Bridges, roads, infrastructure — they’re inanimate things. So how can they not be fair to everyone? How can they not be equitable?
“We know that the (Departments of Transportation has) a commitment to equity on this program, as well as the program partners,” said Greg Johnson, program administrator of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program. “And that comes out of a realization that transportation has not always been done in an equitable manner.”
In just our region, the harsh realities of the impacts infrastructure can have on communities are still seen and heard. There’s the failure of the levee that led to the destruction of Vanport, Oregon’s second-largest city, which had a large Black population. There’s the displacement of large swaths of families in Portland’s Albina neighborhood to make way for Interstate 5.
“There are instances around the country where freeways or transportation infrastructure were placed with no consideration for the community that it was impacting, the people that it was displacing,” Johnson said.
The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program staff is hoping not to repeat that history.
Among the counties in the region, Johnell Bell, equity officer for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, pointed out that Clark County has seen the most significant growth by people of color in the region.
Since 2010, Clark County has added nearly 78,000 residents, 76 percent of whom are people of color, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.
And while housing costs are 16 percent lower for folks living in Vancouver as compared with Portland, transportation costs are 10 percent higher.
“We know, by our own survey data — not scientific but as our own survey data — that communities of color are more frequently crossing the bridge than white counterparts,” said Bell.
“So there’s a strong equity argument to make as to why we really need to replace this aging infrastructure,” he added.
“The current bridge is inequitable,” said Johnson. “For folks who have to travel through this corridor, they’re spending hours in backups through the week and through the month.”
That’s inequitable itself as communities of color see their neighborhoods being gentrified, he added.
“They’ve been pushed further out to the edge and are forced to drive with sometimes no access to transit modes,” said Johnson.
“So we’re looking — No. 1 — to expand the high-capacity transit footprint, but also to make sure that folks who have to drive are not sitting in backups because of this bridge.”
Expanding transit access
A new bridge would help Clark County’s growing communities of color, said Jasmine Tolbert, president of Vancouver’s NAACP.
“While we might be residing in Clark County, we’re also working over in Portland and surrounding areas,” said Tolbert. Having an accessible bridge is important for helping folks who want to live in Clark County but work in either Oregon or Washington and not have the bridge be a barrier, she added.
“The deciding factor, I think, is going to be crucial for our overall economy, but especially for BIPOC to be able to have choice in what they want to do,” she added. BIPOC is an acronym meaning Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
One large component of expanding access for communities of color will be expanding transit options.
“Just the versatility and being able to — whether or not you drive, whether or not you are different abled — have access to mass transit bridges the gap for all of that,” said Tolbert.
“I feel like if we really were intentional about mass transit, just in this bridge project alone, I think that can also expand even more into Clark County,” she added. “Because if you’re not in the inner city of Vancouver, you’re having a rough time accessing mass transit.”
Tolbert would like to see transit expand throughout the county.
Still, with the history of people being displaced because of new infrastructure projects, it’s always a question as to if it could happen with the construction of a new I-5 Bridge.
As much as Tolbert is eager for the idea of a new bridge, significant displacement would change her perspective.
Displacement hasn’t been a huge topic of conversation in building the new I-5 Bridge up until this point, although the topic has come up.
When construction began on the current I-5 Bridge, the overwhelming majority of people who lived in Vancouver’s downtown area were white, according to census records from 1910. Buildings had to come down to make way for the bridge then. And maps have not yet been decided on or released that will show if buildings will need to come down now to make way for the newest bridge.
On the east side of the bridge, there is an Indigenous burial site.
“We are working with the tribes to make sure that we are touching this area as lightly as possible and, if possible, not expanding beyond our existing footprint,” said Johnson.
“It’s an important concern that we are working with our partners — the city of Vancouver in particular, as well as C-Tran — to discuss,” said Bell.
The city of Vancouver has adopted a long-term planning anti-displacement strategy.
“We’ve been in close conversations about how, within the context of this program, we can further some of that dialogue,” Bell added.
The project’s equity advisory group has had conversations about the project and its potential harm on communities.
“One of the things we heard loud and clear is whichever (high-capacity transit) mode you choose, whether it’s (bus rapid transit) or light rail, to ensure that we’re not creating further displacement,” said Bell.
“Our program is built around having lesser impacts to communities that have been impacted in the past,” said Johnson. “And we know that that’s not possible all the time. But our mission is to not displace folks and to not have these negative impacts, whether it’s during construction or during the operation of the bridge itself.”
“The city of Vancouver supports the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program and endorses design options with outcomes that meet or exceed our regional equity goals,” Tim Becker, spokesperson for the city of Vancouver, wrote in an email to The Columbian. “Those goals include investments that maximize transit access along with implementing strategies and programs that avoid involuntary displacement of the most vulnerable communities.”
“Primarily, what’s important is how do we ensure that we’re not creating further harm by making investments in infrastructure,” said Bell.
Johnson and Bell are sensitive to the issues around infrastructure, having both had personal interactions with infrastructure that weren’t always positive. Johnson was displaced with his family as a child as their home was taken to make way for an expanded roadway.
“The sensitivity that we bring to the issue, I think, is tremendously important,” said Johnson, “having lived experience with the inequity of the system at times.”
The bridge project is one of the first in the nation to focus on prioritizing both equity and climate considerations.
“Those two key focus areas, we think, make us a unique program across the U.S.,” said Johnson.
The project has multiple advisory groups that contribute to the process, including an equity advisory group.
“A really unique thing about our fabric in this region is how connected we really are,” said Bell. “That’s the beauty of equity. We all have a story.
“How do we really leverage programs like this to accentuate those stories to bring us closer together, not push us farther apart?”