Thursday, July 29, 2021
July 29, 2021

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In Our View: Climate essential component of I-5 Bridge plan

The Columbian
Published:

A focus on climate issues as part of a replacement Interstate 5 Bridge is necessary and forward-thinking. Constructing a bridge to effectively serve the region over the next 100 years or so requires attention to the realities of a changing climate.

The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program office last week laid out a timeline for moving the project forward. The condensed version: Planners hope to settle on a preferred configuration over the next year, answering major design questions. And they hope to begin construction by the middle of 2025.

As reported in The Columbian, a significant portion of last week’s meeting of the Executive Steering Committee was devoted to climate issues. Sarah Ogier, the program’s principal climate officer, detailed how limited capacity for biking and walking, along with constraints on public transit, add to the carbon footprint of the current bridge.

“All of these are conditions we believe we can change and improve with our new design,” she said.

Of course, the biggest emissions factor of the current bridge is the congestion it creates, leading to cars idling in place or burning more gas while moving slowly between Washington and Oregon. Free-flowing traffic that allows motorists to smoothly move from one place to another will reduce travel times and help limit emissions.

That desire also highlights the importance of fixing bottlenecks along Interstate 5 in North Portland and through the Rose Quarter corridor. Improving the bridge only to have traffic slow in those areas will offset the gains made elsewhere.

In the long run, reducing congestion will require additional crossings over the Columbia River, but for now the focus is on Interstate 5, often derided as the only stoplight between Canada and Mexico.

The climate-related portion of early planning is centering on two categories: Minimizing climate impacts and addressing climate resiliency. Reporter Anthony Macuk writes: “The resiliency portion will focus on making sure the bridge is prepared for changing environmental conditions such as higher-intensity storms and rising river levels as well as the impacts of climate change on people, such as geographic population shifts due to climate change or behavioral changes like early morning commutes during cooler hours.”

Those illuminate the long-term impacts of climate change — impacts that often are overlooked but no longer can be ignored. While an increase in extreme weather events and more intense wildfires are evidence of an already changing climate, long-term effects will include changes to population distribution and altered river levels. Planning for all large infrastructure projects — not just a bridge — must take these into consideration.

Undoubtedly, the mere mention of climate change will become a lightning rod for criticism from deniers. While the bridge design must prepare for an altered climate, differing viewpoints should be considered; robust public input is essential for creating a structure that best serves the public. It also is important for the public to take part in the discussion, rather than playing Monday morning quarterback after plans are unveiled.

Our region is embarking on a project that will transform it for decades to come. With two states, two transportation authorities, two cities and a regional government involved, consensus will be difficult to forge. In the process, the goal must be to create a structure that will be relevant for generations rather than seeking a quick and easy fix.

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