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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Dec. 7, 2023

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In Our View: Councilors’ letter on I-5 Bridge muddies water

The Columbian

While there is room for debate regarding the details of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, a grant request is not the place for it. Clark County councilors are needlessly complicating the process by haggling over a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

As part of a grant application, councilors this week reviewed a letter urging support of $2.9 billion toward a new Interstate 5 Bridge. The grant is designed to reduce tolling that will help pay for construction.

The Columbian’s Editorial Board has supported the inclusion of tolls on the bridge. As we have written editorially: “Should somebody who lives in Vancouver and works in Portland pay more for a new bridge than somebody who lives in, say, Amboy and never crosses the Interstate 5 Bridge? Fairness dictates that they should.”

Ideally, the federal government will provide enough funding to ensure that tolls are not necessary. But if tolls are required — and if they are kept at a reasonable amount — that would be a sensible and equitable approach to building a badly needed bridge.

In discussing the proposed letter, councilors failed to stay in their lane. Council Chair Karen Bowerman requested that the letter mention other issues: A desire for congestion reduction; the assertion that Clark County residents don’t want light rail or tolling; and the need for a third bridge across the Columbia River.

Taken individually, each of those raises a valid point. The purpose of a new bridge is to reduce congestion; previous public votes have indicated opposition to light rail and tolling; and a third bridge certainly will be needed as soon as possible. But bringing those issues up in a grant request muddies the waters of what already is a difficult process.

The request for a third bridge is particularly problematic. There is a good reason the I-5 crossing has emerged as the priority; it is vitally important to the regional and national economy, and a third bridge would require years of study for questions that have no good answers.

A bridge west of Interstate 5 is rendered impossible by the presence of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington and by heavily forested hills west of Portland. A bridge to the east of Interstate 205 has no official support in Washington and no welcoming terminus in Oregon.

A bill introduced last year to study a third bridge did not receive a committee hearing in the Legislature. And in relation to an earlier third-bridge proposal, one official said: “We did have a meeting with Oregon, and there was no interest. They’re very protective of their Urban Growth Boundary.”

Instead, the focus must remain on Interstate 5, lest we set back the process another decade.

But regardless of arguments for or against a third bridge, the letter to Buttigieg is not the place to make them. That is where councilors have failed their constituents.

No formal vote was taken, but Councilors Sue Marshall and Glen Yung indicated support for sending the letter as written; Bowerman and Gary Medvigy supported rewriting the letter, with Medvigy saying he supports a new bridge but not the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program; and Michelle Belkot indicated support for not sending any letter.

As a result, Clark County Manager Kathleen Otto will revise the letter and present it to the council for consideration.

We expect councilors to vote their conscience and to do their best to reflect the will of their constituents. But in so doing, they should focus on the question at hand rather than introducing specious, tangential issues.

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