PORTLAND — For more than 15 years, residents from both sides of the Columbia River have floated their own ideas for unlocking chronic traffic congestion between Washington and Oregon.
Suggestions have included a tunnel to whisk vehicles under the Columbia River, a beltway freeway ringing the Portland-Vancouver area and various options for third bridges carrying arterial streets over the river.
During the second meeting of a bistate committee of state legislators on the Interstate 5 Bridge, a top-ranking transportation official reviewed how those and other options were systematically studied and rejected during the previous Columbia River Crossing project.
“We are cognizant of the fact that we are turning on a bit of a fire hose for you today,” Travis Brouwer, the Oregon Department of Transportation’s assistant director, told the state legislators who gathered Wednesday at the Port of Portland, along with other committee members who participated via telephone.
The Columbia River Crossing would have replaced the I-5 Bridge, made freeway improvements on both sides of the river and extended Portland’s light-rail line to Clark College. The $3 billion-plus megaproject fell apart in 2013 when the Washington Legislature failed to provide this state’s share of construction dollars.
Six years later, a majority of Clark County’s legislators agree that replacing the I-5 Bridge is the top priority but that additional Columbia River bridges will be needed in the future.
Brouwer’s presentation focused on river crossings, not transit, freeway connections and other considerations that make improving I-5 traffic flow between the two states an even more difficult knot to untie.
Each river crossing concept was screened to see if it would help six problems the Columbia River Crossing project aimed to address within the I-5 project area, state Highway 500 in Vancouver south to Columbia Boulevard in Portland.
A concept failed if it did not yield a “yes” answer to these six questions:
• Increase vehicular capacity or decrease vehicular demand?
• Improve transit performance?
• Improve freight mobility?
• Improve safety and decrease vulnerability to crashes and other incidents?
• Improve bicycle and pedestrian facilities?
• Reduce seismic risk to the I-5 Bridge?
For example, a tunnel that would replace the I-5 Bridge could improve transit and eliminate the seismic risk to the existing bridges, but it failed on the other four questions.
Brouwer said a replacement tunnel would need to begin north of Fourth Plain Boulevard and end south of Hayden Island. It also would require removing 1 million cubic yards of material from the riverbed.
“I would also note that it’s really darn expensive to build a tunnel of this length and size,” he said.
State legislators asked numerous questions about the previous process and constraints in replacing the bridge with one high enough to allow maritime traffic to pass below but low enough so it doesn’t encroach on Pearson Field’s protected airspace.
Oregon Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, asked if replacing the bridge would worsen air quality for his constituents.
Oregon Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, wanted to know if the committee could revisit the six issues identified in the Columbia River Crossing’s purpose and need statement. Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said he believed it could.
Some of those who testified during the public comment period questioned if those six issues were the correct ones to consider.
John Ley of Camas said more bridges and corridors are needed to solve the bistate transportation issues.
“If you change the assumptions,” Ley said, referring to the six questions, “the answers change.”
Sharon Nasset, a Portland resident who has long advocated for a third bridge next to the BNSF Railway bridge near downtown Vancouver, angrily accused transportation officials of intentionally making “inaccurate and false statements,” adding that her proposal was never studied during the Columbia River Crossing process.
Following the meeting, Brouwer said his presentation was to highlight work previously completed, not to knock down other ideas or to point to the likely outcome of this second effort to replace the I-5 Bridge.
“We recognize that no one is in a place to pick up the last plan and move it forward,” he said.
The bistate committee’s next meeting is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 20.