The new bi-state Interim Committee on the Interstate 5 Bridge drew a packed audience at its first meeting Friday at Vancouver City Hall.
The 16-member group of legislators from Washington and Oregon is tasked with restarting the process of replacing the bridge following the collapse of the $3 billion Columbia River Crossing project in 2013. But several members of the committee were careful to stress that their intent was not simply to pick up where the previous project left off.
“We’re starting from ground zero,” said Oregon state Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, Ore., one of the committee’s four co-chairs. “There’s no assumption that we will fix the bridge, although I would think we need to do that.”
The need to keep all options open was a recurring theme during the legislators’ opening remarks and an initial discussion about a draft set of eight foundational principles for the committee.
There was an immediate disagreement over the first principle on the list, which in its draft form read “Designate the replacement of the I-5 Interstate Bridge as the primary goal.”
Oregon state Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, Ore., objected to the word “designate,” arguing that it gave the impression that the committee had already settled on a replacement bridge as the only goal. Oregon state Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Salem, Ore., agreed, stating that the primary goal should be to address congestion issues.
The group eventually approved a new phrasing suggested by Oregon state Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, Ore.: “Discuss the replacement of the I-5 Interstate Bridge.”
The remaining principles generated minimal discussion and no suggested changes to the text, apart from a motion from Washington state Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, to change the principles from a numerical list to a bullet point list. The motion passed.
The meeting then moved on to a presentation from Oregon Department of Transportation assistant director Travis Brouwer and Washington State Department of Transportation regional administrator Carley Francis, giving attendees an overview of the current condition of the twin spans and outlining the reason and need for a replacement as defined in the Columbia River Crossing project.
Keeping the bridges in working order through the year 2040 would require more than $280 million in maintenance costs, Brouwer said, including replacing the bridge deck and repainting the southbound span. That cost estimate did not include seismic upgrades, and Brouwer stated that the bridge was built in a way that would make it impossible to bring it all the way up to modern seismic standards.
Francis gave an overview of the defunct Columbia River Crossing project timeline, as well as the parts of the project that could potentially be salvaged for a new attempt. For example, geologic information is still valid, she said, but traffic data would need to be updated.
She also outlined a tentative schedule for the new project, assuming all parties are able to agree on a plan and funding. That schedule had the new bridge beginning construction in 2025. The timeline is based in part on a Sept. 2024 deadline for the two states to repay funds from the Columbia River Crossing to the federal highway administration if substantial progress is not made on a new project.
The remainder of the meeting was devoted to public comment, with commenters each limited to two minutes of testimony.
Several commenters called for a third Columbia River bridge in the Portland metro area, with most of them arguing that the original bridge could be retained for local traffic. There was also one call for a tunnel, and a presumably tongue-in-cheek proposal for a high-speed waterslide system.
The issue of mass transit came up frequently, with several commenters asking the committee to prioritize it and a couple asking them to favor freight and private vehicular traffic.
There were also calls to place a greater emphasis on easing congestion. Washington Rep. Vicki Kraft questioned why the issue was not among the committee’s foundational principles.
The meeting concluded without substantial further discussion, other than a commitment from the members to read through all of the written comments and reflect on the public testimony.
Washington state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, another of the committee’s co-chairs, stated that the group’s next two meetings will be held on Nov. 13 and Dec. 20.