Monday, November 29, 2021
Nov. 29, 2021

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In Our View: New I-5 Bridge needs to be good, not perfect

The Columbian

As plans advance for a replacement Interstate 5 Bridge, Greg Johnson offers some words of wisdom: “One thing we are telling everybody is this region cannot let perfect be the enemy of good.”

Johnson, the project manager for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, and senior transportation officials met remotely last week with The Columbian’s Editorial Board. And he provided a reminder that plans for the bridge will not please all of the people all of the time. In fact, every stakeholder — which includes each resident of Clark County — likely will find something disagreeable about the eventual proposal.

But if we are to move forward and agree on a bridge that will effectively serve this region for generations to come, compromise will be necessary. If we are to create a structure that improves the movement of passenger vehicles and freight while being fiscally responsible, most people will find the solution imperfect.

The process is moving quickly but cautiously. Officials hope to have a single proposal ready for presentation by January, answering four major questions: How many lanes the bridge will carry; what kind of high-capacity transit will be included; whether there will be an interchange at Oregon’s Hayden Island; and whether a harbor bridge to the Oregon mainland will be needed.

Divining answers to those questions involves two states, two cities, two counties, two transit agencies, and Oregon’s regional Metro government. As Roger Millar, Washington’s secretary of transportation, told the Editorial Board: “We’re threading, as you know, a lot of needles.”

Although the issues are complex, the program has a head start. Some studies and information from the Columbia River Crossing project — which was abandoned in 2013 — remain relevant. For example, officials said that a minimum clearance of 116 feet under the bridge is unchanged.

That, however, also brings up the biggest question: What will be different this time compared with the previous failed project?

A decade ago, plans called for mitigation payments to three upstream manufacturers whose production would be hampered by the height of the bridge. The proposed payments — which were not made because the bridge did not come to fruition — helped crystallize opposition to the project.

The bridge must be high enough to allow water traffic to pass below, but not so high that it interferes with air traffic to and from Pearson Field and Portland International Airport, and not so high that it is unable to connect with the Highway 14 interchange.

There are, indeed, many needles to thread, but thus far it is difficult to see how the project is much different from the previous effort at replacing the bridge.

That might change as the project progresses, and many answers will be provided in coming months. In the meantime, officials note that the issues of climate change and racial equity have been added to the mix.

The Portland area — like much of the country — has a history of ignoring underrepresented communities in large infrastructure projects, bringing newfound attention to equity. As Millar said: “It’s the right thing to do; it’s also federal and state law.”

All of that creates many potential roadblocks for a new Interstate 5 Bridge. But it does not reduce the need for the project to move forward.

Our region must replace what has been deemed the only stoplight between Canada and Mexico. The hope is that an eventual proposal will be good, even if it is not perfect.