When it comes to the Interstate 5 Bridge, there are nearly as many ideas for replacing it as there are vehicles crossing it.
That is how it should be. Any potential replacement project will help define Clark County for generations to come, and public input is essential for finding optimal solutions and generating community support.
No plans for the bridge have been set in stone. The preferred local alternative calls for the inclusion of light rail, three travel lanes and an auxiliary lane in each direction, and 116 feet of clearance above the Columbia River.
Decisions on whether traffic lanes will be stacked or side-by-side are not expected until 2024 at the earliest. That leaves plenty of room for debate and discussion and differing opinions, and an article by Columbian reporter William Seekamp recently took a look at some of those opinions.
As Seekamp writes, Administrator Greg Johnson of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program “doesn’t consider the alternative ideas bad, but he said none of them meet the program’s purpose and need to address seismic vulnerability, bike and pedestrian paths, public transportation, safety, freight movement and congestion.”
Among the frequent suggestions from the public: A tunnel under the river, rather than a bridge; a bascule bridge, which is a form of drawbridge; a third bridge across the Columbia River before an I-5 replacement; and a four-part plan that includes keeping the current bridge but reconfiguring a downstream railroad bridge to reduce the number of bridge lifts.
In particular, the proposal for a third bridge has drawn much outspoken support. While a third bridge is necessary to accommodate a growing region, we believe the I-5 Bridge must take priority. Reaching into the center of both Vancouver and Portland, it is the region’s most important conduit, and its proximity to the ports of both cities makes it essential for the region’s economy and the movement of freight.
Eventually, a third bridge should be constructed, but that raises as many questions as it answers. A bridge between Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 sounds enticing, for example, but the location of Portland International Airport prohibits it. A crossing near Woodland is a possibility, as is one to the east near Camas or Washougal. But connecting arterials in those areas would take even longer to figure out than the I-5 proposal.
Another common suggestion involves an immersed tunnel. A tunnel would address concerns about bridge height and river clearance, but it would bypass downtown Vancouver and Hayden Island on the Oregon side. As Johnson says: “We wouldn’t be at odds with the Coast Guard or the Federal Aviation Administration with a tunnel, but it creates so many other problems. It’s not feasible to do, and it doesn’t meet purpose and need.”
The purpose, of course, is to improve the flow of people and freight, improve seismic safety, and create a bridge that will effectively serve the region for generations.
To that end, there are concerns that current proposals too closely echo the failed Columbia River Crossing plan of a decade ago. That plan was scuttled in the Washington Legislature, with state Sens. Don Benton and Ann Rivers leading the opposition.
This time around, the Legislature has provided funding ahead of finalized plans, providing hope that the bridge will survive last-minute challenges. Getting to that point, however, will require the vetting of numerous ideas from the public.