PORTLAND — Lawmakers from Oregon and Washington met publicly for the first time Tuesday afternoon as part of a renewed effort to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge. While the group didn’t come to any sweeping conclusions after the two-hour meeting at the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs in Portland, it agreed to at least keep talking.
The meeting was a milestone for the latest attempt to replace the 101-year-old bridge. A year ago, Oregon legislative leaders snubbed an invitation to participate in a bistate committee created by Washington lawmakers to look into replacing the antiquated crossing.
Despite a warm welcome Tuesday by Washington state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, who chaired the meeting, there was still lingering wariness from Oregon lawmakers left over from when Washington pulled out of the last attempt to replace the bridge.
“I’m here to listen very carefully to the folks from Washington and see if they’ve reached a point where they can get their act together and help in putting a project of this nature in place, because there is a definite need for it,” said Oregon state Sen. Cliff Bentz, a Republican who represents an eastern portion of the state.
He said he had lent his support to the previous bridge replacement, which he described as a “very unpopular project,” because it was needed.
Five years ago, the Republican-led Washington Senate pulled out of funding its portion of the Columbia River Crossing, a politically fraught replacement for the bridge. Since then, Clark County’s legislative delegation has sought to restart the process to replace the bridge, and local jurisdictions have voiced support for the effort.
Washington state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, was one of those Republicans who was opposed to the Columbia River Crossing but has since worked toward jump-starting talks to replace the bridge. She said there was no “grave-dancing on my part” after the project died, because of the loss of work and money spent on it.
The new effort has been criticized as an attempt to revive the Columbia River Crossing, which was attacked for its inclusion of light rail and tolling. Rivers insisted it isn’t.
“Some of you have been sounding the alarm: ‘The CRC is back! Light rail is back!’ ” Rivers said. “I hope that you will sound the alarm that you are wrong. I hope you will go to your blogs and say, ‘Wow, they don’t even have a process yet. Maybe I should reserve judgment and see what they come up with.’ ”
Rivers said she’s only seen problems that the Columbia River Crossing was intended to solve get worse.
Numbers presented by Carley Francis, the southwest regional administrator for the Washington State Department of Transportation, showed that travel times and congestion have worsened in recent years.
Francis also pointed to another looming problem for both states. If Washington and Oregon don’t make progress on replacing the bridge by September, they’ll have to pay back about $150 million in funds to the federal government.
The group didn’t settle on any ideas for what the new bridge should look like during Tuesday’s meeting. Cleveland reiterated that the committee is currently aimed at the process, not the final project.
One area of potential disagreement could be over the need for additional Columbia River crossings.
“I think what we need to be looking at is a replacement of the I-5 crossing and looking at additional crossings,” said Washington state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, who sits on the committee. “And I think we need to be working on it as a package.”
Oregon state Rep. Richard Vial, a Republican who represents a fast-growing district southwest of Portland, said that congestion has gotten increasingly worse in Washington County, Ore. Vial has previously sponsored legislation supporting a third crossing. Despite losing re-election, he said he would continue to work on the issue.
Oregon state Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said that his state’s land-use laws would slow the building of any third crossing. He also pointed out that the Oregon Legislature passed a $5.3 billion transportation package last year, and the state has already prioritized money that could have gone to a replacement bridge.
“We probably do not have the opportunity to go to the well again,” he said.
The Oregon legislators attended the meeting as “guests,” for now, because the committee was created by the Washington Legislature. They also include state Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, as well as state Reps. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay, and Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro. The Washington side includes state Sens. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, and Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, as well as state Reps. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, Brandon Vick, R-Felida, and Jake Fey, D-Tacoma.
McLain said that the partnership between the two states is “extremely important” for the entire West Coast and economic vitality of the two states.
“I think what you’re hearing from this side of the table at this point is we need commitment up front, in the middle and at the end,” she said.