Wednesday, December 1, 2021
Dec. 1, 2021

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In Our View: Building Bridges, Again

Metaphorical kind is necessary if state is to accomplish anything with Oregon

The Columbian

With a legislative committee taking shape to consider the future of the Interstate 5 Bridge, numerous questions are begging to be answered. And while the minutiae of any eventual project will need to be addressed, two major issues could stall the effort before it even gets into gear: Will Oregon officials get involved? And what will be different this time around?

Last week, four Washington representatives were appointed to a task force designed to begin working toward replacement of the century-old bridge. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, and Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, have been tabbed as part of a 16-member committee created by passage of a bill during this year’s legislative session. Four Washington senators will be added to the group, but that represents the relatively easy part of the process.

The difficult portion, it appears, will be getting Oregon legislators to join the party. “Eventually, I think they have to come to the table because it’s in the region’s interest to do that,” Wylie said. “Ultimately, if it was easy, we would have already had a bridge.”

Therein lies the problem. With then-Clark County Sens. Ann Rivers and Don Benton leading the opposition, Washington effectively scuttled the Columbia River Crossing proposal in 2013. More than a decade of work and nearly $200 million in expenditures went down the drain, and Oregon lawmakers have demonstrated little eagerness to engage in discussions since then. Fool me once, and all that.

Which brings up the question about approaching things differently. As Gov. Jay Inslee and local legislators have stressed, the key will be to demonstrate that there is local consensus regarding a replacement bridge, rather than leaving open the possibility of another last-minute collapse for the project. Consensus does not mean unanimity, but the inclusion of Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, on the committee will make consensus more difficult. Orcutt voted against formation of the task force and believes a third bridge should take priority over the I-5 span.

Editorially, The Columbian has recommended a provision allowing for the inclusion of light rail when Clark County reaches a designated level of population density. Including light rail at this time would be a fiscal albatross, but it would be nonsensical to ignore the eventual need for the system to extend into Washington.

In a similar vein, local residents must recognize that some tolls would be an equitable form for providing funding for a new bridge. User fees are a fair and necessary method of paying for large projects, and they fit in with conservative political philosophy. Tolls to help pay for a replacement bridge should not be confused with Oregon officials’ current effort to place tolls on I-5 and I-205 beginning at the state line. Those tolls would not go toward enhancing the bridges, but instead would have Washington residents contributing mightily to some projects that would not benefit those residents.

And finally, the committee should work to establish a process for additional bridges across the Columbia River. I-5 must remain the priority, but the work should not stop there. Multiple bridges will be essential for the region’s economy in the coming decades.

Washington officials have taken an important first step toward kick-starting discussion about the Interstate 5 Bridge. But in attempting to engage Oregon representatives, they must demonstrate that history will not repeat itself. As Vick said, “It’s not going to be real useful to sit around and talk to ourselves about a project that takes two states.”