‘Conceptual,” according to Google, means “relating to or based on mental concepts.” In other words, if something is conceptual, it is not concrete or physical or defined.
Yet 3D conceptual drawings of possible designs for a new Interstate 5 Bridge are compelling. As Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said: “It’s important that we have the opportunity to start looking at and getting a feel for how some of these designs integrate with our water, our land, our entire landscape and our communities.”
The drawings are merely ideas. They are not proposals, and certainly not mandates. But helping members of the public to visualize the project is an important part of the process. Wedging an expanded bridge into approximately the same footprint as the current one — between downtown Vancouver and the Fort Vancouver National Historic Reserve — is a difficult concept to grasp.
The Port of Vancouver is in the beginning stage of developing Terminal 1 — the longtime site of the Red Lion Inn at the Quay — just west of the current bridge. And work is underway for a new waterfront development slightly east of I-5. With other development already established in the area, there are stringent limits on what a new bridge might look like.
One of the presented conceptual designs would have two spans over the Columbia River — one for southbound traffic and one for northbound. That approach would include high-capacity transit and a shared-use lane for pedestrians and bicyclists underneath the vehicle traffic lanes.
Another concept would have a single stacked bridge, with vehicles on multiple layers. High-capacity transit and a shared-use path would be to the sides of the lower span.
The new drawings depict only how a bridge could impact Vancouver; future concepts will take a look at Hayden Island interchanges and the southern end of the bridge. “This is an example of the direction we’re going with our designs showing the downtown Vancouver area,” said Brad Phillips, civil design lead for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program. “We’re currently working on similar visuals for the remainder of the corridor, especially concentrations on what it’s going to look like in the Hayden Island and Marine Drive area.”
Of course, any visual concept is secondary to the functionality of eventual proposals. According to a community survey conducted last fall, 78 percent of Washington respondents want improved travel times for vehicles and freight across a new bridge. That will require more than a bridge; it will require vast improvements throughout the corridor to prevent traffic from backing up.
While such details warrant consideration, the benefit of conceptual drawings is the role they play in engaging the public, and that has included an expansive effort by the bridge program. According to officials, 79 virtual public meetings and events were held in 2021, and two community surveys generated more than 18,000 responses. More meetings and surveys are coming, and organizers also boast that, “Three advisory groups and working groups, reflective of our community, inform, shape the program and build consensus.”
Consensus does not mean unanimity. But public input throughout the process is essential to building that consensus and ensuring that all concerns are heard. Our community cannot afford to go through another lengthy process only to have plans for a bridge collapse at the last minute.
In the meantime, conceptual drawings help create a vision of what a new bridge might look like.