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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Getting on track toward the light

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: May 1, 2022, 6:02am

I am, tepidly, moving toward the light, yet remain encumbered by confusion, doubt and uncertainty.

Such is the dilemma of light rail. Such is the debate that is likely to engulf our community in the foreseeable future.

In 2018, you see, I wrote: “I would rather gouge my eye with a pencil than invite light rail into our community.” Similar exhortations of certainty preceded that in previous years.

One immutable fact about being an opinion columnist: Your opinions become enshrined in stone, or at least in paper and ink or whatever binary wizardry puts them on the internet. That places a price tag on the changing of an opinion, and the cost can be one’s credibility if one is not careful.

So, in considering the prospect of extending Portland’s light rail system into Vancouver, I took a look at the thinking behind my opposition: “The primary reasons are my mother and mother-in-law and five sisters-in-law. Wait, let me reword that. The primary reason is the fact that Portland has spent more than $4 billion on a system that remains out of reach for most residents. I have numerous relatives who live within the Portland city limits, and none of them are within walking distance of a MAX station. Most people who ride MAX need to drive their cars to a station and park, which kind of defeats the purpose of mass transit.”

That remains relevant, especially with the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program announcing recently that it has settled on light rail as the transit option for a new I-5 Bridge. As The Columbian wrote editorially in agreeing with that announcement: “Including light rail on a new Interstate 5 Bridge is the best decision for both the present and the future.”

There are good arguments to support that position. Just are there are good reasons to oppose light rail. Hence, a healthy dose of confusion, doubt and uncertainty.

One argument against light rail is that Vancouver does not have the population to support a fixed-rail system. My family recently took a vacation to Chicago, where a robust public transit system allows for easy access to any part of the city and makes you wonder why not every city has it. But the neighborhood where we stayed has a population density of 27,000 people per square mile, creating much different needs than Vancouver’s density of 3,800.

Another argument against light rail is that it will invite a criminal element into Vancouver. This is specious fear-mongering and should be ignored in favor of grown-up discussions about light rail.

And then there is the nagging reality that it is expensive to lay down fixed rails for an inflexible system. Buses have more ability to meet the changing needs of the public, to extend to meet new population growth and to reach new destinations.

There is nothing new about any of these arguments. We have been pondering them in these parts for more than a decade. Which brings up the nagging thought that the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program is repeating the mistakes of the past.

Increasingly, the IBRC appears to be the Columbia River Crossing redux. From the bridge height — which last time led to an agreement for $86.4 million in mitigation payments if the bridge had been built — to the inclusion of light rail, planners have presented little that is new or inventive.

And yet, there have been changes in our community. Namely, construction of The Waterfront Vancouver and climate change. Downtown Vancouver has been transformed, highlighting the need for easy access across the river to the center of the city. And climate change must be a major factor in designing a new bridge; we no longer can pretend to ignore its impact.

Because of that, light rail might well be the best transit option for the new bridge. Critics argue that social engineers are trying to get people out of their cars. Of course they are; the need to reduce carbon emissions is existential.

But getting a majority of local residents to understand that will be akin to moving them toward the light.