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Oct. 18, 2021

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Transit, tolls biggest issues in I-5 Bridge replacement project

Official says project for new span ‘going along very well’

By , Columbian staff writer
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Motorists travel southbound on the Interstate 5 Bridge on Aug. 31.
Motorists travel southbound on the Interstate 5 Bridge on Aug. 31. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Will Washington and Oregon be able to avoid the problems that plagued their last attempt to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge? Transportation officials are working diligently to ensure it happens.

Roger Millar, Washington’s secretary of transportation, met recently with The Columbian Editorial Board to talk about the bridge replacement project and the future of transportation in Clark County. He was joined by Greg Johnson, program administrator for the Interstate Bridge Replacement project, and Carley Francis, Southwest region administrator for the Washington State Department of Transportation.

“I think it’s going along very well. There are still questions and concerns. One thing we are telling everybody is this region cannot afford to let perfect be the enemy of good,” Johnson said. “We’re putting a lot of effort into community outreach and making sure that we are keeping people informed as we go along.”

Johnson said the project team expects to have a solution ready to present for federal review by the end of March. Now just over a year into the bistate project, the group has an ambitious timetable before then: Options will be screened in November and December, a single recommendation made in January, the solution will be further refined before heading to environmental review in the spring.

“Ultimately, we need to get the federal government on board with that, we need to get two state governments on board, and we need to get the local community on board,” Millar said of the final recommended solution.

Big issues

Transportation officials are aware there are a lot of issues to address first.

“The issues previously — the traffic, the lack of high-capacity transit alternatives, the bicycle and pedestrian facilities, or the lack thereof — those were all still there, and we’re still addressing those. But climate and equity got added to the mix,” Millar said.

Other issues to be addressed include bridge height, the Hayden Island interchange, the possibility of upgrades to other interchanges and seismic requirements.

The most controversial items, Johnson said, are the mode of high-capacity transit, the question of tolling and what footprint the new bridge will occupy.

Where some want to see as small a bridge as possible, Johnson said others want to see a larger bridge with all the “bells and whistles” like multiple-use lanes, high-speed transit and a pedestrian crossing.

“We’re only a 5-mile corridor in a network of hundreds or thousands of miles of roadway in the region. We can’t solve all the problems, but we can make our corridor responsive to the needs that can help drive a consensus solution,” Johnson said.

Paying the cost

For Washington drivers, the possibility of tolls on the new bridge has been an especially sore point. Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, was a vocal opponent to tolling during the prior bridge replacement project. And recently, a majority of the Clark County Council voiced support for replacing the bridge but were strongly opposed to tolls because of their negative impact to residents, especially those with low incomes.

Despite their unpopularity, Millar said tolls can work. He pointed to the express toll lanes in King County that “everybody loves to hate” as a successful example.

“The toll varies by time of day and the congestion. In the peak hour, we move 35 percent more people on (Interstate) 405 as compared to (Interstate) 5,” Millar said. “We do that with cameras and paint and management systems.”

Another problem to tackle is how to pay for the bridge. Millar said it will take a combination of federal, state and local funding. While project officials have yet to provide an estimated cost for the new bridge, the mothballed Columbia River Crossing estimate came in at $4.8 billion. Tolling was expected to pay up to $1.3 billion of that number.

Seeking ‘throughput’

Even once the new bridge is built, officials say it won’t solve all the city’s traffic woes. And drivers shouldn’t expect WSDOT to build its way out of those problems.

“It’s impossible. We’re locked in with the city of Vancouver on one side, Fort Vancouver on the other. We know we have to operate the system in a smarter and better way,” Johnson said.

To adjust for those physical limitations, Millar said the department is looking for ways get more “throughput,” meaning more people, goods and services moving on existing roads, rail lines, ferries, etc.

“I look at things like high-speed rail at one end of the scale, and I also look at things like people walking and biking at the other end,” Millar said. “Because every person who can walk or bike to meet their needs is one less person on the highway.”

One option that won’t be included is more lanes on Interstate 5. Adding capacity by building new roads should be the last option rather than the first, Millar said. New roads are often more expensive, have the greatest environmental impact and take the longest to build.

“WSDOT and ODOT didn’t put the traffic out there. The traffic is out there because of land-use patterns and economic development patterns. What can we do all together to solve the problem of traffic impacting our economy and our quality of life?”

Costly congestion

Quality of life — being able to quickly and easily get where you need to go for school, for work, to shop and to recreate — is important for WSDOT to address, Millar said.

“Not a week goes by that there’s not a study by somebody about people being stuck in traffic, and the cost of congestion. When you add that up for Washington state, that’s a little over $4.5 billion a year wasted being stuck in traffic. Crashes on our system cost people of Washington $15 billion a year,” Millar noted.

Even though WSDOT’s annual budget of approximately $4 billion is a lot of money, Millar would like to see more invested in safety, maintaining and preserving roads, bridges and tunnels and more in providing alternatives to being stuck in traffic.

“I believe that we get, as Washingtonians, a substantial return on that investment in terms of driving the economy. We’re a very trade-centric state and millions of jobs and over half a trillion dollars a year in trade on our transportation system,” Millar said. “Four billion dollars a year is a lot of money, but think of the true cost of transportation to Washington families and businesses.”

Millar also said the state should be spending about $2 billion a year to maintain and preserve its $200 billion in assets, but is only spending $925 million a year.

“It’s kind of like putting a 20-year roof on your house fully intending to replace it in 40 (years). At some point your furniture is going to get wet. … We’re not managing these assets, we’re managing the degradation of these assets.”

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