Sunday, March 26, 2023
March 26, 2023

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In Our View: Bridge Talks Take a Hit

Gov. Brown’s requirement for light rail moves discussion backward

The Columbian

With multiple government entities calling for a new Interstate 5 Bridge, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has provided a reminder of just how daunting such a task will be.

“Before we move forward on the Columbia River crossing,” Brown, a Democrat, said recently during a debate with Republican Knute Buehler, her challenger in this year’s gubernatorial election, “I want to see Washington meet two criteria: That they are really serious about fixing the bridge and investing in that bridge; and secondly, that (the plan) includes public transit, particularly light rail.”

While Brown’s entire response to a question about the bridge took 60 seconds, it might have caused lasting damage. Rather than emphasize the importance of working with Washington residents and heeding the concerns of people who will pay for half the span, she drew a metaphorical line in the sand by insisting on the inclusion of light rail.

In case Gov. Brown requires a reminder, opposition to light rail was one of the reasons for the demise of the proposed Columbia River Crossing in 2013. After years of work by multiple government agencies, widespread input from the public and the expenditure of some $200 million on planning, the Washington Legislature scuttled the proposal. Clark County’s Don Benton, then a state senator, led the way in killing the plan, and lawmakers who stood in opposition often cited this region’s hostility to Oregon’s light rail system as the reason for their actions.

In various forms, Clark County residents have expressed opposition to light rail several times at the ballot box.

All of which leaves the two states at a standstill. Oregon officials are understandably gun-shy after having Washington back out at the last minute; Washington residents are reluctant to be bullied by their neighbors into welcoming light rail. Oregon’s recent plan for tolling along I-5 and Interstate 205, which would inequitably target Clark County residents, has only increased the divide. And yet that divide must be crossed.

That is the conclusion of the C-Tran Board of Directors, who last week passed a resolution urging Washington leaders to pursue solutions to congestion across the I-5 bridge. The board joined the city of Vancouver, the Clark County Council and all local port districts in supporting a replacement bridge. C-Tran’s board also specified bus rapid transit as its preferred form of mass transit across a new span.

Clark County Council members have supported bus rapid transit out of a dislike for light rail. C-Tran leaders did so out of a desire to provide bus service across the bridge. But regardless of the reason, bus rapid transit appears to be the more palatable solution for many local taxpayers. The Columbian editorially has recommended that the bridge be capable of carrying light rail in the future, but that the system is untenable for now.

Oregon leaders should pay attention to the recent resolutions, recognize Washington’s newfound willingness to engage in discussions about the bridge, and be willing to enter negotiations without preconceived notions or demands. Washington leaders should, well, be leaders. It is long past time for Gov. Jay Inslee to lead the discussion, and it is long past time for legislators to leave behind Benton’s confrontational style of representation.

This will require a willingness to compromise and a conciliatory approach from both sides. When one of the governors delivers a demand that is a deal-breaker for the other side, the process moves backward.