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Dec. 8, 2019

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In Our View: Bridge plan requires strong leadership, guidance

The Columbian
Published: November 22, 2019, 6:03am

The needs of the Interstate 5 Bridge are so dire that even small victories must be celebrated. Such a win was delivered this week when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown agreed to work cooperatively to replace the bridge that connects their states.

“I could not be more excited about an endeavor that unites the energies of two states,” Inslee said, living up to his nickname of “Sunny Jay.” “And the reason is that bridges, besides being steel, are essentially monuments to optimism. And our two states are extremely optimistic. We believe in a dynamic growth-oriented future.”

Of course, agreeing to work cooperatively is not by itself enough to span the gulf that has kept the states from coming together on a bridge project. But the memorandum does make a handful of commitments that represent a step in the right direction:

• Open a joint Oregon-Washington project office that will re-evaluate the purpose and need and permits for the failed Columbia River Crossing project.

• Assume that any plan for a bridge will include high-capacity transit.

• Develop a finance plan for the project that assumes some costs will be covered by tolls.

• Evaluate project scope, schedule and budget for replacing the bridge.

• Re-engage key stakeholders and the public on replacing the bridge.

The most important items on the list would appear to be the two that scuttled the Columbia River Crossing proposal in 2013: High-capacity transit and tolls across the bridge. Those call for the kind of consensus among Southwest Washington residents that Inslee long has sought.

Perceived public opposition to those issues resulted in the Washington Legislature rejecting funding for the CRC in 2013. Then-Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and current Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, led lawmakers in declining the proposal, saying constituents were opposed to extending Portland’s light-rail system into Clark County and were against tolls for crossing the bridge.

Those issues remain, and they must be the focus of public discussion as the process moves forward. Notably, the agreement signed by the governors does not specify which mode of high-capacity transit would be included. It is understandable if Oregon officials wish to extend the MAX system across the river; it is equally understandable if officials here desire to include their rapid bus transit system.

The need for lanes dedicated to some form of mass transit is inarguable; it is both a moral obligation that will help limit carbon emissions and an economic consideration that will help reduce passenger vehicles on the bridge.

But that likely is where the agreements end when weighing light rail vs. bus rapid transit. It will be imperative for officials to engage the public, providing information about the costs and benefits of either system before putting the issue to a vote.

The question of tolls, on the other hand, should be regarded as non-negotiable. While it is likely that the states and the federal government will pick up most of the tab, it is reasonable to expect some sort of user fee. Charging a reasonable fee from those who cross the bridge is simply a matter of fairness.

Developing a consensus on those issues among Clark County residents will require strong leadership and guidance from the governors and from local legislators. But, as Inslee noted, there is one thing that nearly all residents can agree upon: “We do not have an option. This bridge has to be replaced.”

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