Monday, September 20, 2021
Sept. 20, 2021

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In Our View: Light rail on new I-5 Bridge: To be or not to be?

The Columbian

Most of us learned an important life lesson years ago: When facing difficult tasks, do the hardest part first. As Mark Twain quipped: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

While we would not recommend eating a live frog at any time of day, the point is well taken. Get the hard part out of the way, and the rest is relatively easy.

Which ties into discussions about a replacement for the Interstate 5 Bridge and the inevitable debate over light rail. The possible extension of Portland’s MAX system to Vancouver is likely to be the definitive issue for any eventual proposal; as such, it can be ignored for only so long as a bistate bridge replacement committee delves into its work.

“One of those principles (that we laid out at the start) was that high-capacity transit would be a part of this project, and we all embraced that, we all agreed to that,” state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, recently told The Columbian. “From there, however, we felt strongly that it’s not our role as elected officials to design a bridge. It’s for those with the expertise to do so with the help of our communities.”

High-capacity transit likely would mean light rail or bus rapid transit across the bridge. But that is the extent of agreement thus far.

TriMet’s MAX system, which began operation in 1986, now includes 60 miles of track along five lines. The northern terminus of the yellow line is at the Expo Center, a 2.5-mile drive from downtown Vancouver.

Meanwhile, C-Tran — Clark County’s transit agency — has been busy constructing a bus rapid transit system. A line running along Fourth Plain Boulevard opened in 2017, and a line along Mill Plain Boulevard is in the works. In Portland, TriMet is developing its first bus rapid transit project.

The Columbia River Crossing project of last decade considered both options for the bridge before settling on a light-rail extension. Opposition from Southwest Washington lawmakers, citing public opposition to light rail, helped kill that proposal in the Legislature.

Now, the bridge committee is weighing the same options, and Columbian reporter Anthony Macuk wrote: “The choice between the two modes will be based on data from transit models, population trends and other studies that will be conducted over the next two years, rather than political support for one mode or the other.”

Program administrator Greg Johnson said: “People have made and lost fortunes trying to bet on what’s going to happen politically. But our program, we cannot go down those paths. We have to follow technical procedures that are set up for us. We have to follow a process to get to our answers.”

Regardless of what data and studies say, public opinion will be the most important factor. As Gov. Jay Inslee has repeatedly stressed, Clark County residents much reach a consensus in order for the project to move forward.

In 2012, 57 percent of Clark County voters rejected a 0.1 percent sales tax increase to pay for light rail. Unless there is evidence that public opinion has changed over the past decade, it is difficult to argue that Clark County residents will quietly accept light rail. That makes it difficult to pretend that such a proposal will not crash like the previous one did. Getting deep into the process only to have it fall apart should not be considered a viable option.

The issues are complex and must include a wide range of stakeholders. But the question of light rail or no light rail should be the first large one to be answered by decision-makers.