While many of the details of a replacement Interstate 5 Bridge have yet to be worked out, Washington lawmakers have overwhelmingly passed a bill that’s intended to hasten the project’s development once an agreement is struck.
On Wednesday, the Senate passed HB 1994, which would create a process to designate transportation projects as being of statewide significance and is squarely aimed at expediting the replacement of the bridge. The bill passed on a 41-5 vote with the support of Sens. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center. Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, was excused.
According to a staff summary of the bill, an eligible project must “contain a bridge that connects two states, that has a reasonable construction cost estimate of at least $500 million.” Projects with this designation would need to meet criteria to relieve congestion, improve freight mobility, provide safety improvements and enhance regional economic development opportunities. Under the bill, the Washington State Department of Transportation would expedite the project’s completion and assemble a team of state, local and private officials to meet the project’s planning and permitting needs.
“Every year that our community waits to get closer to a new bridge is another year our community loses out on economic opportunity,” Cleveland told The Columbian.
She said that trucks and other vehicles are frequently stuck in traffic and that businesses are not willing to locate in Vancouver because of congestion on the century-old bridge.
Efforts to restart the process to replace the I-5 Bridge have picked up momentum in recent months since the Columbia River Crossing, the previous project, perished in the state Senate in 2013. In December, lawmakers from Oregon and Washington held their first public meeting to discuss reviving the project. Both the governors of Oregon and Washington have stated that they want to see the bridge replaced.
Both the Washington House and Senate versions of the transportation budget include funding for a bridge replacement project office. But the Oregon Legislature has yet to formalize its participation in a committee to discuss the project with Washington and many questions remain about what the final project will look like.
Although the bill passed the House last month 69-28, the debate over it revealed that there is still disagreement on whether replacing the I-5 Bridge will accomplish its aims.
During the March 12 debate, Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, spoke against the bill, arguing that a third bridge was needed to relieve congestion. He said that he supports replacing the I-5 Bridge, voted for the bill in committee and sits on a bistate panel with Oregon lawmakers to discuss the project. But he said he was “very disappointed” with an amendment, which was adopted, that he said would keep other important projects, including a third bridge over the Columbia River, from being designated as a project of statewide significance.
“The bottom line is this project will not reduce traffic congestion,” said Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver. “That is the truth.”
Both Orcutt and Kraft voted against the bill. Earlier in the session, Kraft unsuccessfully sponsored a bill to study options for a third bridge. She said that replacing the bridge would do little to ease congestion unless Oregon added more capacity for traffic.
However, the bill had support from the rest of Clark County’s House delegation. Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said that the effort had broad consensus in the labor and business communities.
Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, agreed that the region would need a third bridge “some day.” But she said that the Legislature needed to take advantage of the momentum toward replacing the bridge, which she said would not hold up in an earthquake. Rep. Jake Fey, a Tacoma Democrat who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said that he came away frightened over the state of the bridge after taking a trip to see its condition.
Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said that Oregon was unlikely to add more capacity, particularly with Portland’s reputation as the “biggest biking city.”
“It’s an old, old bridge that’s not going to last forever,” he said.