Saturday, February 4, 2023
Feb. 4, 2023

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In Our View: New I-5 Bridge project stymied by old problems

The Columbian
Published:

While we remain hopeful that a replacement Interstate 5 Bridge will be planned, approved and built, a recent article in The Columbian demonstrates the difficulty of a multistate, multibillion-dollar project.

With two states, two counties, two cities, two transit agencies, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Federal Aviation Administration and a regional government in Oregon all having a stake in any eventual proposal, finding a palatable consensus can be difficult. To find that consensus, planners must avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and the federal government must be involved.

As reporter William Seekamp recently detailed, bridge clearance above the Columbia River is one of the pressing issues. The Coast Guard has authority over navigable waterways, and questions about clearance helped scuttle the Columbia River Crossing proposal in 2013. Since then, new procedures have been implemented to better engage Coast Guard officials.

As one Coast Guard administrator explained: “The (old) process asked critical navigation questions too late in the process. The new process gets all those navigation questions answered up front before they even submit an application.”

That is a good idea, yet the questions have not been answered. We remain concerned that the new bridge replacement process is the same as the old bridge replacement process.

As The Columbian reports: “The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program proposed a replacement bridge with 116 feet of vertical clearance — the same amount the Coast Guard ultimately permitted to the Columbia River Crossing in 2013. But in a preliminary determination in June, the Coast Guard said a replacement bridge should have at least 178 feet of vertical clearance, the same as the current bridge.”

In addition to questions about clearance, the project appears constrained by other issues that eventually killed the Columbia River Crossing.

The bridge can’t be so low as to impede river traffic, yet it can’t be so high as to impede air traffic to and from Pearson Field and Portland International Airport; it can’t bypass downtown Vancouver or Hayden Island; it can’t carry an amount of traffic that gets stuck in bottlenecks to the north or the south. And, in the minds of some Clark County residents, it can’t require tolls that help pay for construction costs.

The things a new bridge can’t be outweigh the things it can be at this point, and they create concerns that the project is not just difficult but impossible.

In 2013, the proposed bridge height of 116 feet would have prevented some upstream manufacturers from shipping products. That resulted in planned payments totaling $86.4 million to mitigate the loss of business and help finance a potential relocation. The payments, which were not made because the bridge was not built, became symbolic of the dysfunction endemic in the project.

While the work that is going into a new proposal is laudable, and while it is encouraging that discussions continue, the problems from a decade ago remain. Engaging the Coast Guard earlier in the process is a good idea, but it does not alter the facts surrounding bridge clearance. Conflicts regarding local airports and traffic capacity and tolls also continue to linger.

As the process inches forward, the proposal is looking more and more like the Columbia River Crossing. Given the outcome from a decade ago, that is an unaffordable proposition, and it calls for detailed engagement from the federal government for a project that is of national significance.

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