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Thursday, September 28, 2023
Sept. 28, 2023

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Oregon to join in Interstate 5 Bridge replacement talks

Move comes five years after collapse of Columbia River Crossing project

By , Columbian political reporter

Five years after pulling its support for a controversial replacement of the Interstate 5 Bridge, Washington has convinced Oregon to resume talks about the increasingly outmoded crossing.

On Friday, Washington Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, announced that Oregon legislative leaders have agreed to appoint members to a bistate committee to discuss replacing the century-old bridge. The committee was created by a bill signed by Gov. Jay Inslee last year that’s intended to restart the process for replacing the bridge.

Oregon officials have been leery about restarting talks after Republican lawmakers in Washington scuttled the last attempt to replace the bridge in 2013. Last year, the committee met for the first time without representatives from Oregon.

But after Clark County’s legislative delegation has continued to coalesce around replacing the bridge and local jurisdictions have signaled their support, Oregon has returned to the table. When the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee meets on Tuesday at the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs in Portland, it will include five Oregon lawmakers: Sens. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield; Brian Boquist, R-Dallas and Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, as well as with Reps. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay and Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro.

The Washington side will include Cleveland, Sens. Ann Rivers, R-La Center; Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver; Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, as well as state Reps. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver; Brandon Vick, R-Felida; Jake Fey, D-Tacoma and Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.

“We all agree on the overdue need for a new bridge and a process that maintains the public’s trust and support,” said Cleveland in a prepared statement. “I’m not going to suggest this undertaking will be simple or easy, but we are determined to find a path that leads us to a solution in order to build the much-needed replacement bridge.”

Cleveland said that the development came from “several years of collaboration by seven Southwest Washington legislators to demonstrate a consensus that would earn the trust of their Oregon counterparts.”

After making the announcement Friday morning, Cleveland issued a follow-up statement clarifying that because the committee was established by the Washington Legislature, the Oregon lawmakers will participate as “guests.” She said that their defined role and commitment will be determined by the Oregon Legislature.

“I just hope that it’s an open line of communication,” said Wilson. “I really think that’s where we build trust and faith on both sides.”

Vick said that the meeting is a “big deal” given recent history. The Columbia River Crossing, the previously proposed bridge replacement, died in 2013 after the Republican-led Washington Senate adjourned without approving funding for the much-fraught megaproject. The crossing drew pointed opposition for its cost, inclusion of light rail and plans to pay for it using tolls.

Since then, congestion has worsened, becoming a chokepoint on the I-5 corridor. Area leaders have responded by pursuing another attempt to replace the increasingly antiquated bridge. Last year, most of Clark County’s legislative delegation reached a consensus on replacing the bridge. While Rivers, an opponent of the Columbia River Crossing, supported the new effort, Reps. Liz Pike, R-Camas, and Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, have instead supported construction of a third bridge.

Pike is retiring from her position and is being replaced with Republican Larry Hoff, who has said he’s supportive of the effort. Local jurisdictions, including the city of Vancouver, the Clark County Council and ports have also passed resolutions voicing support for replacing the bridge.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., will likely become the next chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and has said he would pursue a $500 billion bipartisan infrastructure package that would emphasize projects of “regional and national significance.”

However, there could be sticking points with Oregon. During a gubernatorial debate last fall, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (who was re-elected) said that Washington would need to accept a bridge with “public transit, particularly light rail.” 

Resolutions supporting the replacement passed by the Vancouver City Council, Clark County Council and Port of Vancouver have all called for some sort of transit on the new bridge, a requirement to getting federal funding. But none directly called for light rail. Some elected leaders have voiced concern that the resolutions are vague enough to be used in support of light rail.

Republicans in Clark County’s legislative delegation have largely settled on a consensus that bus-rapid transit should be included in the new bridge. Wilson said that light rail has been shown to be an expensive and inflexible transportation option and that Oregon officials have shown interest in bus-rapid transit. Vick said that Brown’s conditions “may have been a little premature” and noted that the effort is still in its infancy.

“I don’t believe, at the end of the day, that’s going to be a linchpin,” said Vick.

Columbian political reporter