Political voices on both sides of the Columbia River are striking a positive tone and avoiding past battles as they launch a second effort to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge.
Lurking beneath the veneer of tranquility are the same issues that polarized the region a decade ago: opposition to tolling, hostility toward light rail, support for a third Columbia River bridge, concerns about climate change, and a sneaking suspicion this $3 billion-plus megaproject will cost too much and deliver too little.
Nearly $200 million was spent on the Columbia River Crossing. The project achieved important milestones, including the federal government’s December 2011 decision that it had met the National Environmental Policy Act’s stringent provisions. Eighteen months later, the project fell apart when the Washington Senate failed to match Oregon’s $450 million contribution to launch construction.
The size and complexity of such a massive project can lead to its downfall.
“Most megaprojects don’t succeed,” said Aaron Shenhar, an international expert on project management and CEO of The SPLWIN Group in Verona, N.J. “If anybody starts a megaproject today, they must realize that their chances for success are as good as the statistics.”
Officials are optimistic a new set of local and state political leaders, coupled with mounting frustration over daily traffic jams and the potential to substitute bus rapid transit for light rail, will make the project’s reboot successful.
“What we know is the congestion has gotten significantly worse, the economy is being hampered, the bridge is still there and we have a significant need to replace it,” he said. “So if you can focus on the knowns and be reflective at the same time, I think that’s a good recipe.”
Carley Francis, Washington State Department of Transportation’s southwest regional administrator, is another veteran of the Columbia River Crossing. A planner by profession, Francis worked on the failed project for more than six years and served as its spokeswoman, answering media questions and helping disseminate information to those dubious of the project’s merits.
Today, Francis is working behind the scenes to lay the foundation for a second project that will build on previous work. She has met with each member of Clark County’s legislative delegation to establish and maintain communication lines in hopes of avoiding a second legislative defeat.
Francis is focused more on developing a plan for how to move forward, instead of pinpointing what will be built in bridge, freeway and transit elements.
“The ‘what’ is sticky and messy, so we have to do a good ‘how,’ ” she said.
Growth and congestion
The I-5 Bridge’s two spans opened in 1917 and 1958. The bridge started reaching capacity during weekday peak hours nearly 30 years ago, within a decade of the December 1982 opening of the Interstate 205 Bridge. The second bridge led to massive growth in Clark County, where the population increased by 45 percent during the 1990s.
Since the Columbia River Crossing ended in 2013, Clark County has added another 53,000 residents. During those six years, Vancouver’s population grew by almost 3,500 residents a year. Ridgefield, one of the fastest growing cities in Washington, has seen its population skyrocket by 60 percent since 2013.
“This community has changed tremendously,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “With or without the bridge, we are going to continue to grow. Ridgefield will continue to grow.”
More growth often means more congestion. About 135,000 vehicles a day use the I-5 Bridge. According to the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, I-5 near the bridge is congested for 11 hours on weekdays, from 5:45 to 9:45 a.m. north of the river and from 1 to 8 p.m. south of the river. Traffic crawls at only 11 mph during peak congestion.
The I-5 Bridge is a traffic chokepoint in the Portland region. INRIX, a Kirkland-based traffic analytics firm that issues an annual traffic scorecard, ranked Portland as having the nation’s 10th worst congestion that costs drivers $1,625 a year in wasted time.
The American Transportation Research Institute lists I-5 at the Columbia River as the nation’s 29th biggest truck bottleneck. According to statistics compiled by DKS Associates, a transportation engineering and planning firm, 65 percent of weekday truck traffic from the Port of Vancouver heads south on I-5.
Unlike the Columbia River Crossing, Clark County’s state legislators support replacing the bridge.
State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said the I-5 Bridge prompted her to first run for the Legislature in 2012. Decades ago, she remembers driving to Portland while in high school and encountering a chain-reaction crash with fatalities on her return trip, a memory that remains vivid today.
Eight of the nine state lawmakers from the 17th, 18th and 49th legislative districts agree the top priority is replacing the I-5 Bridge, Cleveland said.
“What’s different is we are starting from a place of a shared goal,” she said. “We have consensus, and that is entirely different from the past.”
Cleveland said the group’s only holdout is state Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, adding that Kraft may still fall in with the rest of the delegation.
“None of us who have been working on this on this side of the river dispute there needs to be more bridges in the future,” Cleveland said.
The delegation also agrees that a new interstate bridge must have a transit component, Cleveland said, but it hasn’t locked onto connecting to Portland’s light-rail system or expanding C-Tran bus rapid transit service, which is operating on Fourth Plain Boulevard and could begin service on Mill Plain Boulevard in 2023.
Nearly a quarter century has passed since Clark County voters trounced a February 1995 plan to increase sales and motor vehicle excise taxes to help finance a light-rail line to Hazel Dell. Light rail remains a hot button issue for those who consider it emblematic of everything they don’t like about Portland and don’t want to see here.
Portland leaders aren’t saying, “No light rail, no bridge,” at least not publicly. In August, Portland’s mayor, Metro’s council president, a Multnomah County commissioner and the executive directors of TriMet and the Port of Portland signed a three-page letter to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee outlining their support for a bridge replacement project.
More in This Series
President Donald Trump came into office touting the importance of rebuilding the nation’s roads, bridges and airports, but every effort to launch “infrastructure week” gets quickly derailed by a presidential tweet storm on unrelated issues.
McEnerny-Ogle said her worst fear is “the federal government never does put money into infrastructure, that we are completely on our own.”
“I think that would be the deal killer,” she said.