<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=192888919167017&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Tuesday,  June 25 , 2024

Linkedin Pinterest
News / Business / Clark County Business

Economic Forecast Breakfast focuses in on I-5 Bridge replacement’s impacts

Hundreds gather for The Columbian’s annual Northwest economy event

By Sarah Wolf, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 1, 2023, 1:31pm
3 Photos
Nationally recognized transportation expert and author Lynn Peterson talks Thursday, June 1, 2023, during an Economic Forecast Breakfast at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.
Nationally recognized transportation expert and author Lynn Peterson talks Thursday, June 1, 2023, during an Economic Forecast Breakfast at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program is a behemoth topic in the world of local politics. On Thursday, it helped draw more than 300 attendees to the Hilton Vancouver Washington for the yearly Economic Forecast Breakfast.

The event, which is hosted by The Columbian, has been happening annually for 36 years. This year, emcee Will Campbell said, the newspaper integrated more journalism into the event, creating an in-person article for attendees. Campbell is a co-owner of the newspaper, as well as the innovation editor in its newsroom.

As those gathered took their seats, transportation reporter William Seekamp took to the stage, along with five panelists to talk about the need for a new bridge and some of the more controversial elements of the project.

The panelists touched on Vancouver’s growth, not only in the downtown and waterfront areas but across the city. The city is in the midst of becoming more urban with more people and more jobs occupying less land, said City Manager Eric Holmes.

“We have a really tremendous change reflecting a vision that we hold for the community happening across all of Vancouver,” he said.

Holmes does not see the bridge as a symptom or catalyst of the city’s transformation, he said, but rather as a response to the needs of the community and the region.

Among the other panelists were Sheri Call, president and chief executive of the Washington Trucking Associations and John Rudi, president of Vancouver’s Thompson Metal Fab.

To each, Seekamp asked about the impacts tolling would have on their industries. And each replied that tolls are the cost of business.

“Tolls are just a part of doing business in the world now,” said Rudi. “These megaprojects are incredibly expensive. And the user paid portion of it is the way you’re going to get things funded now, so you don’t put everything on the back of the taxpayers here.”

For the region’s truckers, the higher priorities were safety and predictability. While some say tolling will be an issue for the trucking industry, Call said the cost will be passed on to customers.

As far as truckers choosing to simply go around the tolls by crossing some of the region’s other bridges, Call said the industry will need to weigh the time it takes to cross the bridge with the cost of diverting.

“We’re only anticipating that freight will continue to grow over the next 10 years,” said Call. “So ensuring that we’re building a bridge that takes us into the future — whether it’s tolled or not — is a very important aspect to our industry.”

The crowd, many of whom were local businesspeople, posed numerous questions to the panelists. Will contracts be open to local companies? Yes. Plans are for more than 20 “right-sized” contracts to deliver the project, said Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Administrator Greg Johnson.

Is the bridge replacement team working with law enforcement in regard to crime on light rail? Yes, though Johnson brought laughter to the room with his comment that people weren’t going to be stealing televisions and then jumping on light rail.

Will there ever be a third bridge? Maybe, but this bridge has to be built first before another bridge somewhere else can ever be considered, said Johnson.

Will pothole-riddled highways be fixed to get folks to the new bridge? The bridge project will include the modernization of a 5-mile interstate corridor and won’t just be a new river crossing, Johnson said.

Stay informed on what is happening in Clark County, WA and beyond for only

Building community

Later on in the event, Lynn Peterson gave her keynote presentation on building community through infrastructure projects, like the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program. Peterson was Washington’s secretary of transportation for three years. Currently, she serves as president of the Portland-area’s Metro Council.

“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had a plaque on that bridge when it opened that read, ‘Nobody will remember what we said today. But for centuries to come, people will remember what we did. We came together, we agreed to sacrifice and compromise, and we built something that connects our communities for generations,’ ” Peterson said.

For his part, regional economist Scott Bailey gave a rosy outlook on the local economy, pointing to local sales returning to pre-pandemic levels, as well as the county’s labor market growing faster than both the state and national levels.

He pointed to an economic forecast for Washington that called for a mild recession. He said that could be wrong.

“We’re doing pretty good here — still a lot of inequities, a mild downturn maybe,” said Bailey, who works for the Washington Employment Security Department. But Bailey, the self-proclaimed Dr. Doom, remained optimistic.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we just kind of skated through this thing because a lot of people have been wrong,” he added.

He was less optimistic on the nation’s falling life expectancy, especially for the Indigenous populations, and on climate change.