Lincoln, Hough and Esther Short Park neighborhoods in the heart of Vancouver.

We typically are open to new ideas, but it’s safe to say that the second proposed route can be quickly dismissed. The number of displaced homes and businesses make it untenable.

That being said, the proposal — which is not expected to gain any traction in the Oregon Legislature — allows for discussion of the idea of a third bridge. It serves as a reminder of why several years of negotiations between multiple stakeholders — along with dozens of public meetings — resulted in the now-defunct Columbia River Crossing proposal to reconstruct the I-5 Bridge and not a proposal to build a third bridge.

As documents for the Columbia River Crossing stated, “Most trips in the I-5 corridor have origins or destinations within the project area itself. Even if a new bridge is constructed further upstream or downstream, most trips would not be diverted to that new bridge.”

Washington Rep. Liz Pike, a proponent of a third bridge, reacted to the latest proposal by saying, “Imagine going from Salmon Creek to Hillsboro in 15 to 20 minutes. Wow.” That would be a great selling point if there were any demonstrated desire for a quick path between north Vancouver and Portland’s far-west suburbs. Demand for such a corridor is minimal.

Because of that, lawmakers should focus their attention where the need is greatest. That means two I-5 spans that have been dubbed “functionally obsolete” yet still carry an average of more than 130,000 vehicles each weekday.

Yet, there are some benefits to Vial’s idea. Since the Washington Legislature rejected the Columbia River Crossing proposal in 2013 and Oregon lawmakers followed suit shortly thereafter, little progress has been made. Oregon officials, in particular, have been reluctant to broach the subject — partly because of lingering hard feelings over Washington’s scuttling of the plan.

Washington lawmakers are considering a bill that would declare the Interstate 5 Bridge a priority, which would be an important signal that we are ready to be good neighbors again. The bill does not address contentious issues such as tolls across a reconstructed bridge or the inclusion of light rail; those will be addressed later.

Oregon officials might or might not eventually realize that a new Interstate 5 Bridge would be more beneficial to the region than a third bridge. For now, the important thing is that somebody has started the discussion on that side of the river.