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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.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Let’s Bridge the Divide

The Columbian
Published: December 18, 2018, 6:03am

When it comes to jump-starting the process for replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River, Gov. Jay Inslee makes a good argument.

Inslee’s proposed two-year state budget, released last week, includes $17.5 million to reopen a project office to work on replacing the bridge. Most Clark County residents, it seems, can agree with the need to pursue a replacement for the outdated and overcrowded span. But that is where the agreement ends; for any proposed project to move forward, residents and local leaders will need to form a consensus on what a new bridge will — and will not — include.

Therein lies the difficulty. Inslee’s proposed budget includes language directing project staff to assume that a new bridge will include an extension of Portland’s MAX light rail system, which is the surest way to raise hackles on this side of the river.

That is where Inslee’s argument comes in. “Having that language allows the federal government to know we have a real project,” he told The Columbian’s Editorial Board during an interview Friday. “It’s not just wishes and dreams.” Inslee points out that, without any progress, Washington and Oregon will have to pay back the federal government for money spent on the now-defunct Columbia River Crossing project; Washington’s share of the bill is $54 million.

The Columbia River Crossing proposal, which was scuttled in 2013 by the Washington Legislature, spent more than a decade and nearly $200 million in planning a bridge replacement. Local Republican state senators Don Benton (who has since left the Legislature) and Ann Rivers led the way in rejecting the proposal, and no progress has been made since then.

Hopefully, that is changing. Leaders from both states met recently to take the first step toward forming new plans for a replacement. As discussions continue, the first question to be answered must be the issue of light rail. As Portland economist Joe Cortright put it last week: “The reason we got so screwed up with the (Columbia River Crossing) is we put off the hard part until the end.”

The Columbian editorially supported the Columbia River Crossing, recognizing the need for a new bridge and its importance to the regional economy. With the CRC off the table, we have recommended a bridge that is capable of carrying light rail in the future, should the population density of Vancouver reach a certain threshold. Oregon leaders have made clear they have no interest in a new bridge that does include light rail; many people on this side of the river have said they have no interest in a bridge that does link to Portland’s MAX system.

An impasse is not acceptable, and that calls for compromise. If Oregon is inflexible in its insistence on light rail, leaders in that state should be willing to commit to a third bridge and a fourth bridge across the Columbia in the foreseeable future, and details should be included in any eventual agreement. Meanwhile, we join Inslee in pointing out that Oregon has invested billions of dollars in a light-rail system that is within reach of Clark County, and connecting to that vast network would be relatively inexpensive.

But first, leaders and residents from Clark County must reach consensus on what would be best for this region. Consensus does not mean unanimity, but it does require a process that involves the community. Gov. Inslee is wise to lead the way in starting the discussion.