Even with rekindled discussions about replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge, one thing is clear: A new bridge will not solve all the region’s transportation issues. Additional bridges across the Columbia River will be necessary, as will alternate modes of commuting. After all, an estimated 70,000 Clark County residents work in Oregon — enough to fill a new bridge almost from the moment it is completed.
Therefore, an article from Columbian reporter Jeffrey Mize caught our eye the other day. Mize set out to answer a question submitted by readers: “Why can’t Amtrak be used to commute to Portland from Vancouver?” Good question, and the answer is relatively simple: That’s not what Amtrak does. The quasi-public railway company provides mid- to long-range service between cities, but does not operate commuter lines to transport workers within metropolitan areas.
While we will leave Amtrak to do what it does best, the question then becomes whether or not some other company or agency can provide commuter service from Vancouver’s Amtrak station to downtown Portland. Even that would be difficult, considering that track operators are reluctant to make more room for passenger trains at the expense of more lucrative freight traffic.
Although there are many roadblocks to commuter trains in the region, the issue represents an important factor in talks between Washington and Oregon officials about a new I-5 Bridge. Multiple options must be considered in order to develop comprehensive transportation solutions.
One of those solutions might be a privately operated ferry from Vancouver to downtown Portland, as proposed last year. The Columbian wrote editorially that discussions about a ferry should not take precedence over a new bridge, but it could be a small part of addressing a big problem.
Another solution that certainly will come up during talks about the I-5 Bridge is the extension of Portland’s light-rail system into Clark County. Mass transit, be it light rail or C-Tran’s bus rapid transit, must be included as part of a bridge, but that also will be simply another piece of the puzzle.
When it comes to commuter rail service, the region has some experience from which to draw. TriMet launched the Westside Express Service in 2009, a commuter train between Wilsonville and Beaverton in the south Portland suburbs. But according to Portland television station KATU, the system peaked with about 2,000 rides per day in 2014 and has declined each year since. During fiscal year 2019, it served 1,485 passengers per day.
“There won’t be a happy ending to this. It’s just a huge money pit,” John Charles, president and CEO of the Cascade Policy Institute, said.
With costs of the Westside Express Service increasing and ridership declining, the system provides another example of why many Clark County residents are leery of inviting TriMet into Vancouver in the form of light rail.
In the Seattle area, Sound Transit’s commuter train, which extends from Everett to Tacoma, draws 18,000 passengers a day. But the Puget Sound metropolitan area has about 4 million residents, while the Portland area has about 2.5 million, making for an apples-to-oranges comparison.
The point is that as officials from both states ponder a new Interstate 5 Bridge, larger discussions about transportation solutions should also be taking place. A new bridge is necessary for the economic health of the region and residents’ quality of life. But a single bridge will not solve the area’s complex commuting issues.