Monday, September 27, 2021
Sept. 27, 2021

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Press Talk: Who holds the winning hand?

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If I were to line up all the words written and spoken about an Interstate 5 Bridge replacement, they would stretch from here to the Portland Rose Quarter.

No kidding. I kind of did the math.

Politicians — and columnists like me — have blathered on forever, with the result being … (dramatic pause required here) zilch.

But today I’m about to address this issue from a never-before-considered angle. Let’s get started.

Bridge discussions are a lot like poker games. If you’re sitting in a game and looking around for the fish (easy marks) and you can’t seem to find them … it’s you.

So when Washington sits down with Oregon to try to hammer out this elusive bridge deal, who’s holding all the cards? Who has the winning hand? And why is this like poker? Because in poker one has to quickly determine if you’re betting from a position of power or weakness.

If you ain’t holding all the cards, if you ain’t got the winning hand, you’ve got very few choices. Now, I’ll concede negotiating details for a bridge replacement is slightly different than winning or losing, but the principle is the same: whoever is holding the winning hand will dictate the deal. This is an important poker truism. An important life lesson. An important bridge negotiation lesson.

• • •

So who’s holding all the cards? Who has the winning hand in the negotiation? After studying this issue for years I have come to the conclusion — sorry, my fellow Washingtonians — it’s Oregon.

Now before my Washington brothers and sisters banish me to the swamps of a godforsaken Florida summer, I wanted to get opinions from a couple of other folks who are much brighter than me.

I spoke first with state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. She’s been in and around this bridge negotiation for years. In fact, Rivers was a key player who at the last minute killed the Columbia River Crossing deal many years ago.

So I laid out my premise to Rivers: More than 70,000 workers a day commute from Washington to Oregon. And how many workers, you ask, commute in the opposite direction? You’re joking, right? This is a very, very, one-sided equation. So if the bridge were replaced and it made the commute a few minutes faster, who would be happiest? Correct, Washington residents.

Now — other than maybe being nice guys — why would Oregon politicians want to make Washington residents (voters) happy?

Oregon, I would argue, holds the winning hand. Frankly, if the bridge were replaced, even more Oregonians might decide to move here and work there. Our schools are much better; you get more bang here for your housing bucks and — unlike Portland — Vancouver isn’t getting destroyed every other day by free-for-all riots. Why would Oregon want to make Washington even more attractive?

Not so fast, Rivers responded.

She said there are reasons why Oregon should be interested in replacing the bridge. If you take out the commuting issue — which Rivers contends will not be appreciably improved with a new bridge — Oregon should be equally interested in a new bridge for safety reasons.

Plus, Rivers argues smoother flowing traffic would benefit the Port of Portland’s cargo business.

“I would say to you there is a strong economic benefit for Oregon to make sure they have (good traffic flow) through the bridge and beyond,” she said.

Fair points but I would still argue Oregon holds the winning hand.

Next I brought in Chuck Green. Green has been a transportation and transit expert for decades and has been dealing with this bridge since the ’90s.

The first thing Green told me is you have to appreciate a little history if you’re trying to decide who holds the winning hand.

Oregon, Green says, has always been lukewarm about an I-5 Bridge replacement. The bridge has never been high on any Oregon project list. So how could Washington possibly convince Oregon to make it a priority? Well, about 20 years ago — knowing that Oregon had shown little interest — Green said a Washington transportation planner tried to sweeten the pot.

And how did Washington do that? What did Washington say?

According to Green, we said “Wait a minute … What if we were to, as part of a bridge replacement, include a high-capacity transit component?”

Light rail, Green said, is what brought Oregon to the table. Why? Because Oregon wanted to get Clark County integrated into its regional transit system.

“The project would have died,” Green said, if light rail were not included.

Now what does that sound like to you? It sounds to me like Oregon holds all the cards. It sounds to me like if Washington doesn’t want light rail included in the package, we might as well fold and walk away. Oregon doesn’t give a hoot if there is no replacement bridge.

“The project is not an Oregon priority. It’s a Washington priority,” Green said.

And as far as helping those commuters who live in Washington and work in Oregon?

“It’s not Oregon’s interest; it’s Washington’s interest,” he said.

Well, what about the Port of Portland? Could it benefit? Green said the port would benefit somewhat. But most goods coming into that port go in other directions rather than across the bridge.

So in this negotiating game, does Washington have anything?

Green says yes. It’s possible that a champion of bus rapid transit could emerge and convince Oregon that it is a good alternative to light rail. A second possibility would be to tell Oregon that Washington would be its advocate for its transportation wish list if a big pile of federal money became available.

I asked Green what he thought the chances were of Oregon buying into his suggestions. He said 50 percent. I said I’ve got some oceanfront property in Yacolt I’d like to sell him.

Given everything we know today, I asked Green who has control of these negations.

“Right now, the winning hand is Oregon.”

Why is this important? Because if Washington really wants to get this bridge built, our state has to quit pretending we have a good chance of getting what we want.

We’re holding a very weak hand.

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