As the renewed effort to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge has gained momentum, one of the key sticking points that helped sink the previous replacement effort has reemerged.
Five years ago, the Columbia River Crossing, a proposed replacement bridge and freeway improvement project, met its demise in the Washington Senate after lawmakers failed to fund the state’s portion of the project. Among the deal breakers was the project’s cost, design, possibility of tolls and inclusion of light rail.
Just days after Oregon lawmakers agreed to resume talks on a new crossing, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee released details of his $54.4 billion proposed two-year budget that included $17.5 million to reopen a project office for an I-5 bridge replacement.
Proponents of replacing the bridge have stated that details of the project are yet to be determined. But Inslee’s budget included language directing project staff to assume the new bridge will include light rail and may be financed with tolls.
“Having that language allows the federal government to know we have a real project,” said Inslee in an interview with The Columbian on Friday. “It’s not just wishes and dreams.”
Inslee said that’s important because Oregon and Washington will be required to pay back federal funds used for the Columbia River Crossing next year unless they can show progress. Inslee said that Washington’s share to be paid back would be $54 million.
He pointed out that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has clearly stated her desire for light rail on the new bridge. He said that his inclusion of light rail on the new bridge communicates to Oregon that Washington will be a partner on the project.
Members of Clark County’s legislative delegation have stressed that there is no preconceived project and that much of its design has yet to be determined. But there is one point of consensus.
“We all agree that mass transit has to be part of the project,” said Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, of the Clark County legislative delegation.
Some form of mass transit needs to be included on the bridge in order to be eligible for federal funding. Republicans in Clark County’s legislative delegation have been skeptical of light rail because of its expense and lack of flexibility. But they have been open to bus rapid transit.
Inslee said he believes the new bridge should include light rail, which he said would create better access for Washingtonians.
“I’m not foreclosing on other alternatives,” said Inslee, who also reiterated the need to partner with Oregon on the project.
Inslee said that while he wants a consensus he doesn’t want to again see money wasted on the project because of the “hardheadedness” of light rail opponents. He specifically mentioned former state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, who helped kill the Columbia River Crossing and has since taken a job in the Trump administration. Inslee said the issue can’t be “papered over.”
When asked when it will be appropriate to ask Oregon to contribute funds for the project, Inslee said he’s happy to make the request now but would be content whenever the two state’s budget cycles match up.
When Oregon and Washington lawmakers met on Tuesday to discuss the bridge, Portland economist Joe Cortright advised the group to first address the difficult questions about the project before settling on a process to see it through.
“The reason we got so screwed up with the (Columbia River Crossing) is we put off the hard part until the end,” he said.