Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Jan. 20, 2021

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Bistate I-5 Bridge committee to meet Friday in Vancouver

Public testimony will be limited to total of 30 minutes

By , Columbian staff reporter

A 16-member committee of state legislators from Washington and Oregon will meet for the first time Friday to discuss replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge.

The bistate committee will meet at 1:30 p.m. at Vancouver City Hall, 415 W. Sixth St. The agenda includes a discussion of how the committee will be organized, as well as a presentation from the Washington and Oregon transportation departments on the need to replace the I-5 Bridge.

“We will be talking about our goals and our foundational principles that will guide us in this work,” said Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, who has made replacing the bridge a cornerstone of her legislative career.

The committee will work to pick up the pieces from the Columbia River Crossing, a project that broke apart after the Washington Senate in 2013 balked at matching Oregon’s $450 million construction commitment. The $3 billion-plus megaproject would have replaced the bridge’s twin spans, upgraded freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River and extended Oregon’s light-rail line to Clark College.

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, said she is looking forward to a good conversation with Oregon legislators on Friday.

“It is important that we build this bridge,” Wilson said. “We know we also need other bridges. So I would hope this would open the conversation to, ‘Yes, we need this bridge and we need more bridges.’ ”

The group, which is called the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee in Washington and the Joint Interim Committee on the Interstate 5 Bridge in Oregon, is scheduled to tour the bridge from 10 to 11:30 a.m., followed by lunch before the committee formally meets at 1:30 p.m.

“It’s taken a lot of concerted effort and work on the part of myself and my colleagues to get to this critical juncture,” Cleveland said.

Washington’s members are Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, and Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, along with six legislators from Clark County: Cleveland; Wilson; Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver; Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center; Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver; and Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney and Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek appointed their state’s eight members in mid-August. Unlike Washington’s delegation, which is heavily weighted toward legislators from Clark County, only two of Oregon’s members represent districts in the Greater Portland area: Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, and Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro.

Oregon’s other six members are Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario; Sen Lee Beyer, D-Springfield; Sen. Denyc Boles, R-Salem; Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany; Rep. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay; and Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville.

Courtney and Kotek tabbed Beyer and McClain as co-chairs of their state’s delegation. Among Oregon’s eight members, only two — Boles and Davis — do not also serve on their state’s Senate-House Joint Committee on Transportation.

Public comment

This will be the first time the full bistate committee has met. A Washington-only version of the committee met in December in Portland with Oregon legislators attending as guests, prior to that state appointing its eight members.

According to an agenda posted on the Oregon Legislature’s website, Friday’s meeting includes a public comment period, with speakers limited to two minutes and to topics related to the agenda.

Public testimony will last no more than 30 minutes. Anyone who doesn’t get a chance to testify or wants to discuss other topics can submit written comments.

Cleveland said committee members will ensure speakers stick to items on the agenda. That could be difficult since many likely will want to talk about other bridge options, light rail, climate change and dozens of tangential issues.

“Each member of the committee is committed to upholding that,” Cleveland said. “And I am hopeful there are people who will want to offer perspective and input on the process and how we can design the process so we can be successful.”

Wilson indicated she might be more flexible when it comes to public comment.

“This whole process is supposed to be open and transparent,” she said. “Two minutes. You can hardly get anything out in two minutes.”

Transit options

Officials are optimistic that a new set of local and state political leaders, coupled with the potential to substitute bus rapid transit for light rail, will make this second effort successful.

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.

The letter said the project should include light rail and/or bus rapid transit, which buoyed the hopes of bridge replacement supporters that light rail will not become a sticking point that causes support to crumble. Since the Columbia River Crossing’s demise, C-Tran has launched bus rapid transit on Fourth Plain Boulevard and is working on a second bus rapid transit line on Mill Plain Boulevard.

Wilson stopped just short of saying any insistence the project include light rail would be a deal killer.

“I do not believe we have the population density to support light rail,” she said. “It is extremely expensive, and that was a big point of contention on the last project. BRT (bus rapid transit) is the way to go. … It gives you more flexibility.”

“It fiscally does not make any sense at all,” Wilson said about light rail, “so it would be hard for me to support that.”

Looking forward

Although Friday’s agenda includes an “inventory of previous work,” Cleveland said she expects Friday’s meeting to consider how to reignite the process and not dwell on past failures.

“This committee is focused on looking forward, not backward,” she said. “I don’t think it’s useful to revisit the past any longer.”

Earlier this year, the Washington Legislature allocated $35 million to replacing the I-5 Bridge: $17.5 million for a project office, and $17.5 million for planning and pre-design of a new bridge. In August, the Oregon Transportation Commission provided $9 million.

Cleveland said she doesn’t know how often the bistate committee will meet.

“I know and I am very confident that there is a collective desire for us to work as expeditiously as possible,” she said. “We recognize the need for us to move forward as quickly as we can.”